Critics say pet leasing is a predatory practice for pushing expensive puppies on people who do not always understand they are essentially renting an animal for months – and paying far more than they might have realized.

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Thinking about getting a puppy or kitten? If so, animal welfare advocates advise that you make sure the recipient is eager and ready for a pet, and they strongly suggest sourcing the animal from a shelter or a rescue group.

If you are determined to get one from a breeder or a pet store, you might want to double-check that you are actually buying the fluffy little bundle and not leasing it.

That’s right: Pet leasing is a fairly new but very real industry, and it is getting growing scrutiny from lawmakers and animal organizations such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. They say it is a predatory practice for pushing expensive puppies on people who cannot afford them and do not always understand they are essentially renting an animal for months – and paying far more than they might have realized.

This happened last year to Natalie Sullivan, a Brooklyn, New York, resident who now calls it a “very irrational decision; very stupid.” She and her roommate had been thinking about getting a pet, and they were being deliberate about it all until they fell for a tiny black French bulldog-Boston terrier mix at a pet store in Queens. The friends could not afford the puppy’s $1,450 sticker price, so they decided to take up a store employee’s offer of a “payment plan,” Sullivan recalled. They would pay about $123 every month for two years, according to the contract, which Sullivan shared with The Washington Post.

Once they were home in their small apartment, Sullivan reviewed the paperwork, and a sinking feeling set in. The documents indicated that although the puppy, which they had named Jane, now lived with them, they were not her owners – and they would not be for at least two years, when the lease ended. At that point, the women would have already paid nearly $3,000, but buying the dog would still require a final payment of about $266.

“It was a very absurd concept to me,” said Sullivan, 24, who works in television casting. “How do you lease a dog?”

There is nothing inherently unlawful about renting-to-own a living animal in the same way that you might pay for a car or a sofa. The contracts used by the most prominent pet-leasing firm, Wags Lending, include the word “lease” several times and inform lessees that they are “leasing the Pet and have no ownership rights in the Pet unless you exercise your purchase option, if any.” In a cheery video on its site, the Nevada-based company says leasing “helps customers afford that dream pet when buying outright is not an option.”

Jennie Lintz, the puppy mills campaign director for the ASPCA, said interviews with lessees and online customer complaints suggest that pet store employees or breeders often gloss over the terms of the lease – either because they do not understand them or because they want to make a sale.

“Their product is awfully cute,” Lintz said of sellers. “They have the benefit of that adorableness to get people over their discomfort.”

Even if the contracts might be legally sound, Lintz said, they are ethically troubling, in part because the person caring for the puppy has no ownership rights. The Wags contract states that lessees are responsible for “service and maintenance” of the pet, but it also warns that the company might repossess Rover if the lease is broken.

“Being treated as an inanimate object as part of a lease is problematic,” Lintz said. “It definitely raises issues about what people expect when they get a pet and the decision-making power they have.”

California and Nevada this year passed bans on pet leasing, and the ASPCA is lobbying other states to do the same. The Federal Trade Commission’s consumer information blog recently warned about the practice, noting that people who lease pets can still be on the hook for payments even if the animal dies.

“They are marketing to people who don’t have access to credit and who are looking to make a high-value purchase – a dog or cat that is worth a lot of money – which they just can’t afford,” Anna M. Caballero, a state representative who sponsored the California ban, told Capitol Weekly.

Wags’ parent company, Bristlecone Holdings, filed for bankruptcy in June, according to the Reno Gazette Journal, although Lintz said it is still operating. A spokeswoman did not respond to a request for an interview. (A Bloomberg profile of the firm and its founder has a lot of details about its model.)

Sullivan said the pet store where she got Jane was papered in signs telling customers they could take home a puppy for $50. An employee explained the purchase as something akin to monthly payments toward the sticker price, she said.

“He was like, ‘It’s not one of these things where if you miss a payment, we’re going to take the dog back. … It’s kind of how we do the payment plan,'” Sullivan said. “He was kind of downplaying it, like, ‘It’s not a big deal, people do it all the time.’ ”

Once she realized what she and her roommate had agreed to, Sullivan decided to dip into her savings and buy out the contract – and warn all her neighbors about the pet shop and this financing option. Additional fees meant that she and her roommate ended up paying nearly $1,800 for Jane, a sum she says she is “still reeling from.”

Jane now lives in suburban Philadelphia with the roommate’s parents, where she has lots more room to romp than she had in Queens.

“She is actually an awesome dog,” Sullivan said. “But I learned a very big lesson.”