Trouble for Booming Pet Sector…?

The $53 billion Americans are spending on pets and pet businesses will skyrocket in 2013. But experts warn the boom is empowering ruthless puppy mills. Take steps to protect yourself and the animals.

$350 million spent on pet costumes in October? We did, according to the National Retail Federation.

Despite the lingering economic crisis casting a shadow over the holidays, pet spending is exploding. From $37.3 billion in 2001 to nearly $53 billion in 2012, a 42 percent increase in 11 years according to a 2012 APPA study. But experts warn the trend is causing unprepared pet buyers to get in over their heads, which is creating opportunities for shady operations.

You’re not seeing double. Wugadogs are the toy versions of a real-life Boston Terrier named Angus. They’re part of a nationwide ‘Petrepreneuer’ trend in pet commerce.

And despite the gloomy outlook for jobs and overall finances, pet spending is rocketing into 2013 and showing no signs of slowing down.

So why the shopping spree? “People are more interested in pets than ever before,” says San Diego veterinarian Dr. Jessica Vogelsang. Her statement reflects the long-held belief that pets improve human health. How? A neat little chemical called oxytocin, says Kit Yarrow, who chairs the psychology department of Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

Oxytocin is a naturally-occurring hormone in our bodies that makes us feel good and evaporates stress. We get a charge whenever we think about, play with, or snuggle up to our pets, says Yarrow. And in these unstable times, a feeling like that is more than welcome to stay awhile.

Pet businesses skyrocket in 2012

The trend is titilating consumers partly because of new pet-focused businesses and services. Buffalo, NY-based ex-graphic artist turned toy designer, Darrin Wilson, 44, agrees. “I think we will see more of a focus on pets in 2013,” he says. “Especially if the economy remains tepid. Pets give us a safe place to hide.”

Wilson created a successful plush toy modeled after his own rambunctious Boston terrier. Interest in his toys, Wugadogs, began in July when he and his wife gave over 300 of the fuzzy critters to the Women and Children’s Hospital of Buffalo. He has now grown the line to include five more Wugadog designs in 2013.

In Danvers, MA, Rev. Thea Keith-Lucas takes pet devotion into the pews. The Perfect Paws Pet Ministry, which marked its second anniversary in April 2012, usually sets aside dog cupcakes and chewies for pooches who accompany their owners for Sunday service. In the Parish hall, you’ll see folding chairs. “It’s easier to clean,” explains the minister.

‘Petrepreneurialism’ is not just limited to creative pet owners and clergy; the trend has taken over big name companies. Paul Mitchell, Harley Davidson and Old Navy are now offering lines of pet products ranging from dog shampoo, pet attire, and name-brand toys to gourmet treats and food.

With all this attention on pets, and the surge of pet-focused spending, the lure of a cute kitten or puppy to a first-time buyer can be too tempting to resist, especially if there are children involved. And that’s where all the cuteness can get ugly.

Puppy mills thrive on uninformed buyers

Many first-timers don’t know that the kennel or pet store they’re buying from is being honest. “Federal care standards are so minimal and enforcement so irregular that licensed kennels still include many so-called puppy mills, which breed and house animals in inhumane conditions,” says Cori Menkin, senior director of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals puppy mills campaign. “Most pet store puppies come from puppy mills,” she says.

According to one well-known animal rights organization, the premium cost consumers pay for pets out of a pet store pales in comparison to the cruelty and abuse the animals suffer in the bowels of a puppy mill.

Puppy mills, according to PETA, can consist of anything from small cages made of wood and wire mesh to tractor-trailer cabs to simple tethers attached to trees. In the April 13, 2009 issue of Newsweek magazine, a Pennsylvania breeder confessed that he kept his dogs in cages because it was “the only way to keep a lot of dogs—to keep them penned up.”

In 2010, Chris Sweeney of DVM Newsmagazine reported in a feature entitled, “Inside the Black Market: Puppy Smuggling,” confirmed that dealers looking to avoid releveant U.S. laws concerning puppy mills can do so relatively easily by simply picking up and moving elsewhere to continue to do business.

While investigating what he called this “multi-million dollar industry,” Capt. Aaron Reyes of the Southeast Area Animal Control Authority was horrified when he found “puppies stuffed in speaker boxes, screwed into the car door panels and wrapped in blankets with their little legs taped to their bodies and stuffed under seats.”

According to The Humane Society of the United States, there may be as many as 10,000 puppy mills operating across the United States.

To avoid empowering these malicious operations, one of the most important steps to take is diligence. Instead of a pet store, consumers may want to look at either a reputable local breeder or an adoption group, says Melanie Kahn, senior director of the Humane Society’s puppy mills campaign. If we can stop the flow of money to these individuals we can help end these practices.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have pet buyers who discover their newly-purchased pet isn’t for them. “Live animals aren’t often returnable, and so they may end up at shelters when the family discovers, say, that their new puppy is too energetic or that baby Easter bunny grows into a rabbit,” says Kahn.

Adopt a dog from a reputable adoption group to avoid puppy mill dogs. Also by carefully researching the breeders that supply pet stores.

Patti Strand, national director of the National Animal Interest Alliance, offers these tips:

  1. Ask the pet store for detailed information on the breeder and their location.
  2. Check those records against its inspections at the USDA’s website.

With homework you can protect yourself and deny puppy mill operators the cash they need.

But despite the dark side of this skyrocketing interest in pets, there is a light side: many abandoned animals will go to good homes thanks to committed pet owners. “Animals have always been a big part of our lives as humans,” says Wilson. “They have often been the only medicine that can truly cleanse our souls. It’s only right we adore them as much as they adore us.”

(Thanks to for this story.)

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