Editorials

Leasing a car or couch is OK. Leasing a cat or dog will soon be illegal in Washington, thank goodness

A Shih Tzu gets a backpack ride while his English Setter pal has to hoof it at the annual Dog-A-Thon to benefit homeless animals at the Humane Society for Tacoma and Pierce County. Animal shelters are a great alternative to pet stores, which are increasingly hooking buyers with pricey pet-leasing contracts.
A Shih Tzu gets a backpack ride while his English Setter pal has to hoof it at the annual Dog-A-Thon to benefit homeless animals at the Humane Society for Tacoma and Pierce County. Animal shelters are a great alternative to pet stores, which are increasingly hooking buyers with pricey pet-leasing contracts. News Tribune file photo, 2009

They protect our homes and play with our kids. They’re exercise partners when we feel active and bed warmers when we feel lazy. They provide hours of tail-chasing, stick-fetching, yarn-swatting entertainment.

Best of all, dogs and cats are steadfast companions until life’s last breath — usually theirs, but sometimes ours. For two days in April, a dog named Daisy stayed with the dead body of her 64-year-old owner during an ill-fated hike near Eatonville. Daisy’s barking alerted a search-and-rescue team to their whereabouts.

Pets will do nearly anything for their people, including acts of heroism. (Well, dogs will, anyway. Cats? Don’t bet your life on it.)

But there’s one sacrificial role they should never have to fill:

Serving as collateral on a loan.

Strange as it sounds, a long-term lease is a new type of financing arrangement for cash-strapped buyers of pedigreed dogs and cats or mixed-breed “designer” pets.

Soon such contracts will be illegal in Washington. As one of their small but commendable achievements of the 2019 session, legislators banned the use of dogs or cats as collateral in a consumer lease or secured transaction.

If Gov. Jay Inslee signs the bill as expected, Washington will join California, Nevada and New York in outlawing a mercenary practice that’s bad for pets and the humans who love them.

“We’re not talking about a car or a couch or something inanimate,” said Caroline Zimmers, an animal hospital owner and 40-year veterinarian who testified in favor of House Bill 1476. “We’re talking about a living creature and the family of that living creature.”

It seems absurd that failing to keep up on lease payments could result in a beloved pet being repossessed like your neighbor’s Corvette. But there’s one key difference; as the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Derek Stanford (D-Bothell) noted, a dog or cat can’t be reprogrammed to its original factory settings.

A handful of national companies, such as Wags Lending, have entered the lease business in partnership with pet dealers. Financing terms can be outrageous, with accumulated fees and balloon payments amounting to double or triple the upfront cash price.

State action was warranted to curb a rising number of complaints.

Frankly, this is a type of consumer protection we didn’t know consumers needed. But it stands to reason that people form emotional bonds with cute animals they meet at pet stores, which makes them vulnerable to exploitative sales tactics.

A Puyallup woman testified she took her kids to the local Puppyland store, where the family fell in love with a purebred husky last winter. The $3,000 cost was more than she could pay, so she let herself be talked into a lease. What she didn’t see buried in the fine print was the total cost after a couple years of payments: more than $7,000.

The puppy turned out too rambunctious for the family to handle. The woman sold it for $950 but said she’s still on the hook for the lease.

Stories like hers point to broad societal problems outside the Legislature’s purview. First, people shouldn’t buy things they can’t afford, nor sign contracts they don’t understand. Second, Washington animal-welfare agencies are awash with affordable dogs and cats that need good homes; more public education is needed to spread that message and keep people from visiting pet stores in the first place.

HB1476 has limited scope and won’t shut down puppy or kitten mills.

Still, Washington public officials have a responsibility to address vague or deceptive business practices, just as they did when they imposed more regulations on the payday loan industry in recent years.

Cracking down on the worrisome pet-leasing trend before it becomes more widespread was a sensible step for state lawmakers to take.

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