Buying a Pet? Buyer Beware

Several months ago, a client came in with a new puppy he had purchased from a “reputable private breeder”. The owner had several concerns about the pup, including a lump on his belly that turned out to be an umbilical hernia. While this condition is both common and treatable, the veterinarian who had declared him fit for sale had not noted the problem on the youngster’s health certificate, as is required by law. The only comment in the space reserved for veterinary findings was “testicles not descended” - right underneath the gender section where the puppy had been declared “female”. While I took great pains to keep my mouth shut, something about my body language must have betrayed my thoughts to the owner. “I know,” he muttered, “the whole thing just looks shady. I mean, look at the spot where the vet is supposed to sign. It’s just a rubber stamp of his signature. How can I trust him to take a good look at my puppy when he can’t even be bothered to write his name?” Ouch. If you plan to purchase a pet this summer, make sure the seller includes a Certificate of Veterinary Inspection for Sale of Dog or Cat. It is also wise to be an educated consumer and familiarize yourself with the contents of this document, for your own protection, as well as that of your new pet.

According to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Protection, dogs and puppies for sale must be vaccinated against Canine Distemper, Hepatitis, Leptospirosis, Parainfluenza and Parvovirus. If the dog is over three months of age, a Rabies shot must be given as well. This vaccine must be given by a licensed veterinarian. Dogs and puppies must also be tested for intestinal parasites, and dewormers must be given. Dogs older than six months of age must also be tested for heartworm disease. Cats and kittens must be vaccinated against Panleukopenia, Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis, and Calici Virus. Cats older than three months of age must be vaccinated against Rabies by a licensed veterinarian. All information on the vaccines administered, including type, manufacturer, expiration date, and date of administration, must be legibly displayed on each certificate. The inspecting vet may exempt the pet from certain vaccines if they feel it is in the pet’s best interest. Cats and kittens must also be tested for intestinal parasites and de-wormed. While not specifically mentioned in the statute, I would never recommend buying a kitten or cat that had not been tested for Feline Leukemia and FIV. Pets sold in Miami-Dade County are also required to be implanted with a microchip.

It is important to note that when a seller assures a prospective buyer that a puppy or kitten is “up to date on all his shots”, what he means is “up to date on all his shots as of this particular moment in time.” All puppies and kittens, as well as some adult dogs and cats, require multiple vaccine boosters to reach full immunity. These boosters are the responsibility of the buyer, not the seller. I have heard many ugly phone conversations between buyers and sellers in my exam room over this simple, yet common misunderstanding. Your pet is at risk for all sorts of nasty diseases until these boosters have been completed. Tests for intestinal parasites should be repeated as well, as parasites can persist, even after routine de-wormers are given.

Veterinarians are not permitted to sign health certificates for pets displaying clinical signs of illness. However it is important to note that some diseases, such as Canine Distemper, can incubate for up to 21 days! These dogs can pass multiple health exams with flying colors, only to fall gravely ill several weeks later. These cases are heartbreaking, but they are nobody’s fault. Veterinarians can however, sign a certificate for a pet with a congenital defect, provided that 1) it is not severe enough to render the animal unfit for sale, and 2) the anomaly is noted by the veterinarian on the health certificate. Many umbilical hernias fall into this category, as do retained deciduous or “baby” teeth, luxating patellas (kneecaps), and severe overbites. If the pet you are interested in has problems noted on its certificate, the seller may offer to drop the price, have the problem corrected by his own vet at his own expense, or pay a portion of your bill if your vet does the work. Understand what you may be getting into, and don’t be afraid to negotiate.

Once your purchase has been made, the law states you have 14 days to take your new pet to the veterinarian of your choosing for a post-purchase exam. If the newbie is deemed unfit for purchase at the time of sale, you have several options available. The pet can be returned, exchanged, or a portion of veterinary bills stemming from treatment of certain conditions can be billed to the seller. The seller cannot be billed for an amount greater than the purchase price of the pet. For more detailed information, please visit the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Protection’s very informative page here. For extreme cases involving pets with severe congenital problems, you may able to seek redress under Florida’s Pet Lemon Law. Click here for more information on how to take action on behalf of a severely ill pet.

Finally, if a seller is attempting to sell you a puppy or kitten without a health certificate, run. Just run. Folks selling animals on Craigslist, by word of mouth, or from the backs of pickup trucks on Krome Avenue are NOT licensed, registered, conscientious breeders! They are merely contributing the problem of pet overpopulation in our country, and their behavior should not be rewarded with money. If you are presented with a health certificate that looks suspicious, don’t be afraid to ask questions. To the surprise of my client who expressed concern over the signature stamp, this practice is, in fact, perfectly legally. I too, worry that they fail to convey a personal touch, and may even convey a tacit implication of shoddy work, but vets who choose to use them are probably not cutting corners. That being said, the female-with-retained-testicles designation... I’m just going to walk away from that one.

But not before I leave you with one last tidbit. Nearly thirty percent of the dogs in our shelters are purebreds! Contrary to the belief that shelter dogs are “projects”, many of these animals were surrendered for reasons that had nothing to do with their behavior or temperament. You may want to try to adopt before you shop.

Do you have a question for Dr. Kupkee? Click here to send him an email. And check out some of these great deals and discounts exclusively for NBC 6 fans!

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