What do pet stores carry?
Pet stores sell just about anything a pet — or its owner — could want. From leashes to pee pads to doggy bags to no-marking spray, pet stores offer popular brands for food, bedding and all manner of training tools. Most pet shops sell a selection of rawhide bones and chews as well.
Large pet stores often carry items for smaller animals, such as fish, hamsters and birds. These items include fish tanks and filtration systems, plastic tunnels, wheels and seeds. Much like a grocery store, these larger pet store chains try to appeal to as broad a market as possible, and while their selection will be wide, it typically isn't deep — to get specialty food or training aids, for example, you may need to find a smaller pet shop in your area.
Small pet shops might focus on several aspects of the industry — most commonly food and toys — but often have higher price tags. In some cases, smaller stores are worth this greater cost since you'll receive more one-on-one attention and will be able to special order items you don't see in stock. But smaller size doesn't necessarily mean better quality: Do your research on unique pet foods or dog toys and cat toys being sold to see if they're really a cut above or if they're more expensive based on name alone.
Many pet stores also have a website where you can buy pet supplies online.
Dog bakery basics
While dog bakeries are similar in principle to those bakeries which make treats for humans, there are several important differences. The first is a lack of legislation — many states don't have specific licensing and permit rules governing pet bakeries. Similarly, rules about labeling baked goods for pets aren't entirely clear; while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does lay out guidelines for pet food, the rules for labels aren't as clear and are often a state responsibility. As a result, baked goods for pets may or may not be labeled as "not fit for human consumption," even if they're designed for animals, or if they use entirely human-safe ingredients.
When you go looking for pet bakery items for your dog or cat, you want to use the same standards you'd apply to your own treats. Ask when the items were made, and if an ingredient list isn't readily available, ask for the information. While some allowances can be made for protecting a "secret recipe," bakeries should have no problem telling you what major ingredients make an appearance in their items. Any shop that includes ingredients that are harmful to dogs in their baked goods — such as grapes or chocolate — should be avoided, since those bakers haven't done the research required.
Pet bakery options
While you can expect to see some common themes at pet bakeries, such as peanut butter-filled treats for dogs or tuna-flavored snacks for cats, every business will have its own focus and specialty. Some produce dog biscuits in multiple flavors, while others have a host of freshly made desserts on display. Bear in mind that these aren't like standard bagged pet food and should be eaten shortly after buying. These treats typically contain no preservatives, so they won't last long. Other pet bakeries offer specialty items like dog cakes.
Many small bakeries also branch out into other areas of pet food — for example, the "raw diet" trend for dogs. This means they will have coolers of locally sourced beef, poultry or fish on display, in addition to ground meats and other specialty cuts. The same rules apply here as for any baked goods: Ask where the meat came from, how it was processed and if anything was added during its preparation.
Not all pet treat bakeries operate out of store fronts. It's possible to obtain a license in most states to run a bakery out of your home, and many start ups choose to go this way, selling their products online or at local markets. The advantage of this model is a lowered cost for customers, but judging quality can be more difficult. If you're considering purchases through an online supplier, make sure to check for other customer reviews. Contact the company via email or telephone before placing an order.
Pet store specialty services
In addition to selling supplies and sometimes animals, pet stores are also branching out into the service industry. This commonly includes pet grooming — nail trims, hair cuts and dog baths. These services typically come with a fixed cost, but the price can increase depending on the temperament of your pet. A particularly feisty feline with sharp claws may be refused service, for example, if there's danger to the animal and to staff.
Pet stores are also branching out into the dog training market, with many offering free classes on weekends to help pet owners get a handle on a new puppy's behavior or an old one's quirks. Some also provide for-pay classes over the course of weeks, but if you choose this option over professional kennel-based or private instruction, make sure to ask if the trainers are certified, what method they use — clicker, pinch collar or reward — and how many classes they've taught. There are very few state regulations for certifying dog trainers, so this is a "buyer beware" facet of the industry.
Do pet stores sell animals?
As Americans grow more fascinated with animals, pet supply stores have found new ways to attract business. Some pet stores now sell dogs and cats in-store, in effect providing a one-stop-shop for potential pet owners. But don't forget to factor in the following elements before buying any pets.
First, ask staff where the dogs and cats for sale came from. Some stores partner with local animal shelters or animal rescue societies to help ease the problem of unclaimed or maltreated animals, and will sell pets at little or no cost. Often, the adoption fee covers only the amount needed for a veterinary checkup and basic immunizations, for which the shelter has already paid.
Other stores claim to source their animals from reputable breeders. But be careful. Not all breeders are scrupulous about raising their dogs and cats in humane conditions. Signs that the pets for sale aren't from a reputable breeder is if the animals are very young (less than 8 weeks for puppies, for example) or if they're malnourished. If staff can't immediately identify where the animals come from, consider that another red flag.
Second, look at how the animals are being treated in-store. If staff don't seem to know anything about the animals and don't spend time interacting with them, care may not be highly valued by the company.
Avoid bad dog treats
The U.S pet food industry takes in billions of dollars each year. Owners are increasingly willing to spend large sums of money on their furry companions, further driving interest in the market. As a result, start-up businesses in the pet bakery niche are common, and owners must be careful to avoid sellers who aren't producing quality goods.
Word of mouth is the first important measurement. Ask friends who have pets, search online pet forums, or check out trusted reviews on sites like Angie's List to find out which bakeries in your city have the best reputation. Once you've narrowed down potential sellers, go in person to check out their storefront. Ask questions about whatever interests you in the store, and don't be shy about voicing your concerns; any owner who gets defensive isn't one you want to deal with.
Many stores also allow dogs on the premises. If so, bring your pet with you and see if what's being offered is of interest. Often, store owners will provide free samples to pets for a first visit, and this can help you figure out if the selection of treats is to your dog's liking.
Pet bakeries offer treats which are a cut above many prepackaged options. Getting your money's worth — and making sure your dog or cat really enjoys what you've purchased — means doing your research, taking your time and evaluating each bakery on its own merits.
Avoid a bad pet store experience
Not every pet product is created equal, and chances are you'll end up with at least one poorly-made pet toy or bag of dog food you'll never use.
But it's possible to sidestep most of the problems associated with animal supply stores by doing your research before walking in the door.
Large pet shop chains will be reviewed extensively online, while smaller pet stores will live or die mostly by word-of-mouth. Large pet store chains might also have better, easier-to-use return policies.
Even if you've been assured the store has great value and a good reputation, don't ignore obvious signs when you visit. You're under no obligation to buy anything, so if you see listless employees, empty shelves and a general lack of organization, you may want to find another store for your pet needs.
Wherever you go has the potential to capture your business for the long term — the store should earn your business, not assume it.