You've fallen in love with a cute dog or cat -- or rabbit, bird or snake -- and you're ready to bring the new addition home. Should you pull out your credit card to pay for your new pet?
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Yes, if you can. Whether you're adopting or buying a pet, experts say it's a good idea to use plastic to pay the adoption fee or purchase price.
In addition to the convenience factor, credit cards offer some consumer protections you don't get with other methods of payment. They also create a paper trail and can help prove ownership of the pet, says Anna Morrison-Ricordati, a Chicago lawyer who specializes in animal law.
"I highly recommend credit cards," she says.
Paws on plastic: The pluses of a card
While your credit card can't protect you in every scenario that could go wrong with a new furry, feathered or scaly friend, charging a pet does offer three major benefits, experts say:
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1. If you discover a problem with the pet, you can dispute the purchase. If you have an issue with your new pet, you can attempt to do a charge-back. Card issuers have policies under which they will consider voiding a charge if something goes wrong with the purchase, by charging it back to the merchant. There are also legal protections under federal law, but they are highly limited. See "How to dispute a credit card bill with a merchant" for details.
2. Credit card records can help make your case in a doggie dispute. If fur flies and you do end up in a standoff with a seller, credit card records can give you a leg up, says Morrison-Ricordati. Credit card records will show exactly when the purchase was made, who made it and other important details, she says: "Most people will lose paper receipts, but still have access to credit card records online." A credit card record with a signature also proves you were the purchaser, so you can testify about how the pet looked and acted at the time of purchase.
3. A credit card purchase can help prove the pet belongs to you. Pet ownership is a common dispute, especially when couples split up, Morrison-Ricordati says. Maybe you and your significant other adopt a cat and you both fall in love with Snuggles but out of love with each other. Or, you and your roommate buy a ferret, with the understanding that Wiley will go with you when you move. But then your lease ends and you have a spat about who gets to keep him. A credit card purchase in your name will bolster your case. It's also a good idea to use your credit card to pay for vet visits and pet product purchases too, Morrison-Ricordati recommends: "A credit card is a very good tool for proving ownership."
That said, if you use a credit card with purchase protection -- a type of insurance offered as a benefit on most cards -- don't count on it to reimburse you for the cost of your new pet if something goes wrong. Purchase protection will replace, repair or refund your money for a card purchase that gets damaged or stolen within a certain time after it was bought. But what if you find your new fish floating belly up or your new puppy gets snatched from your yard by a thief? Too bad -- live animals are excluded for just about every card that offers purchase protection.
"It's designed to cover items as opposed to living things," says American Express Vice President of Public Affairs and Communications Desiree Fish.
Adopting a pet with plastic
Adopting can be a great way to add a pet to your family. You typically pay a fraction of what you would at a pet store or breeder, and the pet often comes fully vetted and possibly temperament tested, Morrison-Ricordati says.
Pet adoption fees can range from less than $40 to $400 or more and often include spaying or neutering, vaccinations, heartworm test, flea and tick preventative and, in some cases, a microchip to help a lost pet get home. But can you pay an adoption fee with plastic?
Most private adoption centers, many municipal shelters and even some volunteer-run rescue groups, which save animals from shelters and put them up for adoption, take credit cards. But some do not.
In general, you can expect most large private adoption centers in urban areas to take cards. The San Francisco SPCA Adoption Center, for example, takes cash, check, debit cards and Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover credit cards. "We accept pretty much every form of payment," says Suzanne Hollis, San Francisco SPCA client care manager.
But even many municipal shelters accept plastic. For example, DeKalb County Animal Services & Enforcement in Atlanta accepts Visa or MasterCard. The Cullman County Animal Shelter in Cullman, Ala., allows adopters to use a credit or debit card to pay in person or by phone. The City of Long Beach Animal Care Services in California also takes cash or credit cards.
If you can pay an adoption fee by credit card, there might be an added convenience fee to offset card processing fees. At the Sterling Animal Shelter in Sterling, Mass., an adoption fee of $425 for an adult dog jumps to $437.25 if paid with a credit or debit card.
Smaller shelters often cash-only
Some shelters and rescue groups say no to plastic altogether. In general, a government-run shelter in a smaller city or rural area, or a volunteer-run rescue group might be more likely to take only checks, money orders or cash.
