I think most pet lovers, especially those who read this blog, know why it’s a bad idea to buy a cat or dog at a pet store. Even Oprah has taken up the cause of raising puppymill awareness. But did you know that if you buy a pair of rats or even fish for your aquarium at a pet store, you could be contributing to animal cruelty, unbalanced ecosystems, and the proliferation of antibiotic resistant bacteria, among other social woes?
Large pet stores acquire live animals from a variety of sources, including local mill-style breeders, huge warehouses where pets are bred, and importers who capture wild animals and sell them. All of these options are socially irresponsible and, in most cases, highly inhumane. Unfortunately, to keep up with demand, pet stores must make use of suppliers who can provide a continuous supply of large quantities of live pets. This means that more responsible means of animal breeding, like hobby breeding, aren’t compatible with pet stores’ needs — and besides, reputable, responsible hobby breeders wouldn’t dream of selling to retail stores.
Warehouse breeders don’t only crowd their breeding stock into small cages and force them to have litter after litter with no breaks in between, they also promote the proliferation of congenital and genetic illness. A well-known vet told me a little over a year ago that he had begun to see cancer in pet rats as young as four months old. This troubling trend is likely due to the indiscriminate breeding of rats by pet store suppliers. Rats are very prone to cancer even under the best of circumstances, and careless breeding can easily cement a defect into a line of rats that causes aggressive, malignant tumors at a young age.
Then there’s the antibiotic resistance I mentioned. Crowded conditions promote illness. To cut their losses, pet stores’ suppliers often medicate small animals with antibiotics in their water continually, in sickness and in health. Doxycycline is frequently used in this manner. Just like humans, small pets can develop antibiotic resistant infections when antibiotics are overused.
Then, finally, there’s the problem of wild-caught pets. Certain species can be harvested responsibly from the wild in small numbers. However, most cannot, and most importers don’t make an effort to catch only as many animals as the ecosystem can do without. Consider snakes, for example. When a large number of snakes are exported from a particular area, birds, frogs, toads, and rodents may reproduce in greater numbers than the food supply can support due to a lack of predators. Larger animals, like birds of prey, that eat snakes will be without an essential part of their food source. Exporting wild animals to be kept as pets is rarely ethical and often very harmful.
What to Do About It
Now, I don’t believe that pet store employees or even management really want to cause undue suffering to animals or to the environment. However, if shoppers demand that live animals be available, businesses must make them available or suffer a drop in sales. When a live pet consumes food, bedding, and employees’ time, it actually presents a loss to the store in almost all cases when sold. However, the additional sales of cages and other accessories offset that loss. So, what can a smart shopper concerned with animal welfare do to discourage the sale of live animals in retail stores?
First, patronize stores that don’t sell live animals as frequently as possible. Small, privately owned pet supply stores are popping up around the country. Prices may be slightly higher, but a few cents extra on each bag of dog food or stuffed toy is a small price to pay to invest in your community and in animal welfare. Independent pet shops also may be more trustworthy, because owners are often highly knowledgeable in the areas of pet nutrition and behavior and will freely give advice to customers.
Second, never purchase a pet at a pet store. Instead, find a rescue, responsible hobby breeder, or a private owner who can no longer keep their pet or who has had an accidental litter. Pet stores are beginning to reconsider offering species for sale that end up taking up store space for months before they are sold. For example, some Petco stores have stopped selling parrots, ferrets, and rabbits, because these pets are expensive, take up a lot of space, and sell slowly. A small loss is acceptable to pet store management if it represents a net gain after supplies are purchased , but when pets don’t sell for long periods of time or eventually age so much that they must be given away, upper management begins to change its strategy and removes some live animals from stores.
Finally, consider writing a letter or calling customer service lines for a chain pet store that sells live pets. Feedback is recorded, and if the same complaint is registered frequently enough, management will take notice. There’s to need to be rude. A simple letter, email, or phone call saying, “I would like to see your stores stop selling all live animals. Warehouse and mill breeders are inhumane, and capturing animals in the wild is detrimental to the environment. I have taken my business elsewhere, but would be glad to return to enjoying the friendly service and low prices at your stores if live animals are no longer sold there,” can go a long way.