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Pet store regulations: Keeping pets safe prior to purchase

The pet store industry in America generates about $2.1 billion annually in live animal purchases; but what laws assure that US pet stores (and the breeders who supply them) maintain the health and safety of the animals they sell? The answers might surprise you.

Federal Laws
In 1966, Congress passed the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). Originally called the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act, the law was originally applied only to animals used in scientific experimentation and research, and was enforced by the USDA and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Over the years, the AWA been amended to include “warm-blooded animals maintained by animal dealers, transporters, and exhibitors in addition to research facilities.” However, the Federal law has many limits. First, it sets a low bar for minimal standards of care, feeding, nutrition, hydration, veterinary care, and shelter from the elements. Second, the law does not apply to pet retailers, hobby breeders, shelters, or kennels. Third, the law protects dogs, cats, and farm animals, but does not cover cold-blooded animals, birds, or other “exotics.” All other legislation governing the care of pets for sale is left to the states.

State Laws
In the U.S., only 27 states (plus the District of Columbia) have enacted laws governing the proper and humane care of animals sold via retail establishments. And these laws vary widely in scope and enforcement standards. Twenty-four states have laws mandating that pets sold in retail settings be provided adequate food and water, and just 21 states have laws requiring retailers to provide sanitary conditions for these animals. Seventeen states require pet retailers to provide veterinary care for sick or injured pets, but of these, only two require each pet shop to work in concert with a veterinarian to create a written plan of care for animals. Twenty-three states prohibit the sale of unweaned animals, and 18 states have some provision to assure minimum safe housing and cage standards for pets sold in retail shops. 

Some states have laws enforcing quality-of-life conditions like humane lighting and reduced stress environments, and only one (California) requires that pet shop animals be socialized prior to sale. While some states do have laws that protect the consumer (“Lemon Laws”) who may inadvertently purchase a sick, injured, or congenitally disabled pet—but these do little to protect the animals themselves. Documentation and record-keeping laws are even more diverse, both in their minimum standards and in their degree of enforcement.

It should be noted that many pets spend weeks, months, or (in the case of some “exotics”) even years languishing in pet shops prior to sale. 

Strengthening the Laws
Born Free U.S.A. offers a handy map to let you see how your state’s laws rate on various criteria compared with other states. Data for each state include kennel care, vet care, housing, food, sanitation, and “Lemon Laws.” If you feel your state’s laws don’t go far enough to protect animals prior to retail sale, contact your legislator or local animal welfare organization to see what can be done to improve the standards and enforcement of these laws.

Hopefully by working together, we can create safe, healthy environments for all pets sold by retailers in the US.


Cecily Kellogg is a pet lover who definitely has crazy cat lady leanings. Her pets are all shelter rescues, including the dog, who is scared of the cats. She spent eight years working as a Veterinary Technician before becoming a writer. Today she writes all over the web, including here at Figo.

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