Puppy Mills Breed a Problem Bill

SARA ENGRAM

February 02, 1992|By SARA ENGRAM | SARA ENGRAM,Sara Engram is editorial page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each week.

Good intentions don't guarantee good laws. A good example comes from Rep. Ben Cardin, not usually known for proposing bad legislation.

Mr. Cardin is principal sponsor of a bill designed, he says, to protect consumers from the questionable practices of the notorious puppy mills that supply many pet shops. Plenty of families have taken home an adorable puppy only to find themselves saddled later with some big problems.

Puppy mills -- and the "lemon" puppies they inevitably produce -- are indeed a problem. But as now written, Mr. Cardin's legislation would hurt responsible dog breeders far more than puppy mills. The liability provisions would drive most small breeders out of business.

Puppy mills are essentially dog factories, breeding large numbers of females every six months for as many years as possible. They are rightly considered a disgrace. Their goal is profit through quantity, not good, healthy dogs produced by careful pairings of males and females.

Mr. Cardin, who may have seen this legislation as an easy way of helping pet owners, has instead provoked howls of protests from many groups in the dog-breeding community. In essence, the critics say, the bill would blast buck shot at all dog breeders, rather than targeting the real abusers.

One problem is the bill's overly broad definition of who can be held liable. Anyone who keeps three or more unspayed females would be treated the same as a puppy mill. Most dog hobbyists would fall under that category -- even if, like one bloodhound fancier in Maryland, they produced only two litters of puppies in 17 years.

The bill would give puppy purchasers the right to return the dog for a replacement or refund -- and for reimbursement up to three times the purchase price of veterinary costs incurred in diagnosing or treating illnesses, congenital diseases or genetic defects.

The liability period varies from 14 days for such conditions as parasites, illnesses or behavior that would render it unfit as a pet up to two years if the dog has a congenital or hereditary disorder that adversely affects its health. During the first 12 months, the dog could be returned if it "does not possess the characteristics of the breed standard."

In other words, a small breeder who sells a pure-bred puppy for $500 incurs a potential liability of $2,000 for the next two years. That's a prohibitive amount for most small breeders, for whom a puppy's selling price barely recoups the cost of maintaining pure-bred dogs. There's not much profit in responsible dog breeding.

But there would surely be profit for some people in this bill -- for veterinarians, who would have the authority to certify the various conditions which would trigger the liability provisions, including the judgment as to whether a dog lives up to the standards of a particular breed.

This is a curious twist, since most vets couldn't name all 135 breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club if their lives depended on it. As Roger Caras, president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, points out, veterinarians are trained to deal with the clinical problems of animals, not the standards that characterize every breed.

Mr. Caras asks: How many vets could tell whether a Scottish deer hound lives up to the standards of that breed? How many vets have ever seen one? How many know the different weight standards for American and English foxhounds or the different height-at-the-withers standards for the American and English cocker spaniels?

Scratch the surface of these arcane discussions, and it's obvious that Mr. Cardin has stepped into unfamiliar territory -- territory that was not very well charted by whoever advised him on this legislation.

Mr. Cardin's good intentions have not produced a consumer-protection bill. Rather, this appears to be a boon for veterinarians, especially the new breed of vets who specialize in building lucrative practices on fancy tests and heroic measures -- all of which add up to stratospheric bills for pet owners. But why should the owners complain if, on the vet's certification, they can then recover much of the cost from the breeder?

Because it would strangle the supply of dogs from hobbyists who are fanatically devoted to the welfare of a particular breed, the legislation would have the perverse effect of increasing the market for puppy mill dogs. What's worse, the bill misses entirely the real pet problem this country faces -- an overpopulation that leads to the euthanizing of 13 to 15 million dogs and cats each year.

Good intentions can't redeem scattershot legislation. Mr. Cardin, a sound and seasoned legislator, should know better.

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