Pinellas County bans new stores selling dogs and cats

The Pinellas County Commission voted Tuesday to prohibit any new stores that sell dogs and cats, following surrounding local governments that recently moved to address animal welfare.

But the commission did not grant welfare advocates’ pleas to shutter the six stores currently selling puppies in the county. Instead the ordinance will impose heightened regulations on them, like requiring the posting of medical history and information on where each pet came from.

The ordinance comes six months after the commission enacted a moratorium on new stores so Pinellas County Animal Services could research the industry. On Tuesday, Director Doug Brightwell said it is clear the US Department of Agriculture is failing to monitor and regulate the well-being of animals that are bred in operations out of state and transported to stores in Florida.

“It’s an industry that is very complex that needs answers at different levels of government,” Commissioner Dave Eggers said. “We can only do so much, and I think it’s about being responsive to concerns from our residents, but at the same time being responsive to business owners that are doing things the right way.”

The ordinance passed 6-1 with Commissioner Pat Gerard voting no. Gerard said she disagreed with grandfathering in the six existing stores and the provision allowing them to relocate and sell their businesses as long as they don’t expand.

The ordinance will apply only to stores and excludes hobby breeders: at-home breeders who sell less than two litters or 20 animals per year, whichever is greater.

Hillsborough County voted in 2020 to ban pet retail sales, applying the rule to the three stores existing at the time. Manatee County did the same, applying the ban to three stores. When Pasco County banned pet retail sales in 2020, it grandfathered in one existing shop.

But Pinellas commissioners were reluctant to close existing stores in the county since online sales are not regulated. Commissioner Kathleen Peters noted reports that some rescues across the US have also bought from puppy mills to resell and wanted to know if that was happening in Pinellas.

Brightwell said he confirmed that, of the 3,400 puppies sold in the six Pinellas shops since January 2021, all came from out-of-state breeders or brokers. He couldn’t confirm whether they came from puppy mills because he declined to nail down the definition of what’s anecdotally described as abusive warehouses that mass-produce dogs.

But Martha Boden, CEO of SPCA Tampa Bay, noted that the abuse at large-scale breeding operations is well-documented and that retail stores help prop up that industry.

“In fact these businesses are helping to create the demand for mass-produced puppies by misrepresenting what has happened to those animals, their parents and their siblings before they even arrived at the store,” Boden said.

The issue generated an emotional and heated debate Tuesday, with more than two hours of comments from opponents and advocates of the ban, who traded accusations about the breeding and rescue industries.

Representatives from Sunshine Puppies and All About Puppies warned that banning retail stores would strengthen black-market sales. They also said they have visited the sites of all their suppliers to ensure welfare standards.

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“If shutting down every pet shop would shut down every puppy mill, then I’d be for shutting down every single pet shop, but that’s not what’s happening,” said Dan Cohn, owner of Sunshine Puppies, with locations in Clearwater and Largo.

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