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YOUR MONEY: PET EXPENSES

Sickly puppies can be returned

April 13, 2008|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

How much is that doggy in the window?

And does he come with a money-back guarantee?

Yes, he does, according to California's so-called puppy lemon law, which allows a buyer to return a dog for the purchase price -- just like for a pair of shoes at Nordstrom -- if the animal gets sick because of an undisclosed illness or condition.

If that sounds heartless, the law also allows the consumer to keep the sick puppy and still be compensated for some medical costs.

"The puppy lemon law is especially for people who didn't want to take a dog back, like merchandise," said Mary Randolph, attorney and author of the book "Every Dog's Legal Guide." "They have a choice."

That was the situation for Aida Akhavan, who bought a Maltese puppy in June at Posh Puppy in Tarzana. She went there with her children, then 11 and 9.

"My kids wanted a small dog that they could hold and carry," Akhavan said. They picked out an especially playful puppy, for which she paid $1,900.

"We named him Junie, because of when we got him," she said.

The puppy was a bundle of energy and there were no major, apparent health problems until December.

"One night, all of a sudden, he yelped and I saw him limping," Akhavan said. "He couldn't put his foot down on the floor."

She took the dog to her veterinarian, where Junie was found to have a luxating patella, a genetic condition that causes a knee to displace.

Akhavan's vet told her the condition was congenital and probably due to overbreeding, which occurs when a female dog is kept nearly constantly pregnant so she can produce numerous litters.

Surgery to repair the condition would cost $3,200. But that wasn't so much on Akhavan's mind when she angrily called the store to demand contact information on the breeder.

"I needed to know who the mom was," she said. "I wanted to put a stop to it."

Posh Puppy has since become a focus of protests by animal rights groups that say it and a sister store in Beverly Hills get dogs from high-volume puppy mills. The owners of the store, John and Michelle Yoon, declined to be interviewed for this article.

Akhavan was not given the information she wanted by the store but was told she would be compensated for her vet bills. She had to be, under the puppy lemon law.

The law -- part of the Polanco-Lockyer Pet Breeder Warranty Act -- is triggered if a dog bought from a store or breeder becomes sick within 15 days of the sale or develops health problems because of a congenital condition within a year.

Although there are also kitten, bird and other pet mills that produce baby animals for retail sale, according to advocacy groups, the lemon law applies only to dogs. "People are much more aware of the problems with puppy mills," said Barbara Schmitz, an attorney with the group Born Free USA United With Animal Protection Institute. "That's what got the law passed."

The law allows an animal to be returned for a full refund of the price paid, plus up to the same amount in reimbursement for medical costs.

So, Akhavan could have gotten all her money back and been done with it.

But there was no way Junie was going back.

"We had him for six months," Akhavan said. "He was like one of us."

By keeping the dog, she was entitled to what she originally paid at the store, plus an additional 50%, for vet bills.

And she still had to fix Junie, who had suffered a setback. "Around this time the same thing happened to his other rear leg," Akhavan said. "Now he couldn't walk at all."

The veterinary surgeon said an operation would run about $5,500 for both legs. "There was no way I could afford that on top of the other bills," she said.

She called around and found a vet in Simi Valley who would do the complete surgery for $1,500.

The operation, delayed to allow the puppy's legs to grow a bit more, was done last month. Junie is recovering on schedule and has begun walking on his own.

"We are very happy," Akhavan said.

Although she came close to breaking even on her costs, Akhavan is still angry about the cruel conditions she believes surrounded Junie's birth.

"I was not able to accomplish what I wanted," she said. "That poor mom is out there somewhere, having puppies."

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david.colker@latimes.com

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