Everyone needs to visit a pet store sometimes, whether it’s for pet supplies, training, grooming, or even advice. However, pet owners concerned about the ethical problems associated with many pet shops often wonder if their dollars are going somewhere of which they can be proud. Luckily, it is possible to find an ethical pet shop in almost any geographical area; however, it may take some effort. In this first of a series, we’ll discuss two common features of ethical pet shops.
1. The ethical pet shop either does not sell live animals, or sells a very few, carefully selected species.
A responsible, reputable breeder or a rescue/shelter is the best option for acquiring a new animal, even a small pet such as a hamster or lizard. No pet store can provide top-notch care to numerous different species of pets, nor is it easy for a pet store to purchase animals for resale purposes without buying from abusive mill or warehouse breeders. RRBs will not sell the animals they produce to pet stores, because that means the decision of whether or not to sell an animal to a particular individual is out of the breeder’s hands. In addition, it’s very difficult to gauge a person’s readiness for pet ownership when that person has come to the store expecting to put money on the counter and walk out the door with an animal, no questions asked. An ethical pet shop understands all these factors, supports local animal adoption organizations, refers shoppers to RRBs, and eschews the big-box pet store practice of selling a wide assortment of live animals.
Many animal adoption groups will partner with pet stores in their area to offer animals for adoption at store locations. Normally, this involves training a few employees to review adoption applications and approve or decline the adopter. In many cases, the rescue also requires that the application be faxed to a contact within the organization for approval before the adopter can take a pet home. This method of displaying live animals to draw in customers and satisfy them is ethical when practiced correctly, and I do my best to patronize local stores that participate in adoption partnerships with rescue groups.
Beware any “adoption” in a pet store that involves only signing on the dotted line and handing over cash. You should be asked several questions and have to wait at least a few minutes for a decision and to be allowed to complete an adoption contract. Some unethical pet stores have latched onto the “adoption” buzzword, and are using the term “adoption” to sell puppies that came from the same puppy mills people who choose adoption are trying to avoid. Beware also a pet store that offers “animals for adoption” and always has young pets of known breeds. Most animals made available for adoption at storefront locations through rescue groups are mixed breeds and range in age from young adults to seniors. Highly adoptable animals that fly out shelter doors, like purebreds and puppies, stay in the shelters so that pets having a harder time finding homes can be showcased through adoption partnerships.
Some ethical pet shops do offer a few live animals. These are normally fish, small reptiles or amphibians, or occasionally birds. An ethical pet shop that offers live animals will specialize in one or two types of pet and train all employees to become experts in their care and keeping. Employees will ask potential buyers questions to determine whether or not they are prepared to own the type of animal in which the store specializes. Ethical pet shops also empower every employee to refuse a sale if they feel the buyer will not take good care of the pet. Finally, and most importantly, in order to ethically offer live animals, a pet store must ensure that the animals they buy were ethically bred or (in the case of certain fish and reptiles) imported humanely and legally.
2. The ethical pet shop sells only products the owners and employees can in good conscience recommend.
I once watched the owner of one of my favorite pet supply stores sit quietly as a shopper berated her for failing to stock the brand of dog food he preferred. The brand in question is a popular name brand that advertises its products heavily. It’s also full of fillers like ground corn, brewer’s rice, and even peanut hulls. It has never been and never will be sold at this small, independently owned pet store, which specializes in raw food diets and natural, grain-free or low-grain kibble and canned foods.
When “Jenny’s” (name changed for this blog) customer finally ran out of steam after several repetitions of the old chestnut, “The customer is always right,” Jenny finally responded to the tirade.
She said, firmly, “Tough. I own this store, and I will sell nothing I wouldn’t feed my own dogs.”
Thrown for a loop, the irate customer demanded to know why his brand wasn’t good enough for Jenny’s dogs. Jenny calmly explained that her dogs, which are shown in both conformation and performance events, eat only foods that do not contain filler grains, chemical preservatives, or more byproducts than muscle meats. Pulling a bag of kibble from the shelf, she showed the customer the ingredient list, and then rattled off from memory the first several ingredients of the food the customer had requested. Finally, Jenny explained the difference between bulk and metabolizable calories, and showed her customer how his dogs needed to eat twice as much of the food he had requested in order to metabolize the same number of calories in a serving of the food Jenny suggested.
The customer remained irate, but, instead of being angry with Jenny for refusing to sell dog food full of fillers and chemicals, he was furious with his old brand and the stores that sold it! He couldn’t believe that the employees at other stores had recommended a brand on the basis of claims made, unsubstantiated, in advertising materials, without ever pointing out to him the ingredient list on the back of each bag. He walked out of Jenny’s store with several free samples of super-premium pet foods, but not before promising he’d be back to purchase whichever brand his dogs liked best. He was confident that each formula offered in sample sizes would be worth buying.
This interaction exemplifies the nature of an ethical pet shop. The owners and employees of an ethical pet shop are willing to disappoint a shopper initially in order to delight customers willing to learn about everything from healthful pet foods to safe toys. Every product in the store should be one about which employees have been educated in order to pass their knowledge on to customers. Employees of ethical pet shops know that their employer sells only the best. As a result, they shop at the store at which they work, and can personally recommend their pets’ favorite products.