I have wanted to write this for a long time, so naturally when I decided to do information posts, I knew this would be the first one. I started and stopped a couple of times, because it kept getting angry and I don't want it to be angry. I want it to be informative, but I don't want to get angry and I'll explain why, because there is a lot to get angry about.
Last summer, I worked at a camp that was designed to let kids work with animals. I had a new group of children every week, and I made it my mission to drill one message into their brain: If you want an animal, you go to a shelter, rescue or professional breeder. Pet stores were not an option, but I was very careful not to make any statements about people buying from pet stores, because inevitably, one of the kids would talk about an animal they'd bought from a pet store. I bought animals from pet stores too, when I was young, and it wasn't because my parents were horrible people or because I was a horrible person. People don't know and they need to be informed, but there is a fine line between informing and berating them for a poor decision. If you have bought from a pet store, then I hope you love and care for that animal as long as it lives. And I hope you never buy from a store again.
Everyone knows that dogs and cats should never be bought from pet stores, but like most things in animal welfare, that message hasn't yet trickled down to the small animals. So here goes my little thesis on why pet stores are a terrible idea if you're looking for a new animal. I know there are things I've left out, but I was trying not to let it get totally out of control. Feel free to pass this along to anyone thinking of buying a hamster, bird, rabbit or anything at a pet store!
Rabbits that are sold from pet stores are not fixed. An unspayed female rabbit has an 85% chance of getting a reproductive cancer by the age of 5 years old. Their lifespan is almost always cut in half. An unneutered male has a high risk of testicular cancer. Spaying/neutering cuts down on health problems, behavioural problems and destructive behaviours.
Besides the fact that they're not fixed, all animals from pet stores, including rabbits, have a high risk of being sick. Pet store employees are usually minimally trained and don't have the expertise to recognize signs of illness. Even if they do, vets are only called in if the animal is worth well over $100 in value (since a store is a profit-driven venue). Sick animals such as rabbits and hamsters often go unnoticed and are left in with the healthy animals - this means that even if the one you take is healthy, it could soon become sick. Plus, if you have an animal at home, they may pick up something from the pet store animal.
All pet store rabbits are dwarf mixes. However, they are always sold as babies, as pure dwarves. People are told that they won't grow to be any bigger than they already are. I was told that about my first rabbit - she grew to be twice her size. They aren't purebreds and the pet store has no idea how big they'll grow.
Pet store rabbits tend to come from large scale breeders. The rabbits are kept outside in small cages stacked on top of each other, unsocialized, bred back to back until they run out of steam. There are responsible breeders out there - I know they're difficult to find, but there are responsible breeders of rabbits and if you are completely opposed to a shelter pet, they are worth a look. The pet store rabbits won't be purebreds anyway - pet stores get the breeder rejects, not their top picks.
Finally, rabbits are sold as babies at pet stores. Trust me on this - you don't want a baby rabbit. Kits are destructive, high-energy, neurotic little nutcases and they have no interest in cuddling. They do not fully mature, physically or mentally, until they are a year old. So, so many people buy baby rabbits, only to realize they can't handle them and give them to a shelter. Adopt an adult, it'll make your life a whole lot easier.
Oh, I could go on about pet store hamsters all day. They are some of the most abused animals in stores.
Housing: Hamsters need to be housed alone once they hit a certain age. With the piles and piles of hamsters that pet stores go through, they can't monitor which hammies are hitting which age, and the little guys are often left together past maturity. This means fighting and often the weakest ones are injured badly. Living together also produces more stress on the body, which can lead to illness. On the other hand, gerbils are social animals that must live together. They are also failing in popularity, so pet stores often keep them for ages, alone, and that puts stress on their immune systems as well.
Breeding: First off, many pet stores keep their hamster populations up by throwing two in a drawer overnight and hoping it takes - I'm sure we can all see the million problems involved in that method. But more pertinently, employees usually can't tell the males and females apart. They don't separate them at the right age. I'd say if you buy a female from a pet store, you have about a 70% chance of them being pregnant. I cannot tell you how many times people have contacted me or the shelter, complaining that they bought a female and she gave birth the next day. This also applies to rats, gerbils and any other rodent. I'm sorry, pet store employees cannot sex animals.
