Why Are Pets Disappearing From Pet Stores?

The interior of a pet store window, circa 1957. Harold M. Lambert/Getty Images

How much is that doggie in the window? Uh, what doggie? With the rise of pet adoptions and rescue options, today there are  fewer dogs for sale in major U.S. pet stores. 

That's not to say we don't spend on our doggies. United States pet owners spend tons and TONS, actually. The American Pet Products Association estimates spending of more than $60 billion on pets in 2015 (up from more than $58 billion in 2014, and almost double the amount of only 10 years ago). So if spending at pet stores is so high, why is it less likely that money will be spent on an actual cat or dog from the same store?


Well, findings from the 2015-2016 National Pet Owners Survey show that more than 10 percent of the recorded 79.7 million pet-owning households are new pet owners, the majority of which are under age 50. There's also been a slight decrease in pet ownership over the last two years. According to the survey, which broke populations into age groups, those in the Gen X and Gen Y (or Millennial) groups tend to pamper and spend more on their pets than their parents and grandparents in the Boomer generation – the age group that started the humanization and indulging of pets.

While this humanization – treating cats and dogs as members of the family – could be part of the reason for the decline of pet sales, Elizabeth Oreck, national manager of the Best Friends Animal Society's Puppy Mills Initiative, thinks it has more to do with a general shift in where people choose to get pets today. “[The decline] can be attributed partly to the abundance of legislation regulating pet store sales and partly to increased public awareness about the reality of puppy mills,” she says.

Best Friends defines a puppy mill as a commercial dog breeding operation where profit takes priority over the health, comfort and welfare of the dogs. 

“Although these facilities are regulated by the USDA, the minimum federal standards imposed on breeders don't ensure a humane life for dogs, or promote responsible breeding,” Oreck says. “These kennels can legally have hundreds of dogs in one facility, and confine them to tiny, crowded cages for their entire lives, breeding them continuously to produce as many puppies as possible for the pet trade. Nearly all puppies sold in traditional pet stores come from puppy mills.”

Oreck says she also believes the public's understanding about the number of homeless animals, and the benefits of pet adoption, have had a significant impact, as well.

Jennifer Naujoakus, an Angels Among Us Animal Rescue volunteer and animal advocate in Atlanta agrees. “I believe education as it relates to animal rescue, the breeding industry and horrors of pet stores have dictated where people get their pets these days,” she says. “Twenty to 30 years ago, a 'rescue' dog might have been taboo, when the truth is, the majority of animals sitting in shelters are ideal pets.”

Programs like Best Friends Puppy Mill Initiatives and the Humane Society of the United States Puppy-Friendly Pet Stores aim to spread the word about the inhumane aspects of puppy mills, and their ties to the retail pet trade.

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Pet stores are more likely these days to sell toys, food and supplies than they are the pets themselves.
Karen Strauss/Getty Images

“Unsuspecting customers who purchase a cute puppy in the pet store window aren't seeing the suffering endured by the parents of that puppy,” Oreck says. “They're not aware of the inbreeding, overbreeding and sub-standard breeding that have gone into that puppy, and so they are usually unprepared for the health issues that afflict so many pet store puppies.”

Retail stores that sell puppies and kittens would likely disagree, although none that HowStuffWorks reached out to would speak on the record about the business of selling animals for profit.

But selling pets for profit could change, or stop altogether, if local legislation continues to pass across the United States. Currently, more than 85 communities have passed ordinances that ban pet stores from selling dogs, cats and rabbits unless the animals come from shelters or rescue groups. The bans are designed to not only help alleviate the stresses of taking on new animals on local animal shelters, but also to help shut down puppy mills.