Consumers should pursue due diligence to protect animal welfare - and their pocketbooks.
Mark Stettner had no idea how Thanksgiving Day 2008 would change his life. His daughter, then a college sophomore, returned to their Allentown, Pa., home with the news that she had a dog - and it wasn't permitted in her campus housing. "That's when I inherited Max - and the problems," says Stettner, an Angie's List member.
Stettner's daughter bought Max, who was advertised as a purebred toy poodle, for $1,347 from an online pet broker called Breedersdirect.com. "Thanksgiving weekend he had some stomach problems, and was initially diagnosed with colitis," Stettner says. "But Max didn't get really sick until the following July."
Not as advertised
In addition to genetic testing that showed Max was a Boston terrier poodle mix - not a purebred - Stettner says he was diagnosed with a fungal infection, liver problems and kidney issues. "He was a time bomb," says Stettner, who spent more than $5,000 on Max's care but ultimately had to put the sickly dog to sleep.
Stettner, who suspected Max had come from a puppy mill, called Breedersdirect.com and demanded a refund. He says the Florida-based company offered him another dog instead. Playing dumb, Stettner then called Max's breeder and asked for another dog from the same bloodline. He says the breeder, Coleen Harrell of Rocky Comfort, Mo., told him he would have to go through her broker, The Hunte Corporation.
Based in Goodman, Mo., Hunte is the nation's largest pet broker, buying dogs from breeders located primarily in the Midwest and selling them to pet stores nationwide. "Hunte said my replacement dog was on a truck headed my way," Stettner says. "I had to meet the truck on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The driver handed me the dog ... and took off. I took one look at him and knew he was sick."
Stettner took his new dog, Jake, to the veterinarian right away, but the dog died four days later. Stettner says Hunte refunded the $500 he paid for Jake, but not the $700 veterinary bill.
Federal oversight limited
Under the Animal Welfare Act , commercial breeders and brokers are regulated, licensed and subject to inspections by the USDA. However, those that sell dogs directly to the public, including through the Internet, are not.
Animal advocates believe that an estimated 2 million to 4 million dogs are born in puppy mills each year, and that many wind up in pet stores or being sold to unsuspecting online shoppers. "It's a big problem," says Deborah Howard, founder of national nonprofit Companion Animal Protection Society. "And it's a huge business."
Breedersdirect.com is no longer operational, but the company behind the website - The Breeder Network LLC - continues to solicit breeders at breedernetwork.com, breederadmin.com and several other sites - all utilizing the same phone number (which was 954-237-2284 at press time) and registered by the same agent with the Florida Department of State Division of Corporations.
Lemon lawA number of states have adopted puppy lemon laws, providing the consumer with recourse for reimbursement if he or she purchases a sick dog.To see if your state has such a law, and what's required to file a claim, visit humanesociety.org
"They're not really a network of breeders but rather a place where breeders of questionable background can advertise," says Kathleen Summers, a manager with the Humane Society of the United States. "More and more breeders that have a lot of violations and are deciding they don't want to be licensed by the USDA are going underground and hiding behind these websites."
Naresh Chhabra is listed as the owner of The Breeder Network LLC and Sushma Chhabra is listed as the owner of Pet Breeder Network LLC by Florida's Division of Corporations. But according to news reports and an investigation by advocacy group Last Chance for Animals, Naresh's son Vincent K. Chhabra is actually running the online puppy broker sites. Chhabra pleaded guilty in 2004 and served 33 months in federal prison for illegal Internet pharmaceutical sales.
Calls by Angie's List Magazine to The Breeder Network, the Hunte Corporation and Harrell were not returned. However, recent USDA inspection reports of Harrell's facility counted 96 adult dogs and 34 puppies and listed several violations, including dogs exposed to near-freezing temperatures, signs of rodents and housing in disrepair.
