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Suffolk poised to pass pet store ratings bill


Suffolk County lawmakers are expected to pass a bill Thursday that would establish five sets of criteria for a voluntary rating system approved last year for pet stores.

The effort takes aim at puppy and cat mills -- breeding operations that often mistreat animals.

In what may be the most contentious set of ratings -- sourcing of animals -- inspectors from the Pet Store Rating Board would look at where the animals came from. They would consider whether those sources have records of violating the federal Animal Welfare Act and whether store customers were told about the animal's origins before buying.

The four other categories -- in-store care of animals, housing, store operations and compliance with general laws -- would look at the health and fates of the animals, including the store's policy, if any, on unsold pets, evacuation plans, and the number of pets returned and why.

The proposed grading points are the second step in the Puppy and Dog Protection Rating Program passed by the county legislature in November.

"After months of hard work, we can finally say to potential pet owners, 'These are the practices of pet stores in the county, and this is how they stack up against each other,' " said Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport), the bill's sponsor.

"Once consumers have this information, they can make informed decisions on where to obtain their new pet and do it with the confidence that their pet was born and raised in humane conditions," he said.

Jon Cooper, the legislature's Democratic majority leader last year, initially wanted to ban puppy sales in county pet stores.

But store owners and trade groups complained the ban would unfairly clamp down on shopkeepers who deal with reputable breeders.

Cooper relented in favor of the voluntary rating system, acknowledging also that the county does not have the right to regulate pet stores.

Under the bill, pet store owners who want to be rated would contact the consumer affairs office. Spencer said some have already done so.

Volunteer inspectors from the ratings board would visit the store. They would come from the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, a trade group; the Suffolk County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; a Long Island animal welfare group; a retired veterinarian selected by the Long Island Veterinary Medical Association; and the county consumer affairs office.

A store would get one of four grades, according to the measure: a passing "yes"; "needs improvement," in which problems are minor and stores would get 60 days to correct them; "no," which means several violations were found; and "automatic failure," when conditions endanger the animals' welfare.

The county's consumer affairs commissioner would review explanations for ratings of stores that don't pass.