What If Fido Turns Out To Be A Lemon?

When new cars turn out to be lemons, most buyers wish they could trade them in. The same does not apply to sick puppies. People bond quickly with pets and often opt to nurse them back to health despite huge vet bills. That's on top of paying $200 to $1,000 for a purebred dog.

But you're not stuck. Many states are enacting "pet lemon" laws, similar to those for cars. While the laws require refunds or exchanges, in most cases they also provide for the reimbursement of vet bills. "People get attached to their pets. They don't want their money back," says Mary Randolph, author of Dog Law ($12.95, Nolo Press).

So far, 12 states have laws protecting buyers of dogs (and usually cats). "This is a hot issue with animal advocacy groups, and we expect more states to follow suit," says Ken White of the Humane Society of the U.S. The laws are aimed not so much at backyard breeders as at pet shops supplied by puppy mills that mass-breed dogs. The Humane Society estimates puppy mills produce 500,000 dogs a year, many with health problems caused by overbreeding or neglect.

DOGGONE SHAME. The laws require dealers to give customers written notice of their rights and allow them about two weeks for a vet checkup. An unfit dog can be returned for a refund or exchange in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, or Virginia. In addition, Arkansas, California, Florida, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, and Vermont have varying provisions for covering vet bills, usually up to the pet's cost. In states without such laws, Randolph suggests getting it in writing that the seller will refund your money if the animal falls ill.

The odds of taking home a healthy dog are better if you stick to breeders. For a list of those near you, call the American Kennel Club at 900 407-PUPS (99 cents a minute). If you buy from a pet store, check first with your consumer-protection agency or the Better Business Bureau about past complaints. Pick puppies that seem friendly, clean, and well-fed. (AKC papers ensure only pedigree, not health.) Some signs of illness include runny nose or eyes, sores, and dirty ears. But with a bit of diligence, you can take home a peach instead of a lemon.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.