Currently, AVMA is aware of 21 states that have laws that provide legal recourse for people who purchase animals from pet dealers, when those animals are later found to have a disease or defect. These laws are commonly referred to as "lemon laws." The amount of time a purchaser has to seek recourse under these laws ranges from 7 to 25 days for claims related to disease and 10 days to 2 years for claims related to congenital or hereditary conditions. Common legal remedies include replacement of the animal; a refund of the purchase price; and/or reimbursement of veterinary expenses, generally up to the purchase price of the animal.
During the past several years, a significant number of states have considered and/or adopted these types of laws. Presumably, this comes as a result of increased attention focused on the operations of commercial kennels and breeders, which provide most of the animals sold by pet dealers.
The AVMA has not established policy on pet purchase protection laws, nor does the AVMA have model legislation available. The purpose of this document is to describe the issues that veterinarians and their associations may wish to consider when related legislation is introduced in their state. This document is for informational purposes only and is not meant to advocate for or against the enactment of pet purchase protection laws or their specific provisions.
Q: Who would be regulated?
A: Generally, pet purchase protection laws are meant to protect those who purchase pets from retail pet dealers and breeders. Commonly included in the laws' scope are transactions whereby companion animals are bought, sold, exchanged, or offered for sale or exchange to the public.
The wording used to define pet "dealers" and "breeders" is important. In addition, each state treats "retail" differently. These terms should be carefully defined in the statute (or other applicable law) so that coverage and responsibilities are clear.
Something else to consider is whether or not these laws should apply to transactions involving shelters and rescue groups. When animal shelters and rescue groups are being discussed for inclusion in legislation it is helpful to remember their role in caring for, and placing in homes, a community's "unwanted" animals. It is inevitable that some animals in this population will have pre-existing health challenges. Can shelters and rescue groups reasonably be expected to identify defects in an animal when they often have no information about that animal's history or pedigree? While shelters and rescue groups may have a responsibility to seek veterinary evaluation of animals for existing diseases and conditions, as well as likely disease risks, assessing the risk of heritable conditions may be more difficult in the absence of a clear breeding history. Accordingly, most existing pet purchase protection laws provide some kind of exemption for rescues and shelters.
However, while shelters and rescue groups have obligations to the community that place them in a unique position, there is also the question as to whether a uniform standard should be applied regardless of the method by which a pet is acquired. An equitable approach suggests that if shelters and rescue groups are to be included as affected parties, their responsibility should be limited to disclosing known diseases and conditions and likely disease risks to the adopter.
Q: What animals will be covered?
A: Many state pet purchase protection laws apply only to dogs, while others apply to both dogs and cats. Some have suggested that these laws should encompass all animals sold for the purpose of being kept as pets in the home, but such a definition could make enforcement more challenging. While consideration for all animals sold as pets may be ideal, currently the simplest and most resource-responsible approach appears to be to limit the law to purchases of dogs and cats.
Q: What length of time is reasonable to permit identification of infectious diseases or congenital or heritable defects that would support a remedy, including return of the pet and/or monetary compensation (e.g., refund, veterinary expenses), as an appropriate action?
A: Infectious Disease—Current state laws vary in time limits that are set for discovery from seven to 25 days. In considering these proposals, veterinarians and their associations should consider how much time is required for clinical signs of disease to become evident, and how likely it is that a veterinarian examining the animal, absent diagnostic testing, would observe those clinical signs during a post-purchase examination.
Scientific data suggest that most infectious diseases should be readily apparent within 14 to 21 days after exposure. However, some less easily detected conditions may exist but be discovered later.
Congenital or Heritable Defects—Current state laws allow anywhere from as few as 10 days to up to two years for discovery of these conditions. Again, consideration should be given to how long it may take for clinical signs of such conditions to become evident, while placing a reasonable limit on length of responsibility for dealers and breeders.
Some heritable defects may take years to manifest themselves, but many others can be diagnosed in the first year. In drafting pet purchase protection laws, balance should be achieved between the responsibility of owners to educate themselves about the breed they are choosing to purchase and the responsibility of breeders who should be working to improve the health of the breed with each litter produced.
To appropriately address both infectious disease and congenital/inheritable conditions one option that might be considered is to create a range of warranty based on the nature of the condition. We are not aware of any state law that has used this approach, however.
Q: Should pet purchase protection laws exclude common congenital/hereditary conditions for certain breeds providing that the prevalence of those conditions within that breed is shared with the buyer? Should there be exclusion for any existing condition as long as it is disclosed by the seller prior to purchase by the buyer?
A: Consideration should be given to what a breeder's responsibility is as far as sharing problems common to the breed with potential buyers and what the breeder should be doing to lessen the risk of those conditions in the animals they are selling. Similarly, attention should be paid to what responsibilities purchasers have to educate themselves about a breed prior to purchase, so as to reduce their risk of acquiring animals with conditions they are not prepared to accept and address.
Situations may also arise in which a particular problem with a dog or cat is clearly evident at the time of purchase, and the buyer and seller come to an agreement to exclude that existing condition from any warranty provided. Consideration should be given as to the recognition of such waivers in the pet purchase protection law.
Something to think about when deciding whether or not to accommodate certain exclusions is what the breeder's responsibility is, or should be, if they continue to breed animals that are likely to produce offspring with known adverse health conditions.
Q: Will an examination by a licensed veterinarian be required within a designated number of days after purchase for a buyer to preserve the rights of remedy?
A: Most states specify that an examination by a veterinarian must occur within a given number of days of purchase of the animal in order for the purchaser's rights to be exercised. This is usually within 15 days from the date of purchase. Again, when advising as to the setting of timelines, veterinarians and their associations must consider the amount of time necessary for an animal to begin showing clinical signs of a disease or other condition. Thought should be given as to whether that timeframe should be consistent across all species or should be specific to the type of animal.
Q: What amount of veterinary fees should be reimbursed to purchasers for treatment of identified conditions?
A: Most state laws cap veterinary reimbursements to an amount equal to the purchase price of the animal. Some states base the amount of reimbursement upon the remedy the purchaser chooses (i.e., keep, return, or exchange the animal). A state may also take into account taxes and fees that may have been paid for the animal. In addition, consideration should be given as to what type of reimbursement will be available if the animal dies.
Q: What liabilities could pet purchase protection laws present for veterinarians?
A: Pet purchase protection laws do not generally address whether or not a veterinarian can be held liable for not recognizing the clinical signs of a disease or other health condition. One issue to consider is whether a purchaser can hold a veterinarian liable for failing to recognize certain clinical signs of a disease or congenital/hereditary defect within the amount of time the law provides for identification in order for a purchaser to receive remedies.