How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?

The real cost of buying an animal is more than you can imagine.

We come across them every day. The pedigree dogs playing in our neighbourhood parks or being led around our apartment compounds. The huskies panting in the summer heat, the labradors in the house next door, or that poodle who always has a cute ribbon on her hair.

And it's not just dogs. A pair of love birds in a cage at a friend's house, or a litter of Persian cats whose photo you "liked" on an acquaintance's Facebook page. But how often do we think about how these animals came to be where they are?

In many cases, these animals will have come from one of the more than three lakh pet shops that we have in this country. And while the phrase "pet shop" might conjure up images of some sort of animal-lovers' paradise, this couldn't be further from the truth.

For every animal bought from a pet shop, another is likely to have died either in captivity or in transportation.

The notification of long-awaited rules will mean that pet shops and animal breeders will finally be regulated. In their current, completely unregulated state, however, most animals in pet shops in India suffer from poor housing, terrible hygiene, cruel breeding practices and a lack of any veterinary care, amongst other things. To put it more starkly—for every animal bought from a pet shop, another is likely to have died either in captivity or in transportation. And if the animal in question is a bird, that percentage is even higher—for every bird sold in the market, it's estimated that two died en route.

It's incredible that with at least 450 pet shops in Delhi alone, and another 200 in every tier-II city in the country, at present they are licensed as a hotchpotch of medical stores, general merchandise stores and pet supply stores. With this being the case, how can you be sure that the cute puppy in the window isn't in fact the only one of its litter to have made it as far as the shop?

Even if we put the terrible conditions to one side for a moment, these shops are all too often full-to-the-brim with animals who are there illegally. The Wildlife Protection Act bans the trade of all indigenous birds, but it is hardly enforced. Similarly, there is a blatant disregard for international law, in particular the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which prohibits the international commercial trade of certain animals such as African grey parrots, yellow crested cockatoos and blue throated macaws, which are commonly seen in these shops. The recent Law Commission of India Report into the Need to Regulate Pet Shops mentions animals protected under Indian law, like star tortoises, parakeets, munias and mynas, as being routinely sold from pet shops.

Keeping all this in mind, if it sounds like bypassing the store and going directly to the breeder might be a better option, think again. While dog breeders are at least required to obtain a registration certificate from the Animal Welfare Board of India, in reality very few do, meaning that their practices are unregulated. These practices can include anything from neglecting animals whose fertile years have passed, to selling unweaned pups, and expecting animals to bear multiple consecutive litters with little or no gap for recovery. The animals most in demand are often breeds like huskies or St. Bernards who struggle in the hot Indian climate. Other breeds suffer from hereditary complications that are the result of generations of breeding within a narrow gene pool: Labradors are prone to obesity and arthritis, while pugs commonly face respiratory problems, and German Shepherds ear infections.

The good news is that in December, the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change notified the Pet Shops Draft Rules for public comment. In January, it also notified rules for dog breeders. Humane Society International, along with a broad spectrum of animal protection organisations, has worked hard to ensure that these regulations will make a real difference:

  • That no person can open a pet shop without a certificate from the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI);
  • That inspections will be carried out by authorised teams;
  • That stores housing animals are required to provide adequate standards of accommodation, infrastructure and veterinary care to the animals in their care;
  • That anyone breeding dogs must obtain a certificate of registration from the AWBI, and renew it every year;
  • And that breeders would finally be forced to accept responsibility for the mental and physical wellbeing of their dogs.

If we see pets as friends and not status symbols, and adopt rather than shop, then collectively we can make a change.

This, while important, is not enough. A pet shop will never be the right environment for animals, and breeding will continue to value commercial gain above quality of life. Policy change can take years of work from hundreds of dedicated individuals, and regulations are often imperfectly enforced. However, the laws of supply and demand suggest that the need for pet shops could be eliminated much faster. If we, as consumers, are not prepared to see our pets as commodities to be traded, then fewer of them will reach us via a supply chain of death, abuse and neglect. If we see pets as friends and not status symbols, and adopt rather than shop, then collectively we can make a change.

The cost of that doggie in the window is a lot more than the hefty monetary value it may have because of breed or pedigree. The real price tag is the mother who suffered giving birth to litter after litter, a life of brutal confinement. The Constitution makes it our duty to have compassion for living creatures. Keeping that in mind, the best way to experience the joy of bringing an animal home is to reach out to one of the many rescued animals waiting for someone to show them some love.

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