The Pet Tree House - Where Pets Are Family Too : Laxed Pet Store Laws Have Pet Owners Paying Pricey Medical Bills

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Laxed Pet Store Laws Have Pet Owners Paying Pricey Medical Bills

Julie Franceschini was heartsick when she had to return her new Yorkshire terrier to the pet store, unable to afford the pricey medical care a veterinarian said it would need.

But the teacher and Town of Poughkeepsie resident was furious, she said, when she learned the tiny black and brown puppy, though ill, had been put back in the store window. So she called the Dutchess County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Franceschini's misbegotten purchase, in March 2011, kicked off a probe, SPCA officials confirmed, that led to the seizure of 10 dogs from the newly opened Puppies & Kittens store in Wappingers Falls, the arrest of owner Richard Doyle and his guilty plea to one count of selling a diseased animal under the state's animal cruelty statute.

While Doyle met the terms of an agreement to do better by his live animals, seven other store customers nonetheless told the Poughkeepsie Journal of newly purchased puppies that soon became sick, some incurring vet bills in the thousands. That includes three puppies sold in March — a figure Doyle said was very low considering he sold 231 dogs in that time.

"My problem ratio is less than 2 percent," said Doyle, who has three stores operating under the name American Breeders.

Puppy seller blames humane group: ASPCA says better care needed

Contending the dogs were "not that sick," he said, "It drives me nuts that a vet can sit and charge even $1,000 for a dog with pneumonia and kennel cough." The "worst case" of pneumonia, he said, should cost no more than $50 to treat.

Indeed, some of the bills, provided by owners to the Journal, are far higher.

One owner spent $3,500 to hospitalize an Australian shepherd named Jack for pneumonia. A 20-year-old student carrying college loans has so far spent $3,400 to treat a Jack Russell terrier mix, Muffin, for life-threatening parvovirus, which killed another puppy among the seven cases. And Karen Kessler of Hopewell Junction has racked up $7,000 in veterinary fees for an English bulldog named Petunia.

"She was a sick, sick, very sick little dog," said Kessler, adding she deferred paying her mortgage to care for Petunia, 15 weeks old. "It really wiped us out."

Gaps in law

Inspections by the state Department of Agriculture and Markets show the Dutchess store has been deemed "compliant" in 12 inspections since January 2011, including one in December after a customer returned a sick dog.

But the problems encountered by these customers, undoubtedly a minority of buyers at Puppies & Kittens, demonstrates what animal-welfare experts say are glaring gaps in statutes governing the sale of these pets.

Under the state law, animal welfare officers cannot take action if puppies get sick after purchase, they said, even though the pets may be incubating serious illness, like kennel cough, pneumonia and even deadly parvovirus, before. And the law requires reimbursement only up to the price of the dog, though vet costs can go much higher.

"Despite the search warrants, resulting animal seizures, criminal charges and complaints from consumers," said SPCA Senior Humane Law Officer Kim McNamee, "these stores still remain in business." She called state law "antiquated" and inadequate to address pet-store issues.

While the SPCA enforces animal-protection laws, only the state can revoke licenses. Figures show it has pulled store licenses five times in the last five years; three of the revocations were for a chain with one shop in Yonkers. Currently, there are 274 licensed pet dealers, including stores and breeders.

In response to questions about the Puppies & Kittens store, the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, which oversees pet sellers, said in a statement for this article: "We are investigating the owner's cruelty convictions and will take appropriate action once this investigation is complete." Doyle declined comment on the statement and ended a phone interview, maintaining the Journal had spurred the investigation and was on a "witch hunt."

In addition to the revoked licenses, the department handed out $13,500 in pet-retailer fines in the latest fiscal year, including to dog breeders. Some animal-welfare advocates see such figures as anemic — or "absurd," said Deborah Howard, president of the Massachusetts-based Companion Animal Protection Society, who contended the agency seldom cites violations.

