BOSTON — Pet stores could be banned from selling dogs and cats in Massachusetts under proposals that animal welfare advocates say will curtail inhumane breeding operations.

One proposal bans the sale of puppies and kittens younger than 8 weeks old, and prohibits commercial pet shops from selling animals from breeders with a history of violations.

The legislation — backed by 50 lawmakers including Reps. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, Linda Campbell, D-Methuen, and Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem —also imposes new rules on breeders and implements protections for consumers who purchase diseased pets.

Animal welfare advocates say the bill — like a separate proposal banning sales of cats and dogs of any age in commercial pet shops — discourages the operation of substandard breeders, known as “puppy mills,” that supply the stores.

“It’s an animal health and welfare issue, but it’s also a consumer protection issue,” said Kara Holmquist, director of advocacy at the Massachusetts Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “Consumers buy puppies from breeders that operate under horrible conditions. The animals get sick, and owners end up spending thousands of dollars.”

Holmquist said only a dozen or so private pet stores across the state sell dogs and cats, most of which are purchased from out-of-state breeders. None of Cape Ann’s pet stores sell puppies or kittens.

Industry opposition

The proposals face opposition from the pet store industry, which says most breeders are responsible and a ban unfairly targets legitimate operations.

“Everybody is concerned about the issue of substandard breeders,” said Robert Likins, vice president of government affairs at the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council. “The biggest problem we have with retail sales bans is that, while well intentioned, they don’t accomplish anything.”

Outlawing retail sales of cats and dogs would drive consumers to the black market, he said, where there are no protections for consumers or animals.

“There is always going to be a demand for purebred dogs,” said Likins, whose group represents PetCo and other retailers. “And there’s only a limited supply.”

Stricter regulations can help eliminate substandard breeders and pet stores, he said.

Last year, Boston joined more than 300 other cities nationally that ban the sale of cats and dogs in pet stores.

At least 30 bills on Beacon Hill deal with the sale and treatment of dogs and cats, and some are gaining traction.

“It’s a witch hunt,” said Robert Mellace, who co-owns Pet Express with locations in Saugus, Lynn, Danvers and Braintree. “Banning retail sales would put pet stores out of business, eliminate hundreds of jobs and force consumers to the black market.”

Mellace, whose stores sell American bulldogs, beagles, basset hounds and other pedigree breeds, said he wouldn’t sell animals raised in substandard conditions, and he closely follows state regulations.

“We pay vet bills for our customers, we microchip our puppies and give consumers detailed information on where they come from and how to contact the breeders,” he said. “But, most importantly, we treat our animals with dignity and respect.”

‘Rules don’t go far enough’

Under state law, pet stores must be licensed and have adequate housing, feeding and veterinary care for dogs. Stores are inspected annually by the Division of Animal Health and required to provide customers with a pet’s complete medical record.

If a puppy is found to have a disease or congenital disorder, consumers can return the animal for a refund under the “Puppy Lemon Law” within 14 days of purchase.

Animal protection groups say the rules don’t go far enough.

Stephanie Harris, state director of the Massachusetts chapter of the Humane Society of the United States, said if pet stores could no longer get dogs from breeders, they would be more likely to promote adoptions from shelters or animal rescue groups.

“This will improve shelter animals’ chances of finding a home,” she said, “and take us a step closer to the day when inhumane puppy mills have nowhere to sell their puppies.”

Pet store owners point out that shelters seldom offer purebred puppies and kittens.

“Rescuing a dog from a shelter is a wonderful choice for some people, but it’s not for everyone,” Mellace said. “Some customers want purebred puppies or kittens.”

Putting pet shops out of business won’t get rid of the demand or improve conditions for dogs and cats reared by unscrupulous breeders, he said.

“This won’t solve the problem,” Mellace said. “The unregulated sales of internet puppy mill puppies will only continue to grow and consumers will be left with no protection.’’

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for the Times and its sister North of Boston Media Group newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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