While out on walks in Dallas’ Uptown, people often stop Alison Roche to ask about her brown, dapple, floppy-eared dachshund.
“Where did you get him?”
She fills with guilt.
Alison Roche said she bought Winston when he was just the size of her sneaker — 2.8 pounds — at a Dallas pet store. Within a week of taking him home, he was so sick that a vet thought he could die.
The Dallas City Council on Wednesday could consider stopping sales like Winston’s, meaning pet stores would be banned from selling cats or dogs. Residents and animal welfare organizations proposed the ban about five months ago. Dallas would be the last major Texas city to enact such a regulation, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
Five states and over 400 localities have enacted the Humane Pet Store Ordinance, said John Goodwin of the Humane Society.
If the City Council passes the change, a North Dallas Petland franchise — the city’s only store selling dogs — would be forced to close, depriving the city of tax revenue, Elizabeth Kunzelman, vice president of legislative and public affairs at Petland, said in an email responding to questions on behalf of the store. Owner Jay Suk invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to care for puppies, which account for over 75% of his sales, she said.
Advocates say a pet sales ban would cut off support for puppy mills, or places that breed mothers at every opportunity and cage dogs in small, unclean pens and then drive them in cramped quarters to stores. They also say it would save customers from the emotional and financial toll of spending thousands on sick dogs sold at inflated prices.
A ban would instead encourage dog buyers to consider alternatives like small-scale breeders, rescues and often overflowing animal shelters to adopt pets, advocates say.
Dana Taylor spoke in opposition to the ban at a January public meeting and said her family has bought three dogs from the Dallas Petland.
“Why would I go back a second and third time if I’d had a bad experience?” she asked.
She said employees “handle the dogs beautifully” and she didn’t feel rushed while buying a dog.
Energetic puppies wrestle and yap while others nap with their tiny paws up against display windows at the Dallas Petland store, which can feature between 50 and 60 of them at a time.
Puppy playrooms are available for customers to meet and interact with the puppies while staff talk about their family, home environment and whether the dog will be a good fit.
Sunny breeding facilities that offer outdoor time and have spacious, clean kennels are advertised on the store’s website.
Suk said part of his business is vetting breeders and avoiding those that have had federal violations in the past two years.
But federal licensing isn’t enough to keep mill puppies out of stores, said Goodwin, senior director of the Humane Society’s campaign to stop such operations.
“You and I both have driver’s licenses, but that’s no guarantee that we’re good drivers,” he said.
Goodwin said “abysmal” regulations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture allow breeders to keep dogs in such poor conditions that regular pet owners would face legal trouble if they did the same.
The Department of Agriculture is the only federal agency that licenses and inspects dog breeders and it has minimum standards, said Kunzelman, of Petland. She said responsible breeders go beyond that baseline and have climate-controlled kennels, play yards and dedicated socialization. She said Petland has pushed for increased regulations.
“Pets are part of our families,” Kunzelman said. “They deserve the protection of regulatory oversight, greater transparency and humane standards of care.”
But while there’s a push for increased regulations, advocates say dogs contract illnesses during their transport to pet stores and some show up with genetic issues from irresponsible breeding.
Kunzelman said that in 2020, out of over 2,000 puppies sold, there were only 13 claims for hereditary or congenital issues and 11 for upper respiratory issues like kennel cough. A claim arises when a customer calls Petland and starts the process of following a health warranty through reimbursement for veterinary care or a replacement puppy.
The store on Preston Road says it buys only from federally regulated and responsible breeders. Suk said the ordinance would result in pet sales going toward puppy mills and shady online dealers.
Suk said he doesn’t want to support puppy mills or be forced out of his business of over 13 years.
”I want to get rid of the puppy mills and I’ll be happy to work with you,” he said at a January meeting. “You’re part of the solution. Getting rid of one store … will not solve the problem you are trying to solve.”
