WASHINGTON -- Max-a-million had a deprived puppyhood.
Raised in squalor and neglect at a Nebraska "puppy mill," the 4-year-old cocker spaniel wound up in Baltimore. But his sorry Midwestern life haunted him -- and his owner -- through health problems that required three bladder operations.
Max-a-million is his name "because that's what he's costing me," said Theresa Pulice-Wingate yesterday. The 28-year-old Baltimore woman's "nightmare" began 2 1/2 years ago and included a $2,500 veterinarian's bill. The black cocker was given to her by a woman who bought him from a West Virginia pet store and was about to have him put to sleep.
And Petie, a 7-month-old Shih Tzu from Crofton, has also had a dog's life.
Purchased from an Annapolis pet store in July, Petie has water on the brain and has cost his owner, Donna Wynkoop, some $700 in vet bills so far. Now he needs $600 in tests, and she can't afford them. "It may get worse, it may get better," said Ms. Wynkoop, 21, holding the small fuzzy dog with pink ribbons.
Max-a-million and Petie have plenty of canine company, according to investigations by the Humane Society of the United States.
Some 90 percent of dogs sold through pet stores were raised in so-called "puppy mills," places where the animals are kept in poor conditions to cut costs, the society found. Mostly located in the Midwest, the dogs from the mills often are victims of filth, overcrowding, insufficient food and water, incessant breeding and lack of veterinary care. Arriving at pet stores, they may be sick and lack the happy temperment of a pet.
Representative Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md.-3rd, hopes to curtail such puppy-mill practices. The Baltimore congressman is pushing a bill that would make dog owners who purchase their pets from stores or breeders eligible for refunds up to three times the cost of the animal in order to pay for high veterinarian bills -- should they decide to keep the pet. They also would be able to exchange the dog for another or get a refund.
Consumers could take action within 14 days of the purchase for any illness or anti-social behavior of the dog. They would have up to two years to take action if a licensed veterinarian determined the dog had a congenital or hereditary disorder.
"This is the federal 'lemon law' for puppies," Mr. Cardin said yesterday, flanked by Max-a-million and Petie, who scratched, sniffed each other and growled at photographers. The congressman said he expects the measure will force the puppy mills either to change their ways or go out of business.
Mr. Cardin said he knows the issue firsthand. He purchased "Mac," a black cocker spaniel, about 15 years ago only to see it die after two years. "It caused a lot of hardship in our family," he said.
Kim Hammond, a Baltimore veterinarian, has also seen the problem firsthand.
"We're dealing with consumer fraud and pet cruelty," Dr. Hammond said. "Months after purchasing such a dog, the owner may pay the price in health bills or a cowering pet. Maybe six months later, after you bonded with it, it's a disaster."
But officials in the pet industry disputed the figures used by the Humane Society and the need for the proposed law.
Marshall Meyers, general counsel for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, a trade association for pet stores, estimated that only 5 percent to 10 percent -- rather than 90 percent -- of stores buy from "substandard" suppliers. "It does not make sense for a pet store to sell sick animals," he said.
"There's no question in my mind [puppy mills] exist," said Vincent Hourihan, vice president of Docktor Pet Centers based in Wilmington, Mass. It is the nation's largest pet store chain, with some 210 franchises, including 17 in Maryland. "I don't want to be buying dogs from there. We require that all our stores purchase puppies from USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] licensed stores."
Supporters of the measure, however, said many dog owners grow attached to their sick dogs and are often willing to pay hundreds of dollars to keep the pets healthy.
Mr. Meyers said that only about 6 percent -- some 400,000 -- of the dogs sold annually in the United States are sold by pet stores, where the cost of a dog usually ranges from $300 to $400. Most people buy dogs through newspaper ads placed by commercial breeders or those who have a litter to sell, he said.
"I really question whether this is a federal matter," said Mr. Meyers, who noted that puppy protection laws are in force or pending in nine states. Maryland is not among them.