A class action lawsuit filed by pet owners claims Petland Inc., the country's largest pet store chain, and a Missouri company that brokers dogs conspired to sell unhealthy puppy mill puppies to unsuspecting consumers.

The suit alleges Petland and the Hunte Corporation deceived thousands of pet owners nationwide by falsely claiming their puppies came from reputable breeders when most were from commercial breeding operations called puppy mills.

Six pet owners — including two members of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) — filed the lawsuit in Arizona federal court.

Petland has approximately 140 stores in 31 states and is the country's largest retail chain that sells puppies. The Hunte Corporation calls itself the "world's leading licensed distributor of pure-bred puppies" to select pet stores.

The action alleges Petland and the Hunte Corporation violated federal law and various state consumer protection laws by misrepresenting that the puppies sold in Petland stores are "the finest available" and come from reputable breeders, when the puppies actually come from puppy mills, and are bred and raised in unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

Puppy mills are commercial breeding operations that experts say churn out two to four million puppies each year.

"To operate this puppy production line, female dogs are bred at every opportunity without sufficient recovery time between litters," the lawsuit states. "Once these breeding females are physically depleted to the point they lose the ability to reproduce, they are generally destroyed using inhumane methods."

"While alive and forced to reproduce, the breeding female and her puppies are confined to a wire cage barely large enough to turn around in, sometimes exposed to the elements, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week and three hundred sixty-five days a year," the lawsuit alleges. "[T]hese cages in which the breeding female spends her entire life, and the puppies' first several weeks of life, are floored with wire mesh to facilitate waste removal and cleanup without regard for the health and wellbeing of either the puppies or their mother."

Puppy mill puppies often have health problems, genetic defects, and behavioral issues, according the lawsuit.

The class action lawsuit describes several cases in which Petland sold sick and dying puppies — many of which came from puppy mills — to consumers nationwide, including the six plaintiffs in the case.

Petland also requires each of its stores — which are either owned by the corporation or operated as a franchise — to buy their puppies from suppliers the company has approved. "And nearly every one is either a puppy mill or a puppy mill broker," the lawsuit claims.

Companies: Allegations are "false and baseless"

Petland and the Hunte Corporation denied what they called the "false and baseless" allegations in the class action lawsuit.

"Petland Inc. is outraged and disappointed at the latest false accusations propagated by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a radical animal rights group that has no affiliation with local humane societies," the company said in a written statement. "This new attack from HSUS is in the form of a class action lawsuit based upon vague and undefined legal arguments. This is a continuing public relations campaign to smear the good name of Petland and to increase HSUS donations by utilizing sensationalized media and legal attacks."

Petland said at least two veterinarians certify that all its puppies are healthy, and that the company stores meet or exceed all state and federal requirements related to the health of each of the puppies it sells.

"Petland only supports breeders that abide by the 'Humane Care Guidelines' developed by Petland in conjunction with the U.S. government," the company said. "It has been Petland's policy for more than 40 years to stand against substandard breeders."

"I've read every word of the lawsuit and I can only see one puppy that even came through the Hunte Puppy Care program," said Hunte Corporation company president Steve Rook. "The other (puppies) don't have anything to do with us."

"This lawsuit (was filed) to help the Humane Society of the United States reach its goal to receive publicity and increase its donations," he added.

Rook said that puppies come into their only after it receives a complete health evaluation, and that most pet stores also have their own veterinarians examine the puppies upon arrival.

"A puppy must have two to four veterinary examinations before it's sold," he said. "How does that make us a business model for conspiring to sell unhealthy puppies?"

Meanwhile, Petland downplayed the complaints received from consumers, saying puppies, like babies, sometimes get sick.

"It's no different than a child being more conducive to colds or earaches," said Petland spokeswoman Lacey Clever. "And, all Petland puppies are screened and examined by at least two and often three or more licensed certified veterinarians. The veterinarians certify these puppies' health."

Petland's warranty also protects puppies against congenital and hereditary disorders for up to a year after purchase, Clever said. "In other words, if a pet develops an issue at some point in their lives, this does not in any way indicate that the puppy came from a substandard breeder."

