Pet Sales, Municipal Rules, and Social Responsibility

Toronto’s city council has just told an entire category of retail stores that they must only sell second-hand goods. No, the move isn’t some ‘green’ initiative aimed at encouraging recycling. It’s an animal-welfare edict, a move to force pet stores to sell dogs and cats sourced exclusively from “shelters, rescue groups or people giving up animals for free.” In other words, no more puppy-mill puppies or kitten-mill kittens are to be sold in Toronto.

See the story here, by Carys Mills for the Globe & Mail: Toronto Council bans pet shop sale of dogs, cats, unless they come from shelters.

The motion was passed unanimously, with all councillors bravely taking a pro-puppy stand. And it’s not surprising to see unanimity, even regarding a restriction on commerce, when that restriction can plausibly claim to protect not just helpless animals, but customers (including children) too.

One interesting point about this is the focus — both legal and ethical — on retail. Regulation (in this and many other cases) has, in principle, 3 possible targets: producers, consumers, and retailers. Council has chosen to focus on retailers — rather than, say, pass rules about how dog breeders should operate. Partly that’s a matter of jurisdiction: the municipal government has some authority over how business is conducted within its territory, but no jurisdiction over production processes at puppy mills in far-flung rural locales. But it’s not just a matter of jurisdiction: enforcement can be a lot more efficient when it can focus on just a handful of retail outlets. Retailers are the intermediaries between producers and consumers, and so they’re effectively gatekeepers. That makes them a good target for regulation, but it also means that as crucial links in the flow of ‘product’ (i.e., pets, in this case), they have power — and with power comes responsibility.

The other interesting point here has to do with the public good. The sale of a pet is notoriously likely to result in ‘externalities’ — that is, to have an effect on people not party to the transaction. Poorly-socialized puppies may grow into dangerous dogs. Unwanted dogs and cats may be abandoned, turning into social nuisances, and straining municipal resources such as dog-catchers, bylaw enforcement officers, etc. Unhealthy pets may transmit communicable diseases to other people’s pets. So the policies and practices that a pet store follows affect the interests not just of customers and suppliers, but of society at large. In other words, we see here good examples of that subset of ethical issues that truly are about the social responsibilities that businesses have.

5 comments so far

  1. Barbara Kimmel on

    Wow- talk about misplaced government intervention. Sounds like pet stores are about to become glorified animal shelters. I certainly “get” the issue, but not the solution.

    Both healthy and unhealthy animals can come from puppy mills and animal shelters. I have one of each sharing my office space right now (and have had several in the past.)

    In the US, there is a growing trend of relocating shelter dogs from southerns states to “wealthier” northern states, where these animals may have a better chance for adoption. I just read about a recent airlift to NJ . The only catch- I hear that many of these dogs have heartworm, an expensive and permanently health compromising condition, among other problems-both social and health related.

    So if someone gave you the choice between buying a seemingly healthy puppy from a puppy mill (call it a wild card) or a diseased shelter dog, which one would you want?

    Shouldn’t the consumer retain the right to do what feels ethically “right?”

    • Chris MacDonald on


      Thanks for your comment. Thoughtful, as usual!

      I’m sympathetic to most of your comment. It’s certainly possible that — in their zeal to look pro-animal-welfare — Council didn’t do its homework, and doesn’t understand the facts well enough.

      Your final, rhetorical question, though, is not so straightforward. Many customers may not have all the relevant facts, either. So what “feels” ethically right to them may be well off-target. (There are lots of examples of stupid purchases at pet stores — most notoriously, perhaps, purchases of rabbits at Easter.)


  2. […] This is the lead paragraph from the current post on Chris MacDonald’s Business Ethics Blog. […]

  3. Andi on

    A very nice blog entry!
    But I wonder why the government tries to regulate everything instead of making people to wonder about their own behavior. Wouldn’t it make more sense to stir up the society to first think about whether they really want an animal and can take care of it before they buy it?
    Especially in the case of dogs I think that a lot of people don’t know how much responsibility they have if they buy a dog. Therefore one idea would be to encourage people to go to an animal shelter every day and try to take care of one dog to see how time consuming a dog is. This would reduce the number of exposed dogs.
    Such regulations might lead to more unethical behavior if people buy dogs on the black market to get “young”, “new” and “unused” dogs.

  4. dean on

    you are SO on target, Chris about rabbits suffering terribly from people’s ignorance , thinking bunnies are stuffed toys to be discarded once grown to require effort and patience.

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