In Hollywood, the dogs are as pampered as the movie stars – or at least that's what their owners think. Pet lovers lavish thousands of dollars a year on designer clothing for their pooches – tartan sweaters and red leather booties – and thousands more on grooming salons, bakeries offering organic, healthy "human grade" snacks, and other luxuries.
Now, though, the world of celebrity dog ownership has been rocked by news that one of Los Angeles's most popular high-end stores, Pets of Bel Air, may have deliberately lied to its customers about its animals' origins. It has also operated without full licensing for more than three years, an oversight that has prompted its temporary closure. An undercover investigation by the animal welfare-oriented Humane Society of the United States found that Pets of Bel Air, contrary to its claims, obtains many of its dogs from puppy mills – giant breeding factories notorious for their overcrowded cages and poor hygiene.
That's not illegal, but it is far from the statement on its website: "We do not use puppy mills."
The Humane Society found otherwise, digging up documentary evidence of sales to the store from 28 commercial breeders in Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Site visits to five of those breeders revealed them to be "mass-breeding operations that house 100 to 300 dogs".
"Even the trendiest, most upscale pet stores may sell puppies from puppy mills," said Wayne Pacelle, the Society's president. "No consumer is immune to the lies and deceit." Among the Hollywood royalty spotted at Pets of Bel Air are Paris Hilton, Demi Moore and Britney Spears was seen there by paparazzi as recently as last weekend.
The prices match the décor. A Maltese pup was recently priced at $2,400 (£1,170). Popular mixed breeds typically go for $1,500.
The Humane Society took video footage inside the store to catch employees telling customers that the dogs come from small private breeders only. In one conversation, employees are apparently instructed not to tell customers about dogs being unwell.
Tom Demick, who owns the store, rebuffed the society's accusations in a press interview with The Los Angeles Times. He called the permit problem an "oversight" and said the video footage had been "twisted".
Under LA County rules, he can apply for new permits and reopen in as little as 48 hours. However, he has no friends in the head of the county's animal services division. Ed Boks, who runs the division, used a news conference to make a plug for his own stock of abandoned animals. "The rich and famous who patronise Pets of Bel Air instead of adopting dogs from animal shelters," he said, "are sending the wrong message that pet store puppies are worth their high price tags."