Largo Leaders Push for Transparency at Pet Stores

LARGO — The City Commission asked the city attorney to draft a possible transparency regulation covering retail stores selling dogs and cats that operate in the city during its Jan. 14 work session.

The commission first addressed Largo’s animal code at its Oct. 8 meeting, when members asked the attorney’s office and the city’s Community Standards staff to review Chapter 5 of Largo’s city code covering animals, to possibly add restrictions to the commercial sale of dogs and cats within city limits and update ordinance language.

At issue is stores that sell dogs that come from so-called “puppy mills,” which the Humane Society of the United States defines as inhumane, high-volume dog-breeding facilities that churn out puppies for profit, ignoring the needs of the pups and their mothers. Dogs from puppy mills are often sick and unsocialized.

Largo currently has two retail pet stores — All About Puppies and Sunshine Puppies — that operate on Ulmerton Road.

Assistant city attorney Nikki Day told commissioners they essentially have three options to choose from in addressing the retail sale of animals within city limits.

The first would be a retail ban on the sale of cats and dogs within the Largo, with its two existing stores grandfathered in; the second, a possible city regulation that provides consumer transparency, requiring retail shops to display breeding information; or lastly, to take no action at all.

A transparency ordinance option would require animal retail stores to place cards or placards on cages that provide information about an animal and where it came from. 

“By providing transparency, the consumer can make an informed purchase where their animal is coming from,” Day said. “But in that case, the city does not have a dog in the fight — no pun intended.”

St. Petersburg is the first Pinellas County municipality to adopt a so-called puppy mill ordinance, followed by Dunedin, Safety Harbor and other municipalities, Day said.

In addition, city officials asked the city attorney’s office to review and revise certain definitions within Chapter 5 to clarify the city’s authority over residents’ domestic possession of animals.

The city attorney’s office also reviewed federal, state and county regulations covering puppy mills and what are called animal lemon laws covering retail sale of pets.

The city’s animal control is preempted to Pinellas County government, Day said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is the primary regulatory authority for breeders that transport animals over state lines. The state of Florida has a pet “lemon law” and minimal requirements breeders must meet. Pinellas County, however, has definitions and regulations on kennels, hobby breeders and pet dealers.

Local ordinances can’t conflict with county ordinances, so Day said the city’s options are limited. 

“With those three categories that the county is currently regulating, it does put the city in a little bit smaller of a box in terms of what it can actually do,” she said.

So, if commissioners wanted to regulate how and from where the stores acquire the dogs, Day thinks they would run into a roadblock.

“In terms of stepping in and being the entity that regulates where those pets can come from, I think in Pinellas County we may have a preemption conflict issue,” Day said.

Mayor Woody Brown, who supported a transparency option, asked Day to investigate whether such a city ordinance could also include a possible pet retailer violation law similar to the one currently used by the USDA to monitor and grade pet retailers.

“The transparency law and the retailer violation laws or rules, whatever, would go a long way to confirm and to validate that the people that are selling animals — cats and dogs — in Largo are getting them from respectable breeders that have USDA stamps,” Brown said. “That kind of solves any issue that I have with commercial (animal) sales.”

Day added that state lawmakers last year tried to pass legislation that would preempt any local regulations to the state, so the time was ticking if the city wanted its own set of rules.

“There may be again some state preemption legislation coming down the pike that may preempt cities from being able to adopt local regulations regarding the retail sale of cats and dogs and these types of topics,” Day said. “We will be monitoring that.”

Five citizens offered comment during the public portion of the meeting to voice support for the city’s two retail pet stores, including the owner-operators of “All About Puppies.”

The commission also asked the city attorney’s office and Community Standards staff to redefine current farm and livestock animal ordinance definitions under Chapter 5 of the city’s code to set clearly defined regulations for such animals.

“We felt that it was appropriate to clearly define some of the issues that we deal with when we introduce standards in dealing with animals,” said Community Standards Manager Tracey Schofield.

Citizen complaints about neighborhood animal livestock are rare, Schofield said.

“But we don’t have a mechanism (a defined ordinance) in place right now if it does occur, to be able to enforce it really,” Schofield said. “We felt it was appropriate to have at least something. We currently don’t have anything that really gives us something to work with.”