Bought a pet and ended up with a “lemon”? Pet lemon laws are a sourly named bunch of legal rules governing how our society deals with purveyors of puppies and kittens who may unscrupulously pass along “tainted” merchandise.

Designed to thwart the reproduction, raising and sale of sick, deformed or otherwise less-than-healthy pets, these laws may be insensitively named, but they’re necessary, nonetheless.

It’s a depressing topic, I know. But if you’ve ever been unlucky enough to have found yourself among those who look to pet lemon laws for help, you’ll know that people need to understand that there are avenues for redress when everything goes wrong. To that end, here’s a primer on these laws:

In the world of pets, there’s almost nothing worse than investing your emotions in a “perfect” puppy or kitten only to learn that s/he suffers from a debilitating, life-altering––or even deadly––disease. 

Many states have instituted consumer protections so that pet shops and breeders can’t sell “damaged goods” without giving the buyer a way out––monetarily, anyway. 

Imagine you’re in the unenviable position of having bought a pet whose first pediatric veterinary visit turns out to be a disaster. Whether it’s a raging respiratory infection, nasty heart murmur, subtle limb deformity or obvious eye problem (among other possibilities), you’re now unsure as to what to do.

Almost invariably, every new owner now wants to run back to the pet shop or breeder screaming bloody murder about the injustice. And, truth be told, they often deserve to do so. 

Sure, many pet shops and breeders sell pets thinking they’re healthy and perfect examples of their breed, but (in my experience) if the average veterinarian can locate a problem at the very first visit, you’d start to wonder whether their merchandise was ever checked for basic quality before going out the door (as is required by law) or whether the health conditions at the facility are truly up to snuff.

That’s why lemon laws are usually designed narrowly. They tend to target high-volume pet sellers (not the show-pet breeder who sells a litter a year, for example) and often come with stipulations about how soon after purchase the pet must be checked for the law’s provisions to apply. After all, you shouldn’t expect money back if you didn’t bother to take the pet to the vet soon after purchase, anyway. It’s a basic. 

While pet lemon laws vary from state to state (some states don’t even have them yet), the basic idea is that if a problem becomes obvious within a couple of days to a few weeks (timing depends on the individual state’s provisions), your pet’s purveyor (sometimes depending on their volume of sales, but not always) should be asked to make good on the promise of a healthy product. 

Sometimes that means they must pay for your pet’s problems, up to a certain amount. Other times it means they must “replace” the merchandise (i.e., offer you a new pet). 

But, almost invariably, your pet seller isn’t required to tell you about these laws. It’s up to you (and your legally well-versed veterinarian) to know they exist. Unfair? Maybe. Nonetheless, it’s a buyer beware world out there. So get educated. Here's a list of pet lemon laws and how they work in some specific states. Better yet, I have a simple suggestion: Don’t buy animals from pet shops. Instead, find a reputable breeder, or better yet, adopt a dog from a trusted shelter.

Lemon laws exist primarily because pet shops tend to suck. No matter how healthy the pets look, no matter what line they feed you about where the animals came from, the truth is that, far more often than not, a puppy mill-style establishment is behind the gross deformities and chronic diseases these laws are meant to protect us from.

Which gets me to thinking... 

It’s about time our laws started attacking the real source of the problem. After all, the animals themselves aren’t the source of the sour taste left behind when pets are bred poorly, inappropriately cared for and sold like the fruit they’re accused of resembling when things don’t work out. 


Dr. Patty Khuly