Illness: Sometimes when I go to pet stores, I go to look at their animals just to torture myself. There are always rodents that are clearly ill, in with other 'healthy' ones. Always. I know what a sick rodent looks like, and there is very rarely an attempt to separate them.
I'll say this a million times: If you buy from a pet store, there is a very high chance that the animal will be sick or have a short lifespan.
While I love reptiles and have owned a snake before, I will freely admit they are not my area of expertise. Reptiles require specialized care and knowledge - you are not going to find that in a pet store.
Employees are not experts. They are trained quickly and do not have years of experience and veterinary knowledge. A sick reptile hides it very well and will not be noticed.
Small display boxes are not appropriate living habitats for reptiles (or any animal), and high stress animals do terribly when forced to be on display all day. There is a lot of stress at pet stores - children making noise, tapping on glass, constant handling.
I'm sure a reptile person could tell you a million other things wrong with reptiles at pet stores, but the basics always apply - they will probably be sick. They will probably be stressed. You may not get what you paid for.
I may get a lot of disagreement here, but I believe that parrots suffer the most from being in pet stores.
People know about kitten and puppy mills - well, there are parrot mills as well, and they are horrific. Birds are extremely social, intelligent animals. Breeder birds are locked in cages all day and night, left to breed back to back only to have their chicks taken away at a young age to imprint and sell. Breeder birds inevitably turn out nasty and vicious toward humans, and once they stop reproducing, what do you think happens to them? They sure aren't going to be pets. Buying from pet stores supports this industry, just as it does with cats and dogs.
As with other animals, the volume of birds passing through the stores increases the chance of disease. I speak from lots of experience when I say birds are extremely good at hiding the signs of illness until they are literally on death's door. It's very easy to take a bird home from the pet store, looking perfectly healthy, only to have them die in a week. Even worse, they can easily infect your birds at home.
Birds have extremely specific social needs. In stores, they are often either kept alone (the large parrots) or in groups that are much too large (budgies or finches). Both these situations create stress on the bird's body and can lead to illness. Most stores don't have enough knowledgeable staff to regularly handle all birds, so they are rarely tame and often socially neglected. This can lead to biting and other difficult-to-fix behavioural problems.
Cages are usually too small and don't contain enough stimulation, the birds rarely get enough exercise, and their diets are usually nutritionally deficient. Often stores feed only seed,which is not healthy for any parrot, and will usually lead to first time bird owners thinking that's acceptable.
Speaking of first-time bird owners, pet stores often sell higher level parrots such as macaws or cockatoos without fully understanding the care they need themselves. Far too often, parrots are bought from pet stores by people who aren't educated enough and then get bitten by the untamed bird. That bird will probably spend the rest of his life ignored in a cage. Besides which, all birds live over 10 years. The larger parrots can live to be over 80 years old - how many people buy at a pet store on impulse, because the animal caught their eye? Do you think they're prepared for that commitment?
The fact is that birds have extremely specialized needs and there is a one in a million chance that you will find pet store staff educated enough to take proper care of all of them.
There are lots of bird breeders out there. I got Loki, my cockatiel, before I got into rescue, and we bought her from a responsible breeder who kept her family in a clean, healthy environment. It's not hard to find a better option than a pet store.
There are certainly pet stores that try to do a better job but I'm sorry, I just don't think it can be done right. It's impossible to keep them healthy in that environment, and it promotes far too many impulse or uneducated buys. And where do those animals end up? On this blog!
I'll say right now that I have nothing but disdain for all of the big chains, and that's not from rumour but personal experience. That's why I love Pet Valu so much, because they don't sell, instead choosing to work with rescues. The chains are profit-driven and their highest priority is never the animals' health and safety.
If you buy from a pet store, you are most likely going to end up with an unsocialized, sick, probably pregnant animal, and you will be supporting a cruel and ignorant industry. If you want a small animal, there are options.
Rescue, shelter or professional breeder.
Pet stores shouldn't even be on the list.