After three hours of public comment and discussion, the San Antonio City Council on Thursday approved an ordinance prohibiting retail pet stores from selling commercially bred dogs and cats from so-called puppy mills.

While the ordinance blocks pet stores from purchasing dogs to sell from commercial breeders, they can partner with rescue organizations to sell shelter-sourced animals. The ordinance does not affect local breeders who are properly permitted from breeding and selling dogs and cats directly to individual buyers.

Changes to the City Code’s animal laws were presented to the City Council by Animal Care Services and take effect Jan. 1. The ordinance was supported by animal welfare organizations seeking to reduce the demand for animals bred at “puppy mills,” as high-volume commercial breeders are known.

Of 51 pet stores in San Antonio, just three sell dogs and cats, ACS Director Heber Lefgren told council members Thursday. The others provide space for local rescue agencies to host adoption opportunities. The changes to San Antonio’s city code on animals would affect only the three stores that sell commercially bred cats and dogs, Lefgren said.

Nine City Council members voted to approve the proposed animal code changes; Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) was absent and Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) voted against the ordinance. She said she thought the changes do not address San Antonio’s problem with strays and overpopulation of dogs, which is one of Animal Care Services’ main areas of concern.

“I just don’t see how this ordinance gets to the issues that are your core strategic plan,” Gonzales told Lefgren. “I think that people get very emotional when we talk about animals. We know that. Puppy mills … even the owners here want them to close. But I don’t understand how this ordinance gets to the strategic plan.”

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) disagreed, saying the new ordinance would help decrease the number of stray dogs in San Antonio because pet stores would only be able to sell dogs and cats from rescue organizations, reducing the number of animals sourced from outside breeders as well as discouraging unlicensed backyard breeders. In fiscal year 2020, more than 10,000 dogs and cats were taken in by private rescue organizations, Viagran said.

“We’re not going far enough with some items, but I think this is a necessary step of what we need to do moving forward,” Viagran said.

More than 380 cities around the United States already restrict the sale of dogs and cats in retail stores, Lefgren said. Among those are Austin, Waco, Fort Worth, and El Paso.

Because San Antonio can’t regulate out-of-state distribution and breeding of dogs, the City’s only recourse is to ban sales of commercially bred animals, Lefgren explained.

“While nearly every organization acknowledges the inhumane practices that are going on throughout the nation, it is also clear that the ability to regulate this, particularly from the city side, becomes very impossible to enforce. …,” he said “Even good pet stores who are wanting to do the right things oftentimes find themselves realizing that they have been dealing with in the past some of the bad actors.”

Pet store owners bristled at being associated with puppy mills, saying they carefully vet their breeders and vouch for the health of the dogs and cats they sell. Pet retailer Petland, which sells dogs purchased from breeders, hired local consulting firm OCI Group to help them make their case to City Council. 

“While well-intentioned and we appreciate the efforts of ACS on this matter, the proposed ordinance makes no distinction between good breeders and bad breeders and simply paints all breeders with the broad ugly brush of puppy mills,” Olivia Travieso, co-founder of OCI Group, said on Thursday.

Petland owner and operator Jaime Trueba said the ordinance changes would block consumers from being able to choose the pet they want.

“Passing a blanket ordinance that prohibits us from selling puppies or cats unless they’re directly from the shelter does not work with the business model,” Trueba said. “Petland provides our customers with the opportunity to choose a pet or breed or puppy that works best for the families. By implementing the ban, you’ll be taking away the right to choose and our ability to offer that service.”

Katie Jarl Coyle, the regional director of the Humane Society of the United States, serves as a District 8 appointee of the Animal Care Services advisory board. She told council members that nearly 1,000 pets are taken in by shelters each month.

“Our local shelters and rescues work tirelessly to find loving homes for these animals but are fighting an uphill battle,” she said. “While these organizations work to address this issue in our city, pet stores are importing hundreds of dogs into San Antonio from out of state. This ordinance will drive the pet market towards more humane sources and encourage pet stores to be a part of the pet overpopulation solution.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who voted for the ordinance, thanked all the commenters for their time and City staff for their work on the issue.

“My family has been blessed by having, at this point, four dogs who have been previously abused by breeders and puppy mills,” he said. “And so I have, for the last six years, been waiting for this.”

“At this point San Antonio is not in front of the pack on this issue of limiting puppy mills and the breeding that’s going on in many cases outside of our city limits that is causing problems with the animal overpopulation issue.”

The updated animal code also puts in place a minimum fine of $500 for first-time pet sale violators. People who violate their sellers’ permits will have to sterilize all of the animals who are located at the place of sale. The approved changes also restrict “free feeding” outdoors, which means people who either own outdoor cats or who take care of a feral cat group cannot leave food outside for the cats to eat to avoid attracting wildlife and pests.

Disclosure: OCI Group is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.