New legislation proposed
In March, federal lawmakers reintroduced legislation that would require licensing and regulation of commercial breeders and brokers who sell puppies online or directly to the public. Known as the PUPS Act, the Puppy Uniform Protection and Safety Act was defeated last year, but supporters remain optimistic.
"While [HSUS] can't predict at this
time when PUPS will pass, we know the legislation will pressure the USDA to respond to citizens' concerns about this issue by issuing rules designed to provide better oversight for 'direct sales' puppy producers," Summers says. "We encourage concerned citizens to write to the USDA to respectfully request these changes."
The HSUS assisted the Houston County Sheriff's Department in Gordon, Ala., in the rescue of approximately 150 dogs and 50 cats found living in deplorable conditions.
Photo courtesy of Kathy Milani/The HSUS
Discerning reputable breeders
Dana Derraugh, owner of Le Petit Puppy in New York City, sells a select few miniature breeds from her Greenwich Village boutique that she says are suited for city life and she keeps a file for each puppy that includes health records and USDA reports on its breeder.
As required by New York law, she also gives buyers 14 days to have their new pet examined by their own veterinarian and offers a full refund if the dog doesn't receive a clean bill of health. "There are a lot of shady breeders," she says. "But I've been buying my dogs from the same breeders for years and I give them all the credit in the world."
However, member Phyllis Jacob of Camarillo, Calif., says legitimate breeders never sell a dog to a broker or a pet store. "Good breeders want to interview the prospective buyer personally and make sure their dog is going to the right kind of home," says Jacob, who traveled to Washington state to meet the breeder of her Cavalier King Charles spaniel before buying.
Gordon Murray, owner of Shorewood Retrievers in Beecher, Ill., breeds AKC-registered Labrador and golden retrievers that sell for $800 to $1,000 and says any reputable breeder will offer a warranty with their pups covering health and genetic disorders and may require the buyer to return the dog if for any reason they don't want it.
"We have no more than three litters a year," he says. "I would be really leery of someone who has litters constantly. That's a red flag." Murray also says he likes to meet all of his potential buyers.
For those interested in working directly with a reputable breeder, the American Kennel Club offers a list of "breeders of merit." Pricing typically depends on where you live, rarity of the breed and size of the dog, but can average between $500 and $2,000.
"We're the only registry who has an inspection process," says AKC spokeswoman Lisa Peterson. "But it's important to note that we don't certify or register the breeders - just the dogs."
Peterson also warns consumers against breeders who claim to have multiple breeds ready to ship immediately and those who seem overly concerned with payment. "And if you expect the dog you are buying to be AKC-registrable, you must obtain documentation when you pick up the dog," she says. "Be wary of excuses such as 'AKC hasn't sent the papers yet.' If a breeder is doing his paperwork in a timely manner, there's no reason the registration application shouldn't be available."
The AKC also recommends contacting the national organization for the breed to verify a breeder's credentials and request references to speak with individuals who previously purchased pups from the breeder.
Experts say those looking for a purebred also have a number of alternative options, including shelters and rescue organizations. "Purebred rescue organizations are a great resource," Howard says. "They really screen people and get the dog in the right house." If you bypass a shelter or rescue group, Howard says consumers shouldn't rely solely on breeders having a USDA license.
"It's very, very lax," she says, noting that licensing requirements vary from state to state. "It means they get inspected once a year. And they don't go back to see if the violations are fixed or not - they don't have enough inspectors."
Stettner didn't go through a breeder or rescue organization for his third dog but purchased Zev, a poodle-terrier mix, from a pet store. Visiting the vet the next morning, he found that Zev had kennel cough, pneumonia, parasites and an ear infection, and continues to be bothered by irritants.
"I would never recommend anyone buy from a pet store because I can guarantee you it's from a puppy mill," he says. "The only reason I did is I just knew the dog was dying." He urges others to avoid the mistakes he made and stay away from pet stores and brokers.
"You don't know what you're getting, you don't know where they come from and all you're doing is helping promote puppy mills and illegitimate breeders," he says. "Save yourself the tears."