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County considers increasing puppy regulatory requirements

Mark Parker

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Pinellas County officials are reassessing their puppy sale regulations. Photos by Mark Parker.

When a once-unthinkable partnership between SPCA Tampa Bay, a puppy broker and a local retailer dissolved due to public backlash, some Pinellas County commissioners suggested reassessing local regulations.

Doug Brightwell, director of animal services, began working on a report in January. He provided the unfinished results at an April 18 workshop, as he will soon resign and relocate.

In January, Commissioner Kathleen Peters noted that many animal activists want to eliminate all retail sales. She and others on the dais – and the former partnership’s stakeholders – believe that would foster black market puppy mills.

“What we find over and over again is that is not an issue,” Brightwell said. “Because consumers adapt and utilize whatever available marketplace options are out there.”

Brightwell then listed commercial and home-based pet stores, hobby breeders, online sellers, breed-specific rescues and local shelters as options. He said the county annually inspects local retailers and individual dealers.

In April 2022, commissioners voted to allow the county’s six puppy stores to remain in business. Martha Boden, CEO of the SPCA, opposed the measure.

A chance encounter with the owners of Missouri-based Pinnacle Pet and local retailer Sunshine Puppies changed her opinion of some breeders and brokers. The three organizations partnered on the For All Dogs pilot program in October 2023.

The SPCA’s Veterinary Center began providing medical care for Sunshine Puppies. Dan Cohn, founder and CEO, operates two of the county’s six allowable stores.

Boden said the partnership increased transparency. It ended in January after three months of public outrage.

Several commissioners supported implementing the “highjacked” initiative’s model. Brightwell said he would review new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data.

“There is no data to indicate the state of the industry has improved at all,” he explained Thursday. “The oversight is still minimal and not where it should be for the industry.”

Brightwell said the USDA “only” inspected 77% of its nearly 20,000 licensed commercial breeders in 2022. Federal officials documented over 800 violations but no “significant enforcement actions.”

The county has fared better than its federal counterparts. Animal services received 18 puppy retailer complaints in 2023 and issued eight citations to three stores.

Brightwell said the department did not find any specific animal welfare violations. The citations were due to administrative issues.

Retailers must report monthly sales to the county. The six local stores sold 4,400 puppies, and 54% went to people outside Pinellas.

“A lot of jurisdictions no longer have retail pet stores,” Brightwell said. “Some of these animals are sold out of state in states where there are no retail stores.”

Animal services officials may also implement an educational program for puppy buyers.

Brightwell explained that every dog sold in the county must have a health certificate updated every 30 days. That provides a vaccination record and lists known illnesses.

Commissioner Dave Eggers suggested increasing notification requirements to include veterinarian information. It would also highlight if the puppy’s breeder passed Purdue University’s stringent auditing program.

Brightwell said the animal services department is exploring ordinance updates to improve pet store standards. Those could include increasing the minimum housing and kennel size.

Animal services officials want to implement more rigorous examination protocols and bolster pet warranties. “But as I said earlier, after talking with the county attorney’s office, there’s some interstate commerce restrictions and some preemption restrictions which make those untenable at this time,” Brightwell added.

He also hopes to increase enforcement for sellers “not necessarily acting in good faith.” That could include longer permit suspensions and strengthening revocation provisions.

In addition, reporting requirements could soon extend to brokers who provide puppies to local retailers. “How many are ordered, when they’re received, what their condition is at receipt and, if any of them are deceased, why are they deceased?” Brightwell explained. “Things like that, which we don’t get data on currently.”

Brightwell said commissioners could also require retailers to purchase puppies from breeders who participate in a science-based Canine Care Program like the one offered by Purdue. The State of Indiana recently established that mandate.

Animal services officials may also implement a buyer education program requirement. Brightwell and commissioners will soon meet with Purdue and USDA representatives to discuss best practices.

Brightwell did not announce when he would leave the county. Multiple commissioners asked him to stay until after they discussed his meeting with Purdue and the USDA.

Animal services would then host community engagement workshops to gather stakeholder feedback. “I just want you to leave here knowing that you can leave and be very proud of the work you have done in your department,” said Commissioner Janet Long.

“I have found your demeanor and your character above reproach.”

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Tom Dolan

    April 24, 2024at10:58 am

    This article lacked important information about sources used by the local puppy stores. That is more important than information about sales. There have been allegations that Pinnacle Pets brokers for puppy mills both in and out of state. I’d suggest starting with new regulations restricting sources to within the state, so they can be monitored. There’s not much the county can do to verify conditions at out of state breeding facilities.

  2. Avatar

    Susan Sudra

    April 23, 2024at4:13 pm

    Its very good that this information is getting shared to the public very well written and researched article….The SPCA Tampa Bay masquerades successfully as a “shelter” but unfortunately it is anything but,and I would not be surprised their CEO Martha Boden is just waiting for another chance to work with these horrible puppy mill pipeline businesses that Pinellas County really needs to get rid of and wipe the stain of their business off its reputation…and some seriously intense changing of upper management board members so the SPCA Tampa Bay has a chance of recovering its reputation with the animal rescue community and actually be known for saving lives and not euthanizing 50% of all the animals in their “care”

  3. Avatar

    Warren Patitz

    April 23, 2024at3:58 pm

    This was a well-researched and written article. Thank you, Mr. Parker. You connected dots that are often forgotten in time or over looked as this conversation continues.

    “Kathleen Peters noted that many animal activists want to eliminate all retail sales. She and others on the dais – and the former partnership’s stakeholders – believe that would foster black market puppy mills.”

    The former partnership stakeholders are the SPCA Tampa Bay, puppy mill broker Pinnacle Pets and retailer Sunshine Puppies.

    The fact is, the SPCA Tampa Bay and Sunshine Pets ARE the black market and not in disguise.

    All three are committed to profiteering on the back of a tortuous commercial breeding industry and at the expense of Pinellas County animals in need of homes.

    What more is needed to know?

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