Moreover, the enforcement efforts — defended as robust by state officials — do little to curb what the SPCA and others see as the underlying problem: a profitable and harmful trade in puppies that begin life in factory-like breeding facilities in states like Iowa, Kansas or Missouri, as reported in the Journal March 29. There, adult dogs — considered livestock under federal law — are confined to cages, while their vulnerable offspring are birthed, weaned and transported in ways that can make them sick.

And while such conditions are legal, the Journal's report showed two local puppy stores, Puppies & Kittens in particular, at times used breeders with violations involving lack of veterinary care, dirty water and vermin infestations.

"They are aware these animals do not come from the best of conditions, are exposed to many illnesses, overcrowding and are under a lot of stress from transporting," SCPA's McNamee said, referring to puppy stores. "They should be exemplary in their care standards but seem to fall short." She suggested the store should alert recent puppy buyers to the parvovirus case, while testing dogs that came in contact with the puppy.

Agriculture department officials said Wednesday they would visit the store to see if proper follow-up was done. Meantime, the dog's owners, Meghan and Geniene Arnold, 19 and 20 years old, have struggled to fund hospital care as the dog teetered between life and death. The terrier had been transported from Missouri by a broker cited for overcrowded vans in 2013 and other violations, records show.

Wrenching choice

Puppies & Kittens is not the only local seller to have puppies get sick after purchase. Two customers of The Pet Zone in the Town of Poughkeepsie Galleria also told of buying puppies that soon began coughing and became lethargic, even unresponsive.

As vet bills mounted, they, and the other puppy buyers interviewed, faced a traumatic choice under the state's pet "lemon" law that to most was no choice at all. They could trade the pet in for cash or a new dog. Or they could be compensated for costs, but only up to the price of the dog, generally from about $1,000 to $3,000. Most kept the animals, over which they had become fiercely protective.

"The dog stays in my hands," insisted Lena DiSiena of the Town of Poughkeepsie, when offered an exchange at The Pet Zone for her daughter's $1,600 Shih-poo, Chase, sick with Bordatella or kennel cough. "I will nurture it."

In another Pet Zone case, a Town of Poughkeepsie man, Scott Sweeney, bought a 1.8-pound Havanese, Charlie, in February 2014 that soon turned critically ill.

Pet Zone officials acknowledged that refunds were given for the two dogs. DiSiena was paid $855 for medical care. Sweeney was refunded nearly three times the cost of the dog, store owner Ted Bell said, the outcome of a small claims lawsuit.

Sweeney won his case for veterinary bills — and circumvented the lemon law limit — by relying on a 2009 Appellate Division case. In that case, a judge ruled a sick dog was a defective product under the state commercial code, entitling its owner "to recover the resulting veterinary expenses."

"It was a couple long nights, a lot of anger, a lot of emotions," Sweeney said of the experience. "I think that that (lemon) law needs to be re-examined."

Last August, the Pet Zone store was cited for two "critical" violations of state animal-welfare regulations when a Cavalier/Cocker and a Pomeranian puppy were "in the sales room ... coughing and sneezing," an inspection report states. Bell said, "the puppies were immediately taken to the veterinarian ... (and) found to be healthy." Another inspection a week later found the store in compliance.

Warning issued

While Puppies & Kittens was found not to have violations, records show eight of 12 inspections were marked "special" — usually those prompted, officials said, by complaints or concerns; one report in December referred to a returned puppy that had been reported sick.

It isn't known how often pet-store pups turn ill; no state figures are kept on dogs declared by vets to be "unfit for purchase," the legal term that allows owner refunds. But the Dutchess SPCA warned, after the 2011 seizure of seven ill puppies from a Galleria pet store that has since closed, of buying at pet stores or online because of where puppies originate.

Pet-store purchases, said Matt Bershadker, president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in a statement to the Journal, "are feeding the profit-making machine that keeps these cruel puppy mills in business."

