Petland is debating how to regulate pet stores in central Ohio

Days after Macey Mullins brought home her Jack Russell terrier, she noticed the puppy was urinating frequently and drinking excessive amounts of water.

Mullins acquired June from Petland in Lewis Center in 2020 and contacted the store with her concerns, according to a lawsuit filed earlier this year in Delaware County. Petland dismissed the behavior as “normal puppy stuff” and said Mullins had purchased a healthy, three-month-old dog — one that cost nearly $5,000.

June spent the next few months in and out of the vet’s office for urinary tract infections and other medical care. By the end of that year, the lawsuit said, Mullins noticed that June had lost weight, seemed lethargic and wasn’t eating much. Veterinarians ultimately determined that the puppy had underdeveloped kidneys and a kidney infection.

It was too late. After unsuccessful treatment, Mullins and her veterinarians decided to euthanize June. Petland, meanwhile, refused to reimburse Mullins for June’s medical bills and expected her to continue making monthly payments for her deceased puppy, the lawsuit said.

Petland disputed the allegations in Mullins’ case, along with two other lawsuits filed in Franklin and Ross counties. Spokeswoman Maria Smith said the company never sources pets from puppy farms and offers a guarantee to help customers facing unexpected veterinary costs. Pets undergoing medical treatment are not available for visits or sale until they are healthy and cleared by a state veterinarian, Smith said.

But the Chillicothe-based national chain is now at the center of a debate over how pet stores should be regulated in Ohio.

“Some of these breeders and retailers are treating these dogs like any other product,” said Mark Finneran, state director of the Humane Society of Ohio. “If you adopt that mentality, the welfare of the animals will very quickly fade into the background.”

How does Ohio deal with pet stores and dog breeders?

Reps. Michele Grim, D-Toledo, and Sara Carruthers, R-Hamilton, introduced legislation that would allow municipalities to regulate pet stores in their communities. House Bill 443 aims to overturn the current law — enacted in 2016 at Petland’s behest — that removes local control and gives exclusive oversight to the state of Ohio.

The bill’s supporters say Ohio would allow companies like Petland to take sick animals from puppy mills and sell them for thousands of dollars to customers who think their new dog has a clean bill of health. Finneran said “unscrupulous breeders” fail to test dogs for genetic diseases and keep them in confined spaces while their immune systems are still developing.

“It feeds the pipeline of puppies to pet stores,” Grim said. “They’re tight, they’re overbred. They are in some pretty dirty conditions. They are often sold in stores such as Petland. Many of them know they are sick or there is a problem with the dogs.”

The Ohio Department of Agriculture verifies that pet stores have each dog’s health certificate signed by a veterinarian. A spokesperson said officials will inspect a business if they receive a complaint about the condition of animals sold, and then report any welfare issues to local authorities.

The department also inspects major dog breeders at least once a year. These facilities would be required to be licensed under state law and provide dogs with adequate nutrition and a clean, comfortable space. In-state and out-of-state breeders must verify that they meet these standards when selling dogs to pet stores.

Animal welfare advocates say Ohio’s laws aren’t strong enough to crack down on puppy mills and dishonest pet stores. A 2023 report from the Humane Society highlighted 13 Ohio breeders who failed inspections due to injured dogs, small cages and unsanitary conditions, including excessive feces. Some facilities were referred for legal action or ultimately came into compliance, the report said, but others were repeat offenders.

Smith accused the Humane Society and other groups of misleading the public about Petland to serve their own profits.

“Ohio currently has one of the strongest, if not the strongest, regulations to protect animal welfare, while reputable companies can offer Ohioans a safe choice when it comes to finding the pet that is best suited for the individual or the family.’ Smit said.

‘It’s just heartbreaking’

In response to the Petland controversy, municipalities like Grove City attempted to step in and address the issue themselves.

As Petland prepared to open a store there in 2016, the Grove City Council passed a resolution that would have banned the company from selling animals it acquired from major breeders. Instead, Petland should source dogs from local animal shelters or rescue organizations.

The move led to lawsuits against Grove City and four council members, which the company dismissed after successfully lobbying for the ban on local regulations. The city’s policy sponsor, Ted Berry, said he still gets calls today from people who had negative experiences with Petland.

If Grim and Carruthers’ proposal passes, Berry said he would reintroduce his resolution in a heartbeat.

“It’s just heartbreaking,” Berry said. “People love these animals, and they are members of their families. I am finding that many have been raised in terrible conditions.”

The fate of the bill is uncertain. The first hearing took place last week, and that committee’s chairman — Rep. Bob Peterson, R-Washington Court House — supported the 2016 legislation to prevent local bans. Peterson declined to comment on House Bill 443, saying committee members will decide in the coming weeks which bills will be prioritized.

“I think we need to draw attention to the fact that Petland has a lot of power for some reason,” Grim said. “That should really worry a lot of people.”

Haley BeMiller is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations in Ohio.