For the second time, nationwide pet retailer ‘Pets at Home’ was featured on the BBC consumer rights programme, Watchdog over welfare issues of the pets in store and the information given by employees during an undercover investigation. During this investigation, Watchdog sent two undercover investigators which included a vet to just eight of the chain’s 345 stores where they began with checking the standards that the store’s fish were kept in.
It showed a number of sick fish with some tanks showing decomposing bodies of fish that had died earlier. In response to this, Pets at Home claim that they have doubled the amount of checks on fish since the 2012 feature but fish deteriorate very quickly and once dead, their bodies can begin to decompose in a very short time. During our twenty years of fish keeping, we have encountered a rapid decline and ‘decomposing’ once during a weekend break and we believe that it was down to the deceased fish’s corpse being eaten by it’s tankmates. We have however bought fish from Pets at Home that turned out to be carriers of disease as the introduction of these new fish wiped out three previously healthy fish that had lived quite happily for a couple of years prior to the introduction of the new tank mates.
The next issue that was raised was the lack of health checks upon purchase of small animals. According to Pets at Home, they undertake health checks upon the animal’s arrival in store and then daily, with the final health check being completed at the time of sale. We don’t believe that these health checks are always undertaken as thoroughly as Pets at Home claim. Our Hybrid Russian, Sooty was extremely difficult to handle when we first got her and both store colleagues who were present at the time of her sale struggled to catch her and place her in the box and they ended up trapping her in the box to be able to sell her. If they struggled this much to catch her, I’d find it very hard to believe that she was thoroughly health checked. Thankfully she’s not yet had health issues and has come a long way with her taming despite this very stressful experience. We have not seen either colleague in Pets at Home since that occasion but we felt that they just wanted to sell us a hamster rather than making sure she was comfortable and going to a good home. We weren’t asked any questions or given any information about how to take care of a hamsters during the transaction.
On the other hand, we have encountered a Pets at Home employee in the same store as the experience with Sooty who has demonstrated care for pets. When we adopted Garfunkel, the young lady clearly knew about hamsters. She asked us questions about whether we’d had hamsters before and whether we had a cage set up for him. She gave us information on allowing him to settle before we began taming him and how to switch his food over to a different brand. Whilst doing this she got him out of the enclosure and checked him over. At this point she noticed a sore spot on his chin and thought that it was likely to have occurred during a fight with his brother. She told us that if we were happy to take him on then we could bring him back to the in-store vet for a more in-depth examination for free. Whilst handling Garfunkel, it was clear that she knew the best way to hold him to keep him as calm as possible.
The final point that was raised was about the information given in store and to illustrate this, the investigators looked firstly at the bearded dragons leaflet, in which it advised a tank size that would be too small once the animals reached adulthood. Not only that but an assistant in another store advised setting a temperature that was very high. Pets at Home claim that the dragons have the option of moving out of this heat if they desire but even to someone that doesn’t know anything about keeping bearded dragons as pets, the temperature given seemed too hot. We know that Pets at Home (as well as many other pet shops) sell rodent cages that are too small but that issue will be addressed in the future. However many people trust the advice given by pet shops and when it comes to welfare, every care should be taken to ensure that the correct information is given by staff and in the leaflets given out in stores. The Pets at Home leaflet about Dwarf Hamsters used to say that two male Chinese hamsters would be happy to live together however the Chinese hamster is not technically a ‘dwarf hamster’ and is primarily suited to living alone.  We have not seen one of their recent leaflets to see whether this matter has been addressed.

We can’t remember which stores Watchdog visited in 2012 but we believe that the issues that the show raised is representative of an individual store based problem rather than a company-wide crisis. Our experiences have taught us that even within the same store you can have varying experiences due to the individuality of the staff working at the time. We wouldn’t suggest boycotting Pets at Home on a whole in light of this investigation but for pet owners to do their research and to use their own judgement when deciding where to do their shopping.