A pet store or breeder has just sold you a dog, and you have already fallen in love with it. Your new pet soon seems lethargic or stumbles when walking.
Upon visiting the vet, you discover that the animal is sick or parasitized. Eventually, you may find that your dog has a congenital defect that requires expensive treatment.
Does the seller have a legal responsibility? The answer will vary depending on your state’s laws, the seller’s description of the animal, when you discovered the issue, and what you did.
Is There a Warranty on Pets?
Most Americans consider their pets as family members, but problems related to pet purchases often boil down to contract disputes. According to state versions of the Uniform Commercial Code, which governs sales by merchants and gives dissatisfied buyers certain rights, companion animals are considered “goods.”. Breeders, pet stores, and anyone who regularly sells pets are considered merchants.
When you buy something from a merchant, you receive an implied warranty of merchantability – meaning that the goods are fit for their ordinary purpose. This generally means that companion animals are healthy. In addition, if the seller has advertised or recommended the animal for a particular purpose – like a guard dog or hunting dog – there is an implied warranty that it can fulfill that function.
If a merchant explicitly promises you something about the animal you buy, such as that it is a certain breed or trained to compete in field trials, you may also have an express warranty.
You may sue a pet dealer or breeder for a refund or replacement if you believe they violated an implied or express warranty. Small claims court might be an option if you aren’t seeking more than your state’s small claims dollar limit.
“Lemon Laws” for Pets
More than 20 states recognize the special status of companion animals by passing laws that provide extra protection to people who buy unhealthy dogs. A buyer must promptly notify the seller of the problem and a veterinarian’s certification that the animal had an illness or disease before purchase.
A refund or another similar animal may be offered to the owner if the pet is returned. Some states offer a third option: keep the pet and get reimbursement for some of the veterinary treatment costs associated with the preexisting illness. California caps reimbursement at 150 percent of the purchase price, which is higher than most states.
Beyond these standard outlines, the laws vary considerably from state to state.
The majority of pet lemon laws cover cats and dogs, while a few cover other pets (like ferrets in New Hampshire or all domestic animals in Virginia).
The time allowed for notifying the seller differs, usually from 10 to 14 days. It may take owners up to a year to give this notice if they discover their pets have congenital or hereditary conditions.
In some states, buyers can recoup some costs related to the vet’s certification or emergency treatment, even after returning the animals.
While some lemon laws (such as Pennsylvania’s) don’t apply if the animal had parasites at the time of purchase, others (such as Florida’s) specifically include parasites other than fleas and ticks.
In most cases, laws apply to animal breeders and pet dealers, but hobby breeders who sell a few puppies yearly are often exempt.
Pet lemon laws should make it easier to get some satisfaction than contract laws. Nevertheless, these laws have serious limitations.
It is possible that you will not discover the problem with your new pet by the deadline for notifying the seller.
The thought of returning your new companion animal as if it were a faulty appliance may put you off even if you find out in time. It is also possible to worry about what will happen to the pet after you return it since breeders and dealers usually euthanize sick animals. But if you would like to keep your new pet, veterinary bills can easily exceed the maximum reimbursement.
Internet Sales Should Be Handled With Caution
If you buy a pet online and it turns out to be unhealthy, you may have trouble suing the seller or getting compensation. When the buyer and seller are located in different states or even countries, courts have a difficult time determining the proper jurisdiction (meaning where the lawsuit should take place).
Protecting Yourself and Your New Pet
When you purchase a dog or other companion animal, you should take several steps to protect your rights.
It is important to get a written sales agreement that includes a guarantee of the animal’s health (or discloses any health problems), its history, training, pedigree, and any special training the animal has received.
Even if your new pet seems healthy, take it to the vet within a week.
Immediately take the animal to the vet if it becomes ill. If it dies, take the body to a vet to see if it died of a condition that the seller should have known of. Keep all of your vet’s records.
As soon as a vet diagnoses the problem, notify the seller. A reputable dealer or breeder will usually offer a refund or exchange without any legal action on your part.
When I Buy a Dog from a Store, Do I Have any Recourse if the Animal Gets Sick or Dies?
When it comes to unhealthy or dying dogs, there are two types of laws. In general, disclosure laws and lemon laws are two kinds of laws:
- Disclosure Laws: These laws require sellers to disclose facts about a dog’s health, age, origin, and immunization history. Some states require sellers to show prospective buyers a health certificate upon request for any dog sale.
- Dog Lemon Laws: These laws provide recourse for the buyer instead of policing the seller in the same way car lemon laws do. There are about 20 states that allow pet owners who have been sold sick or dying pets to:
- Exchange a dog for another, along with reimbursement for vet fees
- Reimburse reasonable expenses associated with trying to cure the animal
- Return the pet and receive a full refund if a veterinarian signs a certificate saying it had a congenital disease when purchased
How Can I Avoid These Problems?
There are several ways to avoid getting a sick or dying dog:
- Provide a veterinarian with the dog’s health information, including immunization records, background information, and a health certificate.
- It is best to purchase from a reputable or known breeder.
- Consider getting your dog from a shelter. Public and private shelters are very concerned about the health of the dogs that leave their care. If the animal deteriorates in any way, these organizations offer free or reduced-cost vet visits.
- Consider joining a rescue group. In addition, these groups are extremely concerned about ensuring that all the dogs they advertise are healthy and disease-free. A local humane society league usually sponsors them and certifies the animals’ health as well.
If I Purchased a Sick or Dying Dog, Should I Contact a Lawyer?
You may be entitled to a refund or exchange, depending on your state. A defective products lawyer experienced in consumer protection and fraud can determine whether your state’s laws offer you any protection. If the store where you purchased your dog is unwilling to work with you, an attorney can also assist you in recovering costs.