Jan. 29 (UPI) -- Legislation is gaining traction in New Jersey to make it the fourth state in the nation to outlaw a shorter-term form of pet ownership known as pet leases, which advocates say are deceptive to owners and unfair to animals.
Assemblyman Kevin J. Rooney has called the leases predatory and deceitful, saying they aim to tug on the emotional heartstrings of pet owners to set up payments that often become difficult to keep paying down the road.
"They target families who fall in love with a dog or cat that they can't afford," Rooney said when he introduced a bill to ban such leases. "[Owners] sign up for what they think is a simple payment plan, an offer too good to be true. They sign a lease without understanding the fine print or knowing the total cost."
Pet leases are similar to other installment plans. In an effort to spare owners a big fiscal hit up front, the cost is split into smaller payments -- which come with added baggage like interest and other fees the owner may be unaware of.
The bill, which is still in committee, would make leasing dogs and cats a violation of New Jersey's consumer fraud law. Violators would face a steep fine, between $10,000 and $30,000 for, in addition to potential litigation and refund costs.
If the legislation passes, New Jersey will be the fourth state to institute a pet lease ban. California, Nevada and New York already outlaw the practice.
"Families can suffer a serious financial hit, and if they miss a payment, the family pet can be repossessed," Rooney said, who said some leases double or triple the original price of the pet. "You're not buying a dog -- you are renting it."
The concern, however, is two-fold. Advocates of a ban say pet leases sometimes also turn out to be a bad deal for the pet, when payments are missed and the animals are effectively seized.
John Goodwin, a senior director at the Humane Society of the United States, told UPI the issue is part of a larger problem -- "puppy mills," which are for-profit, high-volume dog breeding facility that sometimes supply pet stores. In an effort to get animals sold, he said, some sellers have turned to predatory practices where customers don't know the full picture of what they're getting into.
Goodwin said measures like the one in New Jersey helps educate an often unknowing public.
"Until a year ago, no one was aware of [leases] except for a handful of consumers who'd learned the hard way," he said. "I think there's a little more awareness about this, but I think the vast majority of people have no idea that these puppy-selling stores are deceiving customers.
"[They tell] them about this finance program, without telling them [about] paying double while never really owning the dog."
Goodwin said word is getting out, though. In addition to New Jersey, Texas and several other states are considering bills to ban divvying up pet costs. He said in a similar effort to ban puppy mill sales, these laws will eventually reach a tipping point and spread the word nationally.
"Just the fact that this debate is going on is already putting more of a spotlight on the problem, and will save families from being duped by predatory pet stores," Goodwin said. "We have always argued that the treatment of animals and humans are linked together."
Last year, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals filed a lawsuit in New Jersey Superior Court by two New Jersey women who say they were effectively duped into leasing their dog, Cooper. The suit names New Jersey-based Breeders Club of America and My Pet Funding, based in Sterling, Virginia.
The suit says the seller classified the transaction for Cooper as a sale, but specified lease terms in underlying documentation.
"These predatory financing schemes only benefit the lending company and the pet store, while severely exploiting both the animals and their potential owners," Jaime Olin, ASPCA legal advocacy counsel, said in a statement to USA Today. "Few consumers seem to be aware of how these financing arrangements are set up, and oftentimes the word 'lease' is never mentioned during the process."
Robert Likins, vice president of government affairs of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, the country's largest pet trade association, said in a statement to UPI it has not yet taken a position on pet leases. Calls to the Pet Industry Distributors Association were unanswered due to a leadership conference, according to a group message.
New Jersey's bill, though, might not be without problems. The American Kennel Club said this month while it supports protecting pet owners from predatory practices, it's concerned the proposed ban might inadvertently penalize purebred dog breeders.
"We are concerned, however, that [New Jersey Bill] A4552 would not only ban those leases, but also another, very different type of lease that is used by responsible breeders to preserve specific bloodlines and breeds of dogs," the club said in a letter to New Jersey State Assemblyman Paul D. Moriarty, chair of the legislature's consumer affairs committee, obtained by UPI.
Goodwin said he believes his proposal already takes steps to ensure such breeders will not be unfairly punished.