Taking a Closer Look at Complaints Against Pet Services Injured or Dead Pets Left Owners Heartbroken

15 October 2020
CHOICE Issue
528
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宠物服务投诉多面睇 宠物伤亡 主人心伤

Many people treat their beloved pets as part of the family and are willing to pay for the best services for them. However, if pet owners do not select the right service provider, their pets may end up enduring unnecessary harm and pain. Nowadays pet shops provide a wide range of services. In addition to buying / selling pets and pet grooming services, a number of them have recently launched "pet relocation" services catering for people who have immigration plans. The Consumer Council (or the “Council”) has received complaints regarding pet services, which have demonstrated that the quality of hyphenated  related businesses varies considerably. For example, a pet relocation service provider not only failed to reunite a pet owner with his pets, but also reported on the death of the pets to the owner. Consumers should be cautious about the subscription of pet services.
 
Case 1: Pet owner suffered substantial losses due to service provider´s malpractice in pet relocation
Upon approval of his immigration application, Mr. Cheung had to depart for Taiwan on short notice. In early October 2018, he engaged Company A to arrange for the relocation of his tortoise and 2 lizards to Taiwan at a cost of $7,100. Company A assured him verbally of an early November delivery date and gave him a sketchy handwritten receipt. However, Company A subsequently notified Mr. Cheung that they would need 2 more months to relocate his pets.  Mr. Cheung waited patiently but in early January 2019, he was asked by Company A to pay an additional $4,000 to ship the tortoise, and Company A promised to deliver the pets within 2 weeks after this payment.  Longing to see his pets, Mr. Cheung agreed to the payment reluctantly and deposited the said amount to a personal account provided by Company A. 
 
Mr. Cheung made a number of enquires in the subsequent weeks but Company A would make up different excuses for the delay. Mr. Cheung returned to Hong Kong in March to find out in person what was going on. After several attempts by Mr. Cheung, Company A promised to deliver the pets by the end of March. But nothing happened eventually. A friend of Mr. Cheung went to Company A to check on his behalf and found that a tortoise for sale looked very similar to Mr. Cheung´s pet.  Worrying that his pets were being put for sale, Mr. Cheung asked Company A for instant photos of his pets as proof of their safety. But this was met with rude and evasive replies which made Mr. Cheung more worried and therefore turned to the Council for help. 
 
Follow-up actions
The Council contacted Company A repeatedly but to no avail and thus advised Mr. Cheung through his relatives and friends in Hong Kong to find out from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) if any animal health certificates were issued for his pets, and that he could also consider collecting the pets from the company to ensure their safety. The Council was notified in mid-April that Mr. Cheung’s relatives and friends had retrieved the tortoise but were told by Company A that the 2 lizards had died already. They reported the case to the Customs and Excise Department (C&ED).  After investigation, C&ED told Mr. Cheung that there was insufficient evidence to prove that Company A had violated the Trade Descriptions Ordinance (TDO).  Mr. Cheung wanted to file a claim for the damages and the Council provided him with information relating to the Small Claims Tribunal (SCT). 
 
Case 2: Pet shop mixed up male and female kittens 
Miss Chan bought a 4-month-old Maine Coon kitten from Company B at a price of $14,280. After she took the kitten home, it started to show mild symptoms of unwellness. Miss Chan thought it might need more time to adjust to the new environment and therefore took extra care of it.  However, its condition deteriorated and Miss Chan decided to take it to a veterinarian.  The kitten was diagnosed with peritonitis, and Miss Chan opined that the immune system of a kitten was usually more fragile.  The kitten passed away eventually. Miss Chan was shocked to find out from the veterinarian that the kitten was actually a female, which did not match with the description on the receipt and vaccination record card provided by Company B which clearly had acted negligently or deceptively. 
 
Although nothing could bring back the kitten’s life, Miss Chan could not accept the company’s sloppiness in mixing up the gender. She even suspected that Company B might have swapped a sick kitten with the one she intended to buy.  Company B denied the accusations and refused to make any refund. It claimed that Miss Chan did not specify the gender of the kitten at the time of the purchase, and that peritonitis was not covered under the 14-day guarantee period as stipulated in the terms of the contract.  Miss Chan was unsatisfied with this response. She told the Council that the kitten she bought was of a different gender to what was put down in the receipt and vaccination record card, which was clearly an act of gross negligence and that Company B should not shift the responsibility onto the consumers. 
 
Follow-up actions
Company B responded to the Council saying that it would not make any special arrangements in Miss Chan’s case arguing that its refund policy was already set out in the contract, and that Miss Chan made the complaint 3 months after the purchase.  Miss Chan learned that Company B had not changed its refund decision after the Council´s conciliation, and she would consider filing a claim with the SCT and authorised the Council to report the case to C&ED for investigation.
 
