1. "You'd save serious kibble buying elsewhere."
Consumers may find it's cheaper to browse other retailers' pet-supply aisle than make a trip to a dedicated pet store. Dollar stores usually carry tug ropes and plush toys, at a discount of 50% or better, says Teri Gault, founder of TheGroceryGame.com, a price-tracking site. Big-box stores, drugstores and supermarkets tend to have better supply prices, too. At Wal-Mart, an "intermediate"-size Remington plastic pet carrier is $38.67, versus $49.99 at PetSmart. Target edges out pet store Wag.com on the ScoopFree Ultra self-cleaning litter box with a price of $135.49 instead of $144.49.
Pet food and treats require more diligent shopping, especially if you're buying a mass-market products, says Paris Permenter, author of "Barkonomics." Pet stores' regular prices do often beat out those of supermarkets and other stores, for example. According to The Grocery Game, a three-pound bag of Purina One Beyond cat food regularly costs $8.99 at Petco and PetSmart, while Safeway has it for $9.99. But more frequent sales give an edge to supermarket pricing, Gault says. When it's on sale, the same bag goes for $5.49 at Safeway and $6.45 at Target. At Petco, a recent sale reduced the price to $6.99. (Online pet store prices can be even cheaper, but shipping charges often add to the price. Free shipping offers typically exclude food.)
Pet stores counter that they offer a wider selection and more knowledgeable employees. "They have one pet aisle. We have over 20,000 unique products," says David Zhang, site leader for online store Wag.com. A spokeswoman for Petland, which operates stores in 21 states, says its knowledgeable staff sets it apart from general retailers that sell pet supplies. A Petco spokeswoman says their prices are competitive, and that the store will match competitors' deals.
[Related: Decoding Your Dog's Behavior]
2. "Do as we say, not as we do."
When she found herself between jobs, toxicologist and iguana owner Ann Schnitz got a part-time job as a reptile specialist at a major pet store chain. She was surprised to see the store used bark chips on the bottom of the reptile cages, which many experts caution against. "They can ingest those," she says, and trigger a deadly intestinal block. She suggested using a replaceable tank liner instead. But the store held firm. "They thought this looked better, and it sold more bark," Schnitz recalls.
Experts say store enclosures are rarely accurate models of what a home setup should look like. They're often too small, reflecting both the store's space constraints and expectations that the (often young) animal won't be there long, says Melissa Kaplan, the author of "Iguanas for Dummies." Overcrowding is a problem, too, to the point where "they house different species together that would never be found together in the wild," she says. Plus, as Schnitz found, stores may also use enclosures as a product showcase, even if those items aren't a perfect fit for that species -- or safe for it.
Displays vary widely from store to store, but good pet stores make an effort to meet the animal's needs, says Michael Maddox, a vice president at the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council. "In terms of the enclosure sizes, you do have to take into account that there's a difference between a temporary housing environment and a permanent housing environment," he says. Petco uses veterinary and engineering experts to design its displays, a spokeswoman says, and products placed in them are reviewed for safety by in-house and independent veterinarians and other experts.
To be safe, Permenter and others suggest talking to a vet or another animal expert about what food and supplies are necessary for the animal's health and happiness -- before buying that animal. Maddox says store employees should also be prepared to share that information, and provide care sheets. (Petland and Petco both say they do.) It can also help to check with animal fancier groups and retailers that specialize in a particular animal, especially if it's exotic, Kaplan says. "Pet stores don't always know everything about the animals they're selling," she says.
3. "Fido came from a puppy mill."
Pet stores that sell dogs usually say their puppies come from U.S. Department of Agriculture-licensed breeders. The Animal Welfare Act requires any breeder with four or more females and that sells to pet stores be licensed, and the USDA is responsible for conducting regular inspections. "There's always room for improvement in any regulatory standard," says Maddox, but "by and large, the standards are good." Animal-welfare groups disagree. Federal care standards are so minimal and enforcement so irregular that licensed kennels still include many so-called puppy mills, which breed and house animals in inhumane conditions, says Cori Menkin, senior director of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' puppy mills campaign. "Most pet store puppies come from puppy mills," she says.
A 2010 audit of USDA enforcement by the Office of the Inspector General found that the department didn't properly cite breeders' violations, and that the enforcement process was ineffective at curbing repeat violators. Dave Sachs, a spokesman for the USDA, says that has improved. "One problematic breeder is one too many, so we stay on top of those individuals and make sure they adhere to the regulations," he says.