Consumers who have complaints about their puppy's health should immediately contact their local Petland store, Clever said. She did not, however, say what consumers should do if the Petland store where they purchased their puppy goes out of business or if the corporate office does not respond to inquiries.

The HSUS claims that it contacted the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) over Petland's claim of adherence to the "Humane Care Guidelines" developed in conjunction with the agency. The HSUS filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the USDA to verify that such guidelines existed, but the agency could not locate any records sufficient to answer their request.

"Needs to be shut down"

The class action lawsuit comes on the heels of an eight-month investigation by the HSUS , which revealed most of Petland's puppies came from puppy mills.

Since news of the class action lawsuit has spread, the HSUS said it has received hundreds of calls from heartbroken pet owners.

ConsumerAffairs.com has also received scores of complaints about Petland selling sick puppies or dogs with behavior issues. One reader even wrote in claiming that Petland employees mistreat animals. For example:

• "On March 11, 2008, we purchased a black and tan, male Miniature Pinscher from Petland in Murfreesboro, Tennessee," says Don H. "Prior to the purchase we made several trips to Petland to play with him and observe his behavior. On each visit we were told by a Petland employee how all the puppies were breed by top breeders and guaranteed to be free of any major illnesses or deformities. When our puppy, Hans, was approaching his first birthday we noticed he was not using his one of his back legs as before. After having him examined by the veterinarian, we were told Hans had a very serious problem with his hip. Consequently, due to the increasing pain and limitations, Hans had to undergo a femoral head and neck ostectomy (FHO). The surgery was very painful for Hans, and very expensive. Hans is currently undergoing physical therapy. In addition, the surgeon informed us that he was confident that Hans had Legg's Perthes Disease. This is a disease our healthy puppy had when we purchased him. We attempted to contact Petland in Murfreesboro, but the store went out of business. We have contacted the cooperate office, with no response. We do not wish to return our puppy. We love him and consider him a part of our family. Because of the Petland guarantee, we expect the company to reimburse us for medical cost. Also, it is very disturbing to know this company continues to sell sick puppies. We have tried to find the breeder, with no luck;"

• "We purchased a Cavalier King Charles (from Petland) back on 1/12/07 and from the day we got her home the health problems began," says Candace B. of Georgetown Texas. "She had kennel cough which then turned out to be pneumonia. We went to their (Petland's) recommended vet in Cedar Park, which did nothing for us. Then we found out our puppy had a hernia operation during the time she was at Petland...our new vet informed us that she has luxating patella or trick knee, so she carries her leg when she walks. Surgery would cost thousands, and after that, she still may not get better. This dog has had reoccurring ear infections as well as anal gland issuesthe dog also has food aggression, which is very uncommon to this breed. We also spoke with professional breeders of this breed and they determined she is not a pure breed Cavalier King Charles due to her long nose and size plus features. We love this dog so much and don't blame her for Petland's greedy business tactics. I feel this company needs to be shut down."

• "I know not all Petland stores can be so bad, but I do know the one in Boardman is run horribly," Amber of Boardman, Ohio told us. "I personally know a few of the employees that have previously worked there, but got sick of supporting the animal cruelty and quit. I am aware of the fact that they keep rat poisoning out to punish any animal that gets out of his or her cage. I am also aware of the fact that the dogs mostly come from puppy mills (which is no surprise). I have heard from my friend that when the puppies come in they are dirty (and) they all have ear mites and worms. Some have fleas that are so bad the dogs are bleeding. However, they do test for medical problems by their vet and kill the ones that aren't accepted rather than to just give them away to a good home."

The class action lawsuit seeks to end what it calls the misleading practices by Petland and The Hunte Corporation — and to recover monies for consumers nationwide "victimized" by what the plaintiffs call the companies' unscrupulous conduct.

Consumers who have purchased a sick puppy from Petland since November 20, 2004, can join the class action lawsuit. A form is available on the HSUS Web site.

Attorneys for the HSUS are serving as counsel to the three private laws firms that represent the plaintiffs in this case.