The strangest day was the first. No barking. No squeals from excited kids. Just some empty cages and a stream of customers who asked the same question. "Where are they?"
The owners of the Animal House pet store on 62nd Avenue N in St. Petersburg decided this year they needed a newer, greener image. So they tacked Naturals to the end of their name and added stacks of natural products.
They also did something many smaller pet stores wouldn't think of doing. They stopped selling puppies.
"It was a family decision," said Rebecca Hearn, who manages the store with her sister, Rachel. The store is owned by their parents, Jim and Donna Nannen. "And it was a bit of a gamble."
Puppy sales can account for up to 20 percent of monthly revenue, and the markup can be huge. A purebred puppy bought for $300 can be sold for $1,000 or more.
But sales at Animal House are better now than when puppies were sold, partly because of the store's partnership with local animal rescue and adoption groups. Each weekend, a different group brings dogs to the store, where customers can adopt them. And, of course, shop for supplies.
PetSmart and Petco are among major retailers that decided years ago not to sell dogs and cats. But smaller stores often can't afford to lose a large part of their business.
With the dogs gone, Animal House had to cut its staff, with most of the employees transferring to the 34th Street location in central St. Petersburg, which still sells cats and dogs. "We didn't want to lay people off," Hearn said. "But eventually, when (employees) start leaving our other store, we'll probably stop selling dogs there, too."
There is another reason Animal House doesn't mind losing its puppy business. According to the Humane Society of the United States, animal shelters euthanize about 4-million dogs and cats every year. But about a third of the nation's 11,000 pet stores continue to sell dogs and cats.
Hearn said her puppies came from licensed breeders. But many dogs sold in pet stores come from so-called puppy mills, commercial breeding operations that often come under fire from animal rights groups.
Authorities in north Pinellas County raided the home of a breeder and removed 120 dogs last month. Some had broken legs; others were undernourished and had sores from living in wire cages. Deputies said most of the animals were living in their own feces and urine.
Though pet stores may be the next link in the chain after a puppy mill, some stores are much more conscientious than others in tracking the history of their animals.
"Our position is that as long as they're dealing with responsible breeders, there's no reason why pet stores shouldn't be selling puppies," said Michael Maddox, a spokesman for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, the industry's main trade association. "We support selling from USDA-licensed facilities, so there are standards you can count on."
Not everyone agrees. "The problem is enforcement is so lax," said Stephanie Shain, director of outreach for the Humane Society, "that even minimum standards aren't followed. And I never found a pet store that said, 'Yes, we buy from puppy mills.' But the dogs are being sold somewhere."
Shain recommends adoption, or visiting the breeder, even it means a long car drive.
Veterinarian Mark Brown, ex-president of the Pinellas County Veterinary Medical Association and owner of Central Animal Hospital, said Animal House's decision "is the best news I've heard in a long time."
Brown said dogs purchased from puppy mills run a high risk of health problems. "I see it happen every day," he said. "But I'm hopeful it will stop. They used to sell baby alligators at Webb City."
Tom Zucco can be reached at (727) 893-8247 or [email protected]