Pet-store purchasers do risk getting an unhealthy puppy from a bad breeding facility, says veterinary specialist Dr. Justine Lee, associate director of the Pet Poison Helpline. Pet store puppies can cost upwards of $1,000, but bad living conditions at puppy mills and too-early separation from their mothers often make puppies sick (see #4). Muddled breeding lines can bring out congenital defects, she says. A 2011 study from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and Best Friends Animal Society also found that puppy mill puppies often have longstanding psychological damage leading to fearful and compulsive behaviors.
Instead of a pet store, consumers may want to look to either a reputable local breeder or an adoption group, says Melanie Kahn, senior director of the Humane Society's puppy mills campaign. Petco, which does not sell dogs or cats, agrees that adoption should be the first option. "Petco always recommends that anyone looking to add a new pet to their family consider adopting a companion animal in need of a loving home -- rather than purchasing one -- even if it's an animal we sell in our stores," a spokeswoman says.
[Related: 14 Things You Should Always Buy Used]
But Patti Strand, national director of the National Animal Interest Alliance, says buying from a pet store shouldn't automatically be out of the running. "There are some very nice commercial kennels that work really hard and take excellent care of their dogs," she says. Pet stores can be the sole source of particular breeds in some areas, and a better alternative than buying sight unseen. Ask the pet store for information on the breeder and check those records against its inspections at the USDA's site, Strand says. Petland's spokeswoman says the store's policy is to source puppies only from local adoption groups, hobby breeders (as defined by the Animal Welfare Act), and USDA-licensed breeders with no direct violations on their latest inspection report. Company employees often inspect breeders' facilities themselves, she says.
4. "Brace yourself for that vet bill..."
"Puppies and kittens from pet stores are not necessarily healthy," says Dr. Lee. The laundry list of illnesses includes respiratory infections and parasites, which can make the rounds among small mammals, reptiles and birds as well. For puppies, there's also parvovirus and distemper, viruses that can lead to lifelong complications or death. All can be expensive to treat. Dogs from commercial breeders may have more extensive congenital defects -- like heart disease, blood disorders and hip dysplasia -- that may not become apparent for several years, she says. It's not just purchased animals at risk. Dogs and cats adopted from stores' rescue partners can have those same health problems, too. "A lot of those animals are actually shipped from somewhere else in the world, where there are more strays," Lee says. "They bring up a whole totally different range of infectious diseases." After Hurricane Katrina, for example, rescued dogs sent to other states for adoption spread ringworm and heartworm.
The stores say veterinarians regularly check animals' health. Sick animals are monitored closely and quarantined while they recover, according to Petland and Petco.
Shoppers should still carefully examine the animal for physical symptoms and unusual behavior before buying. But not all problems are obvious, and animals are good at hiding pain, Lee says. "As soon as you get your pet, bring them to your veterinarian," she says. Many states have "lemon laws" covering pet owners' veterinary bills for illnesses and injuries existing at the time of the animal's purchase, Menkin says. Some allow claims as far as two years after purchase if the pet is found to have a congenital or hereditary defect. Stores may also include "warranties" with similar coverage. But in either case, the pet store's liability is typically capped at the animal's purchase price, she warns.
5. "...and a doctor bill for you, too."
Some diseases affecting pet store animals can also make you sick, whether you take the animal home or just pet it in the store. Puppies, kittens and other mammals may transmit parasites, while reptiles and amphibians can carry salmonella, says Dr. Casey Barton Behravesh, a veterinary epidemiologist with outbreak response and prevention for the Centers for Disease Control. Ongoing salmonella outbreaks linked to contact with turtles and African dwarf frogs have sickened 124 and 241 consumers, respectively. (Although the Food and Drug Administration prohibited the sale of turtles measuring less than 4 inches in 1975, some ill consumers still report encountering them in pet stores, she says.)
In recent years, the government also traced outbreaks of monkeypox (a virus in the smallpox family) and lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (a form of meningitis) to pet store animals. And live animals aren't the only risk. Since August, the CDC has tallied 46 cases of salmonella linked to pet owners handling frozen feeder mice, while another 22 fell ill with it after contact with contaminated dry dog food.
Consumers' best recourse is limited contact with store animals and pet food, and vigorous hand-washing immediately after, says Barton Behravesh. "You can't look at an animal and tell if it's contaminated with salmonella," she says, "and you can't look at dog food and tell, either." Petland and Petco both offer hand-washing stations, and Petland requires their use before and after handling animals. "The chance of getting a disease from animals at Petco is much lower than that from handling raw chicken or beef from your local grocery store," a spokeswoman says. An FDA spokeswoman says consumers should also be on the lookout for recalls. Wag.com's Zhang says the site pulls recalled items from the site and emails all customers who purchased affected food, offering them a free -- safe -- replacement.
Click here for the full list of Things Pet Stores Won't Say.
More from SmartMoney: