opinion | Massachusetts pet leasing settlement points to an inhumane practice

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Why on earth would anyone want to rent a pet?

The answer, of course, is that almost no one wants to rent their pet.

Yet last week, the state of Massachusetts came to an almost $1 million settlement with a financial services firm that the attorney general’s office said was leasing dogs in violation of state law, in cases involving hundreds of people.

First, some background: In addition to Massachusetts, seven other states (California, Connecticut, Indiana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York and Washington) have enacted bans on pet-leasing since 2017. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), another state, Illinois, has broader restrictions on the financing of pet sales.

That leaves swaths of the country where it’s legal to lease Lassie, much as you might rent a car.

The ethical quagmire of leased pets intersects with our hyper-capitalist society’s shortcomings on consumer protections — meaning that if there is money to be made, someone will try, and the enterprise might well be legal, even if it involves threatening to sic the repo man on Rover.

People generally acquire pet dogs or cats by adopting from a shelter or rescue group, usually for a minimal fee, or buying from a pet store or breeder. The latter acquisitions are often of puppies or kittens, and with dogs many times pure breeds or designer mutts, such as doodle dogs. These sorts of pet purchases can run into thousands of dollars.

Pet-leasing is a nasty spin on buying. The practice originated about a decade ago — a twist on subprime borrowing for people with poor credit and little cash who fell so in love with the puppy in the window that they were not inclined to read the fine print on Spot’s “financing.”

One common issue involves consumer consent. According to the American Pet Products Association, 9 percent of dogs and 8 percent of cats are purchased in pet stores. Some retailers — precisely how many is unclear, as there are no official statistics — offer people a “financing” strategy that is, in reality, not a high-interest loan but a lease. Many buyers do not realize they are leasing until there is a problem. In other words, these practices are often deceptive.

Technically, a pet lease is not significantly different from a car lease. Under such agreements, borrowers do not become owners until all the payments have been made (and a final balloon payment is typical). Fail to remit the monthly tab, and the property — or “product,” as some contracts describe the animals — can be repossessed.

These leasing agreements generally aren’t cheap. Because a lease is not a credit agreement, it may not be subject to state laws that cap interest rates. People can ultimately pay two to three times the original price of the pet over the course of the contract — sometimes more. That’s predatory.

But the bottom-line moral issue is that the pet’s human companion lacks full control over the animal.

Pet ownership can feel, and be, complicated. Radical animal welfare and rights groups pushed several years ago to replace references such as pet “owner” with phrases like “dog guardians.” That didn’t really catch on, in part because the terminology defied reality. You might call Fifi or Fido a companion, your daughter or son, or even your “favorite child,” yet under the law, a domesticated cat or dog, no matter how well loved, is considered property.

This is the legal and emotional terrain that pet-leasing exploits.

The ASPCA said this week that it was unaware of cases in which a pet had actually been seized for nonpayment. (Jennie Lintz, director of the ASPCA’s puppy mill initiative, told me in an email, “It is not clear these companies really want to be in the business of trying to resell a three-year-old dog.”) Yet several pet owners have publicly said that bill collectors threatened to reclaim their beloved pooch unless they handed over some cash.

That’s financial exploitation and emotional abuse of people and their pets.

When I reached out to Monterey Financial Services LLC, the California-based company that recently settled with Massachusetts, a spokesperson denied wrongdoing and said that the company settled only “to move away from the issue to best serve our clients.” It has “never repossessed … nor threatened to repossess a pet,” the company added.

The Massachusetts settlement included an agreement to transfer full ownership of the dogs involved to hundreds of state residents. That’s a step in the right direction. But no company, in any state, should be able to financially squeeze a family pet over a credit dispute. Not only should other states ban animal leasing, but Congress should restrict the practice as well.

Yes, dogs and cats are property, but they are also living, breathing creatures. Man’s best friends deserve better.

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