Four years ago, Stephanie Essex and her husband went into Petland in Bolingbrook to buy fish and fell in love instead with a little American Bulldog puppy. The couple, who lived with a rescued lab, purchased the dog they named Buster that day and picked him up a couple of days later.
“That was the beginning of the longest night of our life,” says Essex. “He had this hospital I.D. bracelet around his neck that was so tight he had cut marks in his skin. He had severe diarrhea all night long in the crate and kept getting sicker and sicker and struggled to breathe. We took him to Petland’s approved vet first thing the next morning.”
Buster had severe kennel cough that turned into pneumonia and spent the next 14 days in the hospital on an IV. When they reached out to Petland, the pet store asked them to return the puppy.
“He’s not a broken toy, he’s a living thing that we considered part of the family already. I refused to bring him back, just so they could put him down,” says Essex. “We fell in love with Buster the second we met him and just wanted out vet bills covered – which they did. All this happened weeks before we got married, not exactly how you want to start off your new life.”
Pet store complaints
Essex isn’t alone. Since I blogged about emaciated dogs at the Naperville Petland a few weeks ago, dog lovers have reached out to The Puppy Mill Project or to me directly to talk about their experiences. Essex was lucky that Petland picked up the veterinary bills – that hasn’t always been the case.
SheaLynn O’Donnell purchased an English Bulldog from the Naperville Petland on July 31. When her new pup came down with an upper respiratory infection, it spread to her three-year-old Bassett Hound. That infection has turned into pneumonia and her older dog has been in emergency care for several days. She’s been fighting with Petland for help ever since.
“I've called the store and spoke to the manager, left messages for the owner to contact me,” says O’Donnell. “Surprise, surprise, he hasn't. I've called the warranty company six times to ask for their help and haven't received that from them, yet. They're reviewing my claim. See my dog is only sick because of the sick puppy they sold me. My dog isn’t covered under their warranty.”
She says she asked about the puppy’s health prior to purchase because of their other dog and was told the puppy was healthy. The sales person “also said that he came from a great breeder, which he did not. He came from a puppy mill that was flagged for kennel conditions. I'd love to see the owner of this company held over hot coals for what he's doing to these animals, and the people, like me, who have foolishly bought from him.”
Puppy Lemon Law
In fact, Illinois consumers who purchase sick puppies and kittens (and other pets) have little recourse, unless they want to file a lawsuit. That is about to change. In the coming weeks, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn will sign the Puppy Lemon Law, a measure that requires pet stores to inform customers when there have been outbreaks of certain illnesses at their store. It also provides for some recourse for consumers.
“We get so many heartbreaking calls and emails from families that walk into a pet store and fall in love with a puppy that ends up being very sick shortly after leaving the store,” says Cari Meyers, founder of The Puppy Mill Project. “Many people have ended up with thousands of dollars in vet bills and pets that have died or continue to have health problems. The Puppy Lemon Law will give consumers some recourse without waiting for a lawsuit to play out.”
The Puppy Lemon Law's focus is pets sold in pet stores – not those sold through breeders or adopted out through shelters and rescues. It requires pet stores to notify the Illinois Department of Agriculture immediately after an outbreak of distemper, canine parvovirus and other contagious and life threatening diseases.
The Puppy Lemon Law allows buyers to be reimbursed for veterinary fees and allows for a replacement or full refund if a dog dies within 21 days of purchase. Pets may be returned within a year if there is a congenital or hereditary condition (with a written statement from a veterinarian).
One person who has been closely watching the progress of the Puppy Lemon Law is Bryan Phillips. He purchased a dachshund he named Dakota from Happiness is Pets around Christmas in 2011. Although records showed that Dakota had had vaccinations, she quickly became very ill and was diagnosed with canine distemper, a disease that is usually fatal to puppies.
“The Puppy Lemon Law may help consumers with a sick puppy,” says Phillips. “The new law has a provision that pet shop operators are to inform customers of a disease outbreak. OK, but what if the operator ignores this. At pet stores I’ve been to recently, none have the required disclosure statement of a dog’s origin on or near the cage. You have to ask for it and yet the law states for it to be posted.”
Phillips is also concerned about enforcement. He’s dealt with the Illinois Department of Agriculture after his own dog was diagnosed with with distemper. He spent thousands in veterinary bills Dakota’s first year. However, Dakota was the lucky one, she is the only puppy sold by Happiness is Pets that was diagnosed with the disease to survive.
Phillips and five other families that purchased dogs sick with distemper have filed a consumer fraud lawsuit against Happiness is Pets. That suit claims that the pet store chain committed consumer fraud by misrepresenting the origin of the puppies it sells because HIP tells customers that its puppies come from small-scale breeders when they actually come from “some of the most despicable and horrendous puppy mills in the Midwest.”
That suit was dismissed without prejudice earlier this summer because a judge ruled it needed to just focus on stores that actually sold sick puppies. A revised suit should be refiled at the end of the month. Meanwhile, The Puppy Mill Project was instrumental in an investigation that lead to a recent consumer fraud suit filed against another Chicago pet store chain – Furry Babies.
In the meantime, The Puppy Mill Project continues to work to inform the public about the connection between puppy mills and pet stores and Internet pet sales. Consumer surveys show that over 70 percent of people don’t know about the pet store-puppy mill connection.
Educating the public
The Puppy Mill Project speaks at schools, animal shelters and other local organizations to help more consumers make the connection between puppy mills and the pet stores and online sale sites that deal in puppies. Another way gets the word out is to hold peaceful protests outside pet stores. Since the Petland story made the news, they’ve had a dramatic increase in the number of people that come out to protests.
The Puppy Mill Project’s next protest will be on Sunday, August 25 from noon until 2 p.m. outside the McDonalds at the Aurora Westfield Mall. This area – on the West side of Route 59 just North of Ogden and South of Aurora Avenues – supports both a Furry Babies and Petland. The Furry Babies at this location sold a puppy sick with Parvo back in June.
The consumer connection
The protests, educational programs and news coverage has gotten the word out to more people. However, too many consumers still aren't getting the message and only find out after they have a sick puppy on their hands.
“Before I bought Dakota, I didn't know what a puppy mill was nor cared,” says Phillips. “Now that I've become involved, I'll do my part to spread the word. Sad to say, but this seems to be the American way. Nothing matters until it personally affects you and then you take action. I'm guilty as charged.”
“We really did know better,” says Essex. “My family either got our dogs from good breeders or we rescued. But when Buster started to chew on my fiancés (now husband's) shoestrings, we fell in love. He’s recovered from his illnesses but he’s an American Bulldog and I’ve never met a dog that is more afraid of people than he is…I don’t know what he went through before he joined our family.”
“This is the first and last time we’ll ever purchase a pet from a pet store," adds O'Donnell. "I should have known to be alarmed when the sales clerk said – ‘All sales final, no refunds, or returns’– after he swiped my debit card. It’s heartbreaking. Had I researched this place earlier, I would never had bought a puppy from them. It’s terribly sad.”
Update on Petland
The response from readers and animal advocates to the story about the emaciated dogs at Petland has been overwhelming. Since the blog post about Petland, the mainstream media and more animal advocates visited the store. The emaciated dogs were gone and The Puppy Mill Project continues to keep an eye on the situation.
If you’ve purchased a sick dog from Petland or Furry Babies, contact The Puppy Mill Project at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you'd like to read past blogs connected to this story, please check out the reading list below and feel free to share.
Writers Note: As mentioned in the story, research has shown that over 70 percent of consumers don't know about the connection between puppy mills and pet stores. As more people step up and speak out about their experience, more people are educated about the connection. Please be respectful in your comments below.