Internet Pet Stores: Beware of Dogs

Plenty of online sites will sell you pets, particularly dogs, but deceptive practices mean that you don’t always get what you expect. Unfortunately, animal-welfare groups, breeders and Department of Agriculture can’t agree over how to regulate the online pet marketplace.

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You’ve made the choice to add a canine family member. Increasingly, instead of asking, “How much is that puppy in the window?” consumers ask, “How much is that puppy on your website?” Although the Internet might hold shopping wonders, that doesn’t apply when it comes to purchasing pets.

Consumers spent $2.2 billion in 2012 purchasing dogs, birds, cats, rabbits and other companion animals, according to a 2011–2012 survey by American Pet Products Association. Although no figures are available as to the percentage of those pet purchases that are conducted online, experts tell us that such purchases are expanding. International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) says online purchases of pets have risen in the past decade, but it doesn’t have a more definitive estimate of how much. However, in a December 2012 report, IFAW found 10,000 advertisements on nine websites that represented at least 733,000 puppies. (Online pet purchases typically mean dogs, according to industry experts. Consequently, we’ll focus on those.)

However, animal-welfare experts say online pet purchases ought to be avoided. Some sellers lack responsible breeding and adoption practices or facilities that ensure a dog’s physical and mental health. Consequently, an unacceptable degree of likelihood exists that you might receive a pet that’s sickly, which could cost you. Many of the dogs that are sold online come from commercial breeders who don’t undergo government licensing and inspection or don’t provide quality care and nurturing. What makes the fur fly more, consumers often have little recourse if they want to exchange a dog or get a refund online.

Online pet purchases have little to no regulation. A proposed Department of Agriculture rule that addresses online pet purchases is late in coming, is slow in being finalized, and has caused divisions among breeders and organizations that could affect whether you can find the dog that you want—and whether that pooch is healthy and well-socialized.

BOWSER BROWSING. The Internet provides excellent resources for consumers to research pets at breed-club and health-registry websites and at breed-specific rescue groups, which we found often to have the most realistic information about living with a particular breed. The Internet also provides near-instant gratification.

The online purchase process is as simple as scrolling through pictures of puppies, reading their descriptions, choosing one and placing an order. You’ll want to be sure that your sales contract with the breeder includes a health guarantee for at least 2 years against crippling or disabling genetic diseases that can be inherited. This includes severe hip dysplasia, juvenile cataracts, heart defects, spinal disease or breathing-related issues that require surgical correction. Some contracts might stipulate health guarantees that are good for as little as 48 hours or have exclusions that protect the seller from having to make any kind of refund or reimbursement.

A puppy must be 8 weeks old to be shipped legally—if you buy a puppy that’s younger, it won’t be shipped until it reaches that age. (You might be able pick up a 7-week-old puppy in person.)

Pets that are shipped via air typically are sent in a USDA-approved kennel as air cargo (in a controlled-climate and pressurized hold). After you’ve made payment in full, your new pet typically arrives within 2 days, depending on the shipper’s schedule. You’ll have to pick up the pet at an airline’s check-in desk or air-cargo facility—the location varies by airline and airport. You should expect to pay an additional $250–$650 for shipping.

Veterinarians and humane organizations tell us that it can be detrimental to ship young puppies. Their immune systems aren’t developed fully, which means that exposure to new pathogens and changes in temperature and pressure can make them susceptible to illness. Flat-faced dogs, such as bulldogs and pugs, are further at risk, because their short airways make them prone to heat stroke and breathing difficulties. If this makes you nervous, you can arrange to pick up your puppy in person. If you’re flying, transporting a puppy in the cabin with you typically will cost $125 in extra fees.

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