‘I fell in love’
Roche said she had a frustrating time finding a puppy until she saw the Dallas Petland store’s website. She was impressed with the warranty it offered and reviews about dogs from legitimate breeders.
Winston cost nearly triple what Roche would’ve paid a breeder for a dachshund.
But for $5,500, she thought she’d have a good experience, a healthy dog and the convenience of not being on a breeder’s waitlist, she said.
Roche said when she pointed out Winston had a cough, an employee told her the store’s vet said he was fine.
”I was holding him in my arms and I fell in love, so I caved,” Roche said. She signed a contract and took him home.
The next day, Roche said, he was still coughing and she took him to the store’s vet and got medicine for kennel cough. When it persisted, she took him to a different vet.
Then, one morning, Winston was gasping for air.
“On day six he turned,” Roche said.
She said Winston stayed at the vet for three days and he was believed to have distemper. It also cost her about $1,500.
“For those first two months, it was very touch and go and I was like, ‘am I going to wake up and my dog not be alive?’” Roche said.
‘At their mercy’
Roche said she was fortunate to be able to afford to take Winston to another vet and she qualified for a three-year, low-interest store credit card that she’s still paying off.
Advocates say other customers take out high-interest loans to buy puppies and then are saddled with more debt and subject to the store’s policies if the dog is sick.
Dominique Conners, the store’s sales manager, said it’s important for customers to be well informed, and most choose a store credit card — maximum interest of 29.99% — which is common at retail stores.
”We make it to where there’s no way a customer can not know because they have to sign everything themselves,” Conners said.
Randy Turner, a Fort Worth animal law attorney, said he’s frustrated with the number of calls — one or more a week — he gets from people who have bought animals — many of them sick — at pet stores and have few recourses.
“They love their dogs, and no, they don’t want to replace them,” Turner said. “But under a lot of these contracts, that’s all we get.”
Turner said the problem stems from pet store contracts that are designed to protect the business.
In Texas, Turner said, unless a contract is against public policy or unlawful, consumers can enter into agreements that offer limited rights or remedies and absolve the retailer from responsibility for damages and reimbursement.
He said Texas doesn’t have a “puppy lemon law” to protect customers. Stores only have to abide by the Texas Penal Code, which makes it illegal to torture or neglect an animal, he said.
Most lawyers won’t take customers’ cases, he said, and customers can’t afford the costs after spending thousands on vet bills.
”When you walk into a pet store to buy a dog, you’re kind of at their mercy, and you just better hope that you have good luck,” Turner said. “Not all the animals they sell are sick and diseased and have congenital defects.”
When new owners can’t afford veterinary care for sick pets, they’re showing up at animal rescues, Dallas DogRRR president Patti Dawson said.
Ken Malcolmson, CEO of the North Dallas Chamber of Commerce, said the ordinance would not accomplish its goal to stop bad breeders.
“There’s nothing we think is worse than a puppy mill,” Malcolmson said.
Thirty employees would lose their jobs at Dallas Petland if the law passed, he said, and the city would miss out on tax revenue from a legitimate business.
Kunzelman has said Suk paid over $2.4 million in sales tax revenues to Dallas over the last three years.
Advocates say other alternatives exist for people who want a puppy — like rescues and small-scale breeders.
Dallas’ animal shelter, which has reached capacity, also encourages adoption as a first choice when looking for a pet, said Marlo Clingman, interim spokeswoman for Dallas Animal Services.
“Make sure that you’ve looked through all of your options for adopting a rescue pet,” she said, “a pet that really needs a home before you look elsewhere.”
Winston ultimately pulled through from the illness that turned out not to be distemper. But he likely had a severe respiratory infection, Roche said. She was unhappy with the customer service she received at Dallas Petland and didn’t go forward with being reimbursed. Petland says it received a claim and reached out to her but did not receive a response.
Because Roche didn’t go through a rescue, she said she cringes when people ask her how she got Winston.
“I can finally talk about it without bursting into tears,” Roche said. “But it’s been a roller coaster.”