Among pet-store puppy buyers, pneumonia was the most common problem of sick dogs. It can be caused by exposure to many pathogens but most commonly to kennel cough, a highly contagious canine disease, according to Dr. Justin Nowowiejski, a critical care clinician at VCA Animal Specialty and Emergency Center in Wappingers Falls, a 24-hour care center to which vets refer seriously ill animals. The vet said in the last few months he had seen three puppies with pneumonia that had been bought at Puppies & Kittens and none from Pet Zone.

Bethany Wise, 20, of the Town of Poughkeepsie bought a tiny white Maltese puppy last Sept. 30 at Puppies & Kittens; Rosie was declared unfit last Oct. 4, four days after her purchase for $1,400, medical and sale documents show.

"Pet is emaciated and ill" with digestive and respiratory issues, wrote Dr. Bette Meyer-Davis of Dutchess Animal Clinic, Wappingers Falls. "I cannot predict future costs of treatment."

$25,000 spent

That assessment sums up a quandary faced by owners of sick puppies: How much to treat. In one pneumonia case, Nowowiejski, the VCA vet, said $25,000 was spent on a dog that did not survive; it was not known if it was purchased at a pet store.

Elena Reitberger of Wappingers Falls has paid nearly $5,000 in hospital and outpatient care for her daughter's Australian shepherd, Jack, bought March 11 and declared unfit on March 29. A silky black and brown pup with a white blaze between the eyes, Jack waged a battle for his life that involved nebulization, oxygen and intravenous medications, records show.

Reitberger's daughter, Lisa Querrazzi of Clintondale, took him home April 1, hoping she and her fiancé Jane DiDonato could maintain his health there. The pup was so fragile that, like Karen Kessler and her bulldog, she felt it could jeopardize the dog's health to have a photographer shoot a picture.

Doyle, the Puppies & Kittens owner, had a simple solution to the thousands in bills racked up by these customers: let one of his four vets treat the dogs.

"They didn't have to pay that money. They chose to," he said. Care would have been free, he said, "if they pulled the dog ... They could bring the dog to the vet and there would be no bill — they just don't believe in that system."

Reitberger said when Jack got sick, she was told by the store manager only to bring him back for nebulization — "never that a vet would take care of him for free." But "he was beyond a vet; he had to go to a hospital."

And when the terrier with parvovirus turned critically ill, Arnold and her family did seek care through the store, they said. But it was the Saturday night before Easter, and the vet's office was closed, they were told.

One owner, Maureen Feltman of Cold Spring, said she was reimbursed by the store for veterinary care of her Shih Tzu-Bichon mix, Jingles; the puppy died about a week after purchase last October of parvovirus, leaving Feltman, 71, bereft. She was one of six owners to get money back from the store on the dog's cost (one did not pursue a refund).

A veterinarian who provides services to Doyle's local store, Dr. Jay Weiss, said he sees all store pups after arrival and rules few unfit. "In my experience, they do as well as they can with the 8-week-old puppies that they have," he said of the store.

The Yorkie, meantime, named Sawyer by her former owner, Franceschini, was nursed back to health and adopted from the SPCA, officials said.

"The vet said this is going to be a long process ... with multiple vet visits, multiple medications," Franceschini said. "I thought bringing him back would get the care that he needed, and that wasn't the case."

Doyle was ordered as part of his guilty plea to pay Franceschini $922, among $2,140 in restitution to three customers. (The store manager, Elizabeth Mesquita, denied it was being offered for sale when seized.)

Jessica Segal, a Dutchess County senior assistant district attorney who prosecuted the pet-store case, said Doyle met the terms of his plea deal. "He took it seriously, he did have a vet on staff, and he didn't have any more complaints," she said.

To avoid such cases, animal-welfare advocates are pushing for stronger local laws. New York City recently enacted an ordinance that would ban puppy stores from buying from breeders with high-level violations or through intermediary brokers that sometimes shield where puppies are from.

Howard, the protection society president who helped pass the city law, said sale of "puppy mill" pups should be banned completely — a provision state law forbids, or preempts, localities from enacting.

