DENVER -- They're accused of selling sick puppies that in many cases end up dead shortly after purchase.
“It was something that I was not prepared for when I bought the puppy,” said pet store customer Jeremy Catbagan.
Catbagan has something in common with many other pet store customers, including Vanessa Licciardello.
Catbagan and Licciardello bought their pets from Puppies N Stuff in Northglenn. They said it did not take long to notice symptoms.
For Catbagan`s dog, Duke, it was a constant cough. Licciardello`s dog, Apollo, had a tremendous appetite but could not keep anything down. Both dogs are now dead.
Dozens of other Coloradans have similar stories, resulting in official complaints to the state. The FOX31 Problem Solvers obtained public records from the Colorado Department of Agriculture showing 14 complaints filed against Puppies N Stuff over the past year.
“With rescues and shelters, their whole goal is to find animals homes versus a pet store is a business,” said Dr. Allison Jenkins, a veterinarian at Highlands Animal Clinic. “[Pet stores] are trying to make money.”
FOX31 hidden cameras inside Puppies N Stuff showed kiddie pools filled with puppies. It didn’t take long to hear coughing during the undercover investigation.
One employee said the coughing was due to a puppy eating wood chips. Another employee blamed the coughing on kennel cough.
Veterinarians said a persistent cough can be a symptom of many things, including more serious illnesses. Dogs showing coughing symptoms should be isolated to prevent illness from spreading, according to Jenkins.
Puppies N Stuff said it buys from “private families,” but employees did not give details on their breeders. The dogs sold at the pet store are not rescues. They are born for the specific purpose of making money.
Each year, nearly 3 million dogs and cats are euthanized nationwide. Activists want to bring that number down by limiting the demand for breeding and the likelihood of families buying pet store puppies.
The Bensons were one of the many families unable to resist the puppy store temptation.
“Landon ended up finding Little Ms. Daisy and fell in love with this cute little fluffy white dog,” said Landon’s grandmother Shelley Benson.
In October, Benson bought a lhasa apso from Puppies N Stuff. The dog, Little Ms. Daisy, was intended to serve as a comfort animal for her 11-year-old grandson who was grieving the death of his mother. Five days after purchase, the dog was dead.
“To have lost the puppy, too, as well as losing his mom, was very devastating and that was probably why [Landon] took his mind off the dog because he was still having to deal with his mom,” Benson said with tears in her eyes. “[His mom] was only 30.”
State inspectors can only enforce minimum standards. That means they can’t force facilities to close long enough to prevent deadly diseases from spreading.
The Colorado Department of Agriculture said pet store contracts usually have limited return windows of about 10 days. But some symptoms take longer to develop, and by that time, contracts have expired.
“We sell so many good puppies,” said Sandy McDonald, owner of Puppies N Stuff. “I hate when [illness] happens. Believe me, it`s not anything I would plan.”
Even with mounting complaints and tearful customer accounts, McDonald claims she does as much as can be expected to keep the dogs healthy.
She said the animals she sells will have certain veterinarian bills covered for a year. But customers must go through veterinarians of her choosing. Those vets do not offer 24/7 emergency services -- something Catbagan said Duke needed.
“We love our dogs just like they are our own kids,” Catbagan said.
The personal heartache is real.
“I couldn't say bye,” Licciardello said. “I got to the point where when we had to put him to sleep, that day, I had to lift him up. He couldn't walk. He couldn't stand."
There are only a handful of stores in Colorado selling animals exclusively bred for profit. A group of state lawmakers are working to put an end to that.
“I think we can cut off a profit stream for those bad actors and we can start taking a strong step forward to protect puppies,” said State Rep. Alec Garnett.
Garnett said he wants pet stores to end the cycle by selling animals from humane societies or rescue shelters -- making Colorado a "rescue-only state."
Garnett, who loves dogs so much he brings his to work with him, is working on legislation to end puppy mill demand in Colorado. His effort has bipartisan interest.
“We need to look at, as a state, figuring out how do we regulate places like these -- so people don't have to go through what I went through and what hundreds of other people have gone through,” Catbagan said.
The owner of Puppies N Stuff insisted new legislation is not necessary.
“I honestly think, if you make it to where Colorado is a rescue-only state, which I know they're trying to do, your average family will never be able to experience having a puppy,” McDonald said.
But animal activists said there are dogs every year unable to find forever homes. Those dogs, including pure breeds, are living in shelters that can accommodate many different families.
“We just have to do everything we can as a society to cut out those mistreatments,” Garnett said.
Garnett expects his legislation will be introduced within the next month.