Case 3: Poodle was injured during grooming service
Miss Lee took her poodle to Company C for pet grooming service.  2 hours later, she was told that an accident had occurred and was urged to return to Company C as soon as possible. Miss Lee was sad to find a wound and some bloodstains on her poodle which appeared to have been inflicted during the hair trim.  As Miss Lee was in a rush to take her poodle for medical treatment, she did not have the time to find out more details about the accident. Nonetheless, she held Company C accountable for the accident. After inspection, the veterinarian suggested to suture the wound by stitching, which would require general anesthesia. Considering that the poodle was already 13 years old and might not withstand the risk of general anesthesia, Miss Lee refused the suggestion and chose to clean the wound and feed her poodle with antibiotics daily. Miss Lee lodged a complaint with the Council about Company´s C negligence which had inflicted significant pain to the body and mind of her poodle. Moreover, the company did not express any solicitude nor follow up on the accident. Miss Lee therefore asked the Council to put the case on record and issue a letter to Company C to convey her dissatisfaction.
 
Follow-up actions
The Council sent a letter to Company C to convey Miss Lee’s dissatisfaction. The company replied saying that it was an accident and that it had already apologised to Miss Lee and paid for the medical expenses. After learning Company C´s response, Miss Lee said that the company had only paid for the medical expenses on the day of the incident, but her poodle was still under medical treatment. The Council suggested Miss Lee to consider seeking independent legal advice if she wanted to pursue further in recovering additional medical expenses.  
 
Conclusions
As can be seen from the cases above, the service providers had all acted irresponsibly to some degree. In the Case 1, the company only issued a simple handwritten receipt after receiving the payment, and verbally committed to the consignment date. It had failed to provide specific details relating to the pet relocation service, such as the application of the requisite import / export document(s) and purchase of air tickets, etc. Furthermore, asking the customer to deposit additional payment into a staff member’s personal account was also unusual. After making the payment, the complainant was looking forward to be reunited with his pets but ended up losing 2 pets instead. How the company had treated the 3 pets remained dubious.  After enduring for the loss, the poor complainant still had to spend time and effort on legal process to seek redress.
 
Currently, the rules and regulations in Hong Kong only require all dogs over the age of 5 months to be microchipped, vaccinated against rabies and licensed. Because the kitten in the Case 2 was not required to be microchipped, the complainant could only rely on the description, receipts, and vaccination record card provided by the company. Out of trust, the complainant did not suspect that the pet might have been switched. Receipts and vaccination record cards are important proofs for identifying the pets, and it is the pet shop´s responsibility to ensure that these documents and information are correct. If the information does not match the pet being sold, the pet shop may have violated the TDO.
 
Pets are living beings that deserve respect, and they should not be treated as mere commodities. Companies running pet-related businesses should act responsibly towards the pets and the owners.  They should not only focus on profits and ignore reasonable service quality. Money may not be adequate to compensate for any injury or death caused by a company’s malpractice or negligence. The Council has repeatedly reminded pet shops / companies to uphold good business ethics and to show respect and care towards the pets.
 
Pet owners shoulder the responsibility of caring for their pets for life. They should be extremely cautious with good standing and reputation, and pay attention to the following areas:
 
  • Check the procedures of pet relocation in advance: Consumers do not have to rely on service providers but to handle the pet relocation process by themselves. The relevant procedures will depend on the animal import regulations of the destination, which vary from country to country. Whether using a third party service provider or handling on their own, consumers should check the local animal import requirements through official channels, including health and vaccination documents, quarantine period (if any) upon arrival, etc. AFCD can issue or endorse Animal Health Certificates. You can visit the AFCD’s website for further information:

           https://www.afcd.gov.hk/english/quarantine/qua_ie/qua_ie_eapao/qua_ie_eapao.html

 
  • Research thoroughly and set aside adequate preparation time:  Consumers who intend to relocate with their pets should make arrangements well in advance. In addition to the time required to process documents, consumers also need to arrange air transportation for the pets. Not all flights allow pets on board. You must check with the airlines on pet slots and transportation requirements beforehand. Some airlines may prescribe the specifications of pet travel crates, and may prohibit certain species on board based on safety considerations.
 
  • Documents and contracts must be clear and don’t rely on verbal promises: Pet relocation process involve many procedures. Consumers and the company engaged for such service should enter into a written contract that clearly set out the service items, estimated processing time for each procedure, and arrangement for failed consignment.  If a company demands additional fees or deposits into a personal account after a contract has been entered into, the consumer should evaluate the request carefully and ask for an official receipt even if agreeing to such requests.
 
  • Arrange a check-up with a veterinarian when buying pets: Reports of pet shops selling sick cats and dogs appear from time to time. It is not easy for consumers to determine the health status of the pets and young pets are also more prone to sickness. Consumers should consider adopting instead of buying. If they decide to buy pets, they should only go to licensed pet shops, and check if there is any guarantee period, and enquire about the terms on refund and exchange. AFCD suggests consumers to check the cleanliness and mental condition of the pets before making any purchase, and to check and verify information on their vaccination record cards carefully. After the purchase, consumers are advised to arrange for a checkup with a registered veterinarian to ascertain the health status of the pets and to verify if the sex, breed, and age, etc. are consistent with the vaccination record cards. Consumers should contact the pet shops immediately if there are any issues. 
 
  • Check the pets’ physical conditions after grooming: Pet grooming involves procedures such as bathing, haircut and nail trimming. Groomers can inflict injuries on pets if they are not careful. After pet grooming services, consumers should check the bodies of their pets carefully. If there are signs of injury or abnormal behaviour, consumers should notify the companies immediately and tell them if the pets need any medical treatments from veterinarians. Consumers should retain the medical certificates and receipts properly as proof in case of disputes.