The animal control shelter for the city of Clovis, N.M., takes only cash or check. The municipal shelter in Toms River Township, N.J., does not take credit cards. And Austin Pets Alive!, a nonprofit organization in Austin, Texas, that saves pets from the city's animal control facility and puts them up for adoption, accepts only checks or money orders.
But experts say you should not adopt a pet on credit if you don't have the money to pay the credit card bill in full. Not only will you get hit with interest if you carry a balance, but experts say it's just a bad idea to adopt a pet if you're short on funds. A new pet means you have to be able to pay for accessories, food, toys, training sessions and sometimes surprise vet bills, according to Hollis. She says an emergency vet bill can easily reach $1,500 or more with X-rays and an overnight stay.
"You need to think about the cost of care," Hollis says.
When claws come out: disputes over a new pet
So, what happens if you adopt or buy a new pet and something goes seriously wrong, such as your cat has feline leukemia, your puppy is deaf or that cute little guinea pig is ridden with parasites and dies?
Two things will come into play, experts say: the contract between you and the shelter or seller and, if you bought the animal from a merchant, state law.
The contract can include a written document you sign at the time of adoption or purchase, as well as the policies of the shelter or store where you got your pet, says David Favre, a professor of animal law at the Michigan State University College of Law.
But policies rarely do a good job covering issues like pet deaths, serious illness or genetic deformity, Favre says. And, he says, bringing a lawsuit can cost much more than the value of the pet. "The seller has all the advantages," he says. "And if you really want to make it legally crazy, try a Web-based sale in from a different state. A wronged buyer has almost no hope."
Return, yes, refund, maybe
If you adopt your pet, many adoption centers, shelters and rescue groups have policies that will give you a full or partial refund of your adoption fee if you return the pet within a certain time frame -- often about two weeks. But some do not offer refunds. If the pet is sick or not a good fit, many shelters will offer to make an exchange for another pet.
"But most of us who have pets would not be OK with that -- the emotional bond forms pretty quickly," Morrison-Ricordati says.
That was the case with Melanie Bruski, who adopted her golden retriever mix, Georgia Peach, from a shelter in Riverside, Calif. Right after adoption, the 4-month-old pup's severe case of kennel cough turned to pneumonia and her incision from spay surgery, done by the shelter vet, burst open. "It was a shoddy spay," Bruski says. Three vet visits and $700 in vet bills later, Bruski called the shelter to let them know about the problems. The option offered by the shelter: Return the dog.
"Frankly, I was pissed that the shelter said we could relinquish her," Bruski says. "She was family from the moment we decided to adopt her. We love her."
States' add legal rights
Customers who buy a pet from a merchant -- rather than adopting one from a shelter or rescue -- have added protections under state law. These laws typically apply to the sale of an animal from a retail pet store, a breeder or even an individual who regularly sells animals. However, they wouldn't apply to, say, the purchase of a puppy from a Craigslist ad.
First, pet sales by merchants are covered under each state's uniform commercial code (UCC), which states that there is an implied warranty that "goods" being sold are fit for the types of purposes for which they would ordinarily be used. In addition, according to the Animal Legal & Historical Center at the Michigan State University College of Law, about 20 states have laws on the sale of dogs and cats -- so-called "puppy lemon laws." These laws outline remedies for buyers of a sick or "defective" pet. They vary from state to state, but the buyer might have the option to return the pet for a refund, exchange the pet or keep the pet and get some money for veterinary costs, according to the Animal Legal & Historical Center.
When it comes to animal shelters, though, there are no state laws that specifically govern the adoption of pets, Favre says. That means that everything depends on the contract between you and the adoption center.
No matter where you got your pet, if you paid with a credit card, you have the option to dispute the charge. But you should try to resolve the problem with the shelter or seller first, says Monica Eaton-Cardone, co-founder and chief operating officer of Chargebacks911, a service that helps merchants avoid charge-back disputes with customers. "Nine times out of 10, you could probably talk to the merchant and resolve the problem."
There will always be some cases that can't be resolved by a refund of the purchase price, though -- for example, a very sick pet that racks up huge vet bills. In that case, some consumers might want to talk to an attorney with experience in animal law, Morrison-Ricordati says.
The most common issues Morrison-Ricordati sees are health issues, and she has seen vet bills for a very sick pet reach $10,000-plus. "That would definitely be worth getting an attorney and going to court," she says.