"Preemption must be completely overturned," she said, "so that municipalities can mandate that pet shops not sell puppies, kittens unless they are from rescue organizations or shelters."


Holly, a Labrador retriever, was purchased at Puppies & Kittens Jan. 4 and hospitalized Jan. 6 for pneumonia, veterinary records show. This photo was taken during hospital treatment. The dog’s $1,400 cost was refunded. Holly is now five months old and doing well. (Photo: Christina Antolino/courtesy photo)





Holly, a Labrador retriever purchased Jan. 4, was hospitalized Jan. 6 for pneumonia, veterinary records show. The $1,400 cost of the dog was refunded. Shown here in February, Holly is now five months old and doing well. (Photo: Christina Antolino/courtesy photo)




This sick Yorkshire terrier was seized in 2011 by the SPCA from the Puppies & Kittens store in Wappingers Falls, SPCA officials said. The store owner, Richard Doyle, pleaded guilty to one count of selling a diseased animal and met conditions to provide better care, officials said. (Photo: SPCA/courtesy photo)





Lisa Querrazzi and her fiancé Jane DiDonato of Clintondale were joyful when they brought home a two-month-old Australian shepherd they named Jack on March 15. The dog was declared “unfit for purchase” on March 29 due to pneumonia; its cost was refunded but vet bills have run into the thousands. (Photo: Lisa Querrazzi/courtesy photo)





An Australian shepherd, Jack, purchased in March from Puppies & Kittens, is nebulized by his owner Lisa Querrazzi of Clintondale a day after release from a veterinary hospital. She preferred taking her own photo rather than allowing a photographer near the dog, whose condition was “guarded,” she said. (Photo: Lisa Querrazzi/courtesy photo)




Chase, a 14-month-old Shi Tzu-poodle mix, gets his belly scratched by owner Lena DiSiena of LaGrangeville. The puppy was diagnosed with kennel cough soon after purchase from The Pet Zone in the Town of Poughkeepsie, where officials refunded $855 for care. The store is currently in compliance with state regulations, records show. (Photo: Alex H. Wagner/Poughkeepsie Journal)






Lena DiSiena of LaGrangeville poses with Chase, a 14-month-old Shi Tzu-poodle mix. The puppy was diagnosed with kennel cough soon after purchase from The Pet Zone in the Town of Poughkeepsie, where officials refunded $855 for care. The store is currently in compliance with state regulations, inspection records show. (Photo: Alex H. Wagner/Poughkeepsie Journal)






Rosie, an eight-month-old Maltese, was diagnosed with digestive and respiratory problems shortly after purchase last September from Puppies & Kittens in Wappingers Falls and declared “unfit for purchase.” She poses with her owner, Bethany Wise, 20, of the Town of Poughkeepsie. The store is currently in compliance with state regulations, inspection records show. (Photo: Alex H. Wagner/Poughkeepsie Journal)





Rosie, an eight-month-old Maltese puppy, chews on a small piece of wood in her owner's home in Poughkeepsie. She has recovered from a digestive issue just after purchase. (Photo: Alex H. Wagner/Poughkeepsie Journal)





Sara Mazzella, 20, of New Paltz, and J.T. Ferraro, 21, of Highland, check out a French bulldog, priced at $2,499 at the Puppies & Kittens pet store in Wappingers Falls. They later adopted a rescue dog. (Photo: Mary Beth Pfeiffer/Poughkeepsie Journal)




Muffin, a 14-week-old terrier mix, was purchased March 25; she is shown here before she became ill and was hospitalized with parvovirus, her records show. The Puppies & Kittens store, which is violation-free, refunded her $899 purchase price, her owner said. (Photo: Geniene Arnold/courtesy photo)




Muffin, a 14-week-old terrier mix, is shown at a veterinary hospital last week, where she was being treated for life-threatening parvovirus, according to medical records. The Puppies & Kittens store refunded her $899 purchase price, her owner said. (Photo: Geniene Arnold/courtesy photo)
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