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Attorney general wants more bite in "puppy lemon law."

By Gil Smart
Sunday News

Published: Apr 10, 2005 12:35 AM EST

LANCASTER COUNTY, PA - In the wake of continued problems with sick dogs at one local kennel, Pennsylvania lawmakers might soon consider beefing up the state's "puppy lemon law."

In a March 7 letter to state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a Bucks County Republican, Attorney General Thomas Corbett wrote that "While enforcing the 'Puppy Lemon' law, we have come across businesses in Pennsylvania that are circumventing the intended protections" of the law, including those selling dogs that initially appear to be healthy but suffer serious illnesses after consumers get them home. Because some of those illnesses become apparent after the period during which buyers can be compensated by the sellers, "consumers often incur thousands of dollars in veterinary costs that they cannot recover from the seller."

That has happened in several cases over the past few months involving dogs purchased from Puppy Love kennel in Peach Bottom.

Nearly two dozen complaints about the kennel were forwarded to Corbett's office by a New Jersey-based animal welfare group that has acted as a clearinghouse of information on Pennsylvania "puppy mills." Among the complainants is Jim Smith of New Castle, Del., who bought a yellow Labrador retriever from Puppy Love in late December; the dog subsequently was diagnosed with pneumonia, roundworms and tapeworms, tested positive for the canine distemper virus, and had to be put down after Smith said he spent more than $1,800 on veterinary care.

Several others said the money they spent on vet bills exceeded what they paid for the dogs; the current law, however, limits the amount of restitution to the price paid for the dog, and then, only if the buyer contacts the seller within 30 days of the initial sale.

Corbett wants to change both provisions, along with several others; Greenleaf, who in 1997 was a champion of the original Dog Purchaser Protection Act, said he will introduce legislation to toughen the law soon.

"We want to take away the economic incentive to breed and sell dogs that are sick," said Greenleaf.

In addition to compensating consumers for actual out-of-pocket veterinary expenses and extending the time period to identify illnesses, Corbett asked Greenleaf to consider extending the time period for veterinary exams; now the law requires a dog buyer who winds up with a sick dog to get a certification of the illness from a vet within 10 days of purchase. But this, said Corbett spokeswoman Barbara Petito, is impractical for consumers who live out of state and buy a dog here, or whose animals don't show signs of sickness until the deadline has passed.

The attorney general also wants to extend the time period for consumers to notify and provide the veterinary certification to sellers - buyers now must notify the seller within two days, and provide the certification within five days - and wants sellers to provide full restitution to buyers who have been misled about a dog's purebred status. Currently, the law requires sellers to refund 50 percent of the purchase price.

Greenleaf, however, said the attorney general's letter amounts to a "wish list," and the legislation he introduces may not include all of the wishes.

But Greenleaf could take it even further. Perhaps it is time, he said, to consider having another agency regulate the dog industry. Currently, it's overseen by the Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Dog Law; "We might want to look at [a different department] to enforce that law, instead of agriculture," he said.

The dog industry may resist the changes. Ken Brandt, a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Pet Breeders Association, said he believed that any new legislation might be an overreaction: "The real question is, how many complaints did [the attorney general's office] actually get under in regards to the puppy lemon law," Brandt said. "I talk to my people and they scratch their heads" few, he said, have had buyers complain because they got sick dogs.

"There's no use fixing something that isn't broke," said Brandt.

Petito said Corbett's letter was prompted by the fact that with some retailers, sick dogs "were not the exception they became the rule."

"It's very easy to run up a vet bill of $500 to $600 in an emergency," she said; consumers, the attorney general believes, should be compensated in full when that happens.

Mike Winters, a local attorney who has represented dog purchasers as well as sellers including Puppy Love said that any changes designed to ensure that dogs are healthy should be welcomed by both sides since it should reduce consumer dissatisfaction.

"On the other hand," he notes, "a seller cannot be expected to provide an unlimited guarantee for conditions that were not reasonably foreseeable at the time of sale."

Originally published April 10, 2005 at Lancaster Online
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