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Retail: An Ugly Reality

In Spring 2007, API went undercover to document conditions in 64 randomly-selected pet stores in California that sold live animals. The stores were located in four major metropolitan areas: Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Here's what we saw:

Unsanitary Conditions

Many animals in pet shops are denied the most basic aspect of decent care: a clean, safe environment. Filthy cages and enclosures encrusted with feces were an all-too-common sight in the pet stores our investigator visited. Such a lack of sanitation can expose animals to bacteria, viruses, or fungi that can cause illness or death and that can also pose public health and safety risks to humans. Diseases that can be transmitted from animals in pet shops to humans include salmonellosis, ringworm, scabies, psittacosis, and lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus.

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Injury, Illness, and Neglect

Our investigator witnessed sick and apparently neglected animals in many pet stores. Because the cost of veterinary consultation and treatment can exceed the commercial value of an animal, there is a huge incentive for pet shop owners to deny animals the necessary treatment — meaning that animals, such as the parakeet hidden behind the trash can, are simply left to suffer or even die from untreated illnesses or injuries.

Signs of injury or illness include limping, excessive fur or feather loss, lethargy, discharge from nostrils or eyes, accumulation of feces on feathers or fur, regular sneezing, heavy breathing, or (in birds) inability to perch.

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While animals suffering from such conditions in pet shops are often removed from public view, it is not uncommon to find animals on the sales floor exhibiting such conditions and potentially spreading disease to humans or other animals.

Small Enclosures & Crowding

In a retail environment, there is considerable economic advantage in maximizing the amount of "merchandise" kept in any given area. Pet shops are no exception. Many of the pet stores we investigated kept animals in unsuitable enclosures that were too small or too crowded or both.

Although some domesticated animals may have been artificially selected to better tolerate captive environments, there are always limits to what these animals can endure. Even highly domesticated species such as mice, rats, hamsters, and guinea pigs can suffer in undersized or overcrowded enclosures.

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For non-domesticated animals such as reptiles and birds, creating a non-stressful captive environment is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Even wild animals who have been bred in captivity for generations maintain their wild instincts and the adaptations their species made to living in the wild. As a result, these animals are even more susceptible to problems associated with captive environments.

Psychological Distress

Many of the animals our investigator saw showed signs of psychological distress and disturbance. Psychological distress manifests itself in a variety of behaviors often seen in animals in pet shops. Vocalizing and/ or retreating to a corner of the cage farthest from human observers are common signs of fear. Attempts to escape by frantically flying or running around the cage or jumping toward the top of the enclosure are also signs of distress in captive animals.

Interaction with transparent boundaries — such as continuously walking onto the glass, reflective surface, or walls of an enclosure and either attempting to climb on it or go through it — is another sign of distress. This behavior is particularly common in reptiles, whose natural instinct to roam unconfined remains intact, resulting in a lifetime of frustration when forced to live in small, captive environments.

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Repetitive behaviors, also known as "stereotypies," are considered important indicators of long-term animal welfare problems. Common examples of such behaviors include "route tracing," or pacing, in which the animal repeatedly follows a predictable and unvarying path; repetitive head bobbing and weaving; bar biting; and tongue rolling.

In our pet shop investigations, stereotypies were most often seen in parrots. Like reptiles, parrots are nondomesticated animals whose wild instincts remain largely intact even when bred in captivity. Sadly, many aspects of parrots' natural behavior, such as flocking, social interaction, foraging on a variety of foods, and flight, are denied to varying degrees in captivity. It's no wonder that when kept in small, barren, isolated cages in pet shops, many parrots show signs of psychological distress.

Lack of Enrichment

Many pet shops we investigated failed to provide the animals they sell with any enrichment items, despite the proven benefit of enrichment and the ease with which enrichment items could be provided.

Multiple studies show that providing enrichment such as toys, exercise wheels, hide boxes, and chewing objects to caged animals benefits the animals' welfare. Enrichment can reduce or eliminate boredom, psychological distress, and the development of stereotypic or destructive behavior in captive animals.

Whether a lack of environmental enrichment in pet shops is due to thoughtlessness, ignorance, or miserliness, the end result is that barren environments are bad for animals.

The Bottom Line

After learning the truth about how animals suffer in pet shops, one can't help but wonder, "Why?" Why do pet shops crowd animals in cages, neglect to clean enclosures, fail to provide enrichment for the animals in their care, deny veterinary care to injured animals, and continue to sell animals who adapt poorly to captivity?

The fact is, when retailers are faced with a choice between endangering profits and endangering animals, the bottom line usually wins. So when animals are exploited for commercial gain, suffering is often involved.

In a retail environment, animals must be treated like commodities in order for the store to realize a profit. Providing toys and adequate cage space cuts into profits, if only marginally, and the cost of veterinary care for sick and injured animals can easily exceed the animals' commercial value.

As a result, pet shop owners or managers have the often conflicting responsibilities of making a store profitable and caring for animals. Similarly, the future well-being of the animals that pet shops sell seems to be of little or no concern, so long as the asking price is paid. This means that thousands of reptiles, exotic birds, and other animals are sold to people who will be unable to provide lifetime care and meet the unique needs of these animals.

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