When Lovie Langston stumbled on an online listing for a white Maltese puppy, she was immediately captivated by the dog’s “beautiful face,” she says. Langston and her husband decided the pup, named Ziva, would be the perfect Christmas present for their family.

In November 2021, Langston met Ziva at the Petland Bellaire store in Houston, Texas. She noticed how inactive the small dog seemed. “She wasn’t like a normal puppy running around, playful. No wagging of the tail.” Langston asked several times if Ziva was healthy. When staff said yes, Langston accepted their answer. As Ziva curled up in her arms, Langston “fell deeply in love with her.”

Ziva had a steep $7,000 price tag, but Petland offered financing. Staff signed Langston up for multiple loans, one of which had a 133.99% interest rate.

A year later, Ziva would be dead, and Langston would still owe thousands of dollars.

“I am paying $7,000 for ashes,” she says.

Predatory lending

The Humane Society of the United States tracks complaints from people who purchased puppies from pet stores and breeders. Over 15 years, we’ve received 7,887 complaints, many of which mention financing plans like Langston’s.

“Some years back, pet stores realized that they could charge infinitely larger prices for the puppies if they offered financing,” says John Goodwin, senior director of the HSUS Stop Puppy Mills campaign. “Instead of selling a puppy for $1,000, you can sell a puppy for $5,000 and convince the customer that they’ll just have these low, low monthly installments.” Some pet stores have stated that up to 80% of the puppies they sell are financed through third-party lenders.

“What they don’t mention is that those interest rates are often extremely predatory,” says Goodwin, who has seen interest rates as high as 188%.

“Under federal law, banks can charge whatever interest is allowed in their home state all over the country. And so predatory lenders have found a few rogue banks,” explains Lauren Saunders, associate director of the National Consumer Law Center.

These high interest rates aren’t the numbers customers first hear, though. In fact, at many pet stores, salespeople won’t even tell a customer the puppy’s price tag until they’ve fallen in love with the animal and can’t imagine leaving the store without them.

If someone is shocked by the high price,  salespeople often pitch financing as a solution, says Marie Langlois, a public policy specialist with the HSUS Stop Puppy Mills campaign. “They’ll often discuss the best of the best offers that they have,” says Langlois. “It’s not necessarily what the customer is going to get approved for.”

Many pet stores employ young workers who may not understand the financing programs themselves—let alone explain them effectively to customers, Langlois adds. Contracts are often presented on small tablets, making it difficult to examine the fine print, and some buyers have complained that they didn’t see the actual interest rate until they’d made the purchase. Salespeople may also discuss costs in terms of monthly installments rather than total price, confusing the customer.

Tragedy after tragedy

Ziva went home with Langston. Just a few hours later, the pup began shaking and could barely hold up her head. Langston took her to a veterinary clinic where she learned Ziva had severe, life-threatening hypoglycemia and infected stitches from a previous operation.

Langston filed a claim with Petland and requested a refund. They refused. Ziva survived, but she suffered from multiple seizures over the following months. The veterinary bills started adding up—on top of the monthly loan payments. “I had to choose to keep her alive … or pay this light bill. I just had to keep Ziva alive for as long as I can,” Langston says.

Despite the many hardships, the family cherished their time with Ziva. “When she had her good days, she was the most loving dog,” Langston says. “She never wanted to be by herself.” Their time together would ultimately be short: Ziva died around a year after Langston first brought her home. Since her death, Langston says “life hasn’t been the same.”

After Ziva’s death, Petland again denied Langston’s claim asking for a refund. Langston was left without her dog—and with $7,000 still to pay.

I had to choose to keep her alive … or pay this light bill. I just had to keep Ziva alive for as long as I can.

Lovie Langston

Hope on the horizon

As pet store financing programs have risen in popularity, so has legislation to stop them. California, Illinois and Washington now ban sellers from offering financing for dogs and cats. A 2022 bill introduced in Pennsylvania did not make it to a vote, but legislators plan to reintroduce the bill.

State attorneys general are also taking action. Former Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller reached a settlement with Transportation Alliance Bank over loans it offered with interest rates far above the state’s cap. Miller started investigating the bank after a couple took out a $1,500 loan to help buy a dog from Petland, which came with an interest rate of 188.9% after 90 days, Iowa Capital Dispatch reports. The dog died from renal failure at 20 months old.

The HSUS has also petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to implement regulations against unfair or deceptive practices used in pet stores, including predatory financing, and is working with the National Consumer Law Center to urge the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (which supervises certain financial institutions) to address this issue.

While legislative and regulatory changes are under consideration, consumers can protect themselves while reducing demand for puppy mill puppies: Langlois says people interested in acquiring a puppy should go to shelters, rescues or reputable breeders. Many shelters, currently over capacity, are offering animals for a reduced or no fee. Langston echoes this advice: “Do not, do not, do not go to any of the pet stores.”

“I don’t regret Ziva,” she says. “I just regret the fact that I got her the way that I did.”

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