A Y investigation finds cats and dogs living a life of misery in small, dirty cages in Muscat pet shops. Meanwhile, animal welfare volunteers are gearing up to help them. Kate Ginn reports
Photography by : Shaquel al Balushi & Adam Hurrell
The smell is overpowering. The unmistakable aroma of animal waste and unclean cages hits you in waves as you walk through the door. Towards the back of the shop, the cats are kept in what looks like a storage area by a sink.
A tiny white Persian kitten stares out morosely from its “home” – a filthy cage strewn with bits of food, which it shares with another kitten. Its fur is grimy and matted, the eyes sad. He meows pitifully when people approach and claws the glass front, apparently desperate for some affection. “Ninety rials”, says the shop assistant pointing at the kitten.
Next to its cage, eight adult cats are crammed into one cage with wire on the floor. There’s no bedding, two full litter trays for all the cats to share, an empty food bowl and a water bowl with a slither of liquid.
The white Persians are RO60 and the black ones are RO40, we are told. All the white Persians have eye infections, a common problem for the breed. The eyes of Persian cats need cleaning daily to prevent any infections. When we ask the assistant about the red, sore-looking eyes, he says it’s “normal”.
The cacophony of mews from the assorted cats grows louder and more urgent. The smell becomes more pungent. The fluorescent lights (there is no natural light in this part of the shop) flicker. And the hovering assistant pushes harder for a sale.
Welcome to one of Muscat’s pet shops. World of Pets in Al Hail North is one of the less salubrious shops that we visited during a week-long investigation into the pet shop business and trade in animals. It’s a lucrative market in which some of the more coveted breeds of cats can fetch up to RO450 and beyond. Puppies are even more expensive, costing RO1,000 in some cases. What we found was an unregulated industry where animal welfare seems to be the last thing on the minds of some pet shop owners.
We saw malnourished animals; left without food, water or proper facilities. Cats and dogs are kept in inadequate sized cages, where they can hardly lie down and are never given exercise. One cat, clearly sick and in need of medical attention, appeared to have been left to die, while others are used for breeding, in order to churn out a regular supply of kittens for the unsuspecting public.
The only hope for an end to this miserable existence is that one of the customers will take pity on them. Some will die before that happens. “The conditions that cats and some dogs are kept in in some pet shops is not acceptable,” says Dr Elke Heitz, owner and head veterinarian at the Al Qurum Veterinary Clinic in Muscat and a member of the UK’s Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. “There needs to be minimum standards of care and the size of cages that animals can be kept in. They must have access to fresh water and fresh food. Staff in pet shops often don’t have even the most basic knowledge about animal welfare or how to care for these cats and dogs. They have zero qualifications.” Oman currently doesn’t have any animal welfare laws, yet pets are big business. Several new veterinary clinics have opened up in Muscat recently, catering to the growing numbers of animal-loving expats and nationals. Vets like Dr Heitz are the ones who often have to deal with the fallout from pet shops when purchased animals fall sick, sometimes within days of being bought.
We found varying levels of conditions when we visited seven pet shops around Muscat, from Qurum to Al Hail. Hygiene standards at many were poor and levels of care were questionable to say the least. Even more alarming is that some of the pet shops are now linked to vets in the city, either owned by the same person or family. In theory, these pet shops should be exemplary; sadly, it’s not always the case. At Animal World in the Al Araimi Complex in Qurum, the owner of which also has Nawras Veterinary Clinic and Sama Veterinary Clinic, an extraordinary sight greets you as you enter. Various breeds of dogs and puppies are double stacked in glass-fronted cages, like exhibits in a museum. The cages are clean enough, if a little sterile, but are devoid of any bedding, toys or even the most basic of comforts for a living animal. A Chinese Shar Pei, a dog breed known for its distinctive deep wrinkles, paces its small glass prison. They were bred for hunting and herding in ancient China and, according to The Shar Pei Club of Great Britain, need plenty of exercise and an experienced dog owner. A sticker on the glass gave a price of RO530.
Next door, a bored Golden Retriever (RO550) was “playing” with his empty food bowl. Meanwhile, a Husky puppy – a breed one Omani animal welfare group said is particularly unsuitable for desert climates – was lapping furiously at a water bottle attached to the outside of his cage. This shop, it has to be said, was one of the better ones with clean cages and staff very much in evidence.
In Amazon World in the basement of Markaz al Bahja mall, we saw miserable cats in disgusting dirt-encrusted cages with no natural light or fresh air. We also found four adult cats in squalid conditions, living in wire-floor cages without stimulation, toys or room to exercise, at the store’s sister branch, Al Amzon World, in Al Hail.
Dogs and cats imported into Oman for sale must be at least four months old and vaccinated against common diseases. They should also come with a “Pet Passport” giving their date of birth.
Some claim that documentation is falsified to bring in younger animals, though there is no suggestion that any of the pet shops we visited are involved in such practices. Providing false documents carries a penalty under Omani law of three to 10 years in jail. Those who do buy from pet shops face a lottery. If their pet falls ill, it can cost them considerably more in vet’s bills than the price they paid for the animal.
One animal lover we spoke to told us about someone who bought two Rottweiler puppies in a Muscat pet shop. The animals were ordered especially from Thailand – a notorious puppy “farm” location – cost hundreds of rials each and died within a week from parvovirus (a highly contagious viral disease). The replacement pets, taken from a cardboard box full of puppies, were later found to have hip and eye problems.
“Anyone who is an animal lover should adopt rather than shop,” says Murtadha al Lawati, a member of Omani Paws, a group set up by animal lovers to rescue, neuter and home stray cats and dogs. “The industry is completely unregulated. For instance, the sale of Huskies should be banned by law in Oman. These animals should not be allowed in a desert environment. But the pet shops don’t care, they’re only interested in making money.” Al Lawati does say that some vets are doing a lot of good work to help with groups like theirs, such as offering discounted treatment.
One solution would be to only import animals through certified international breeders, but this wouldn’t help animals bred in the Sultanate. Others say authorities in Oman need to take control, pointing across the border to the UAE. There the government has taken steps to protect animals from abuse and neglect with an Animal Welfare Law and animal shelters.
Emily Shotter, who is part of a network of animal welfare volunteers in Muscat, says: “I feel very strongly about animal welfare and hope that some legislation around this will be brought into force in the not too distant future.” She believes an alternative solution may be to work with pet shops to improve conditions. Along with other concerned volunteers, Shotter is part of Oman Animal Welfare Team (OAWT) for Oman Cat-astrophe and Dog-Tails, which has come up with a plan to potentially tackle the problem. “We want to get together a group of people who will go into pet shops and help care for the animals. We would go in once or twice a week, clean cages, make sure there is enough food and water, donate toys and bedding and provide much-needed attention and affection for the animals.”
To succeed this would, of course, require the cooperation of the various pet shop owners. “We hope they will see it as a chance to make their business better. If the animals are well looked after, people are more likely to buy them.” Sarah Cook, an expat living in Oman, is willing to volunteer. She launched a rescue mission with her mum to save two cats kept in birdcages in Seeb Souq. “There were three cages stacked on each other outside,” says Sarah. “The top one had chickens, the middle one a cat and the bottom one had several ducks. The smell was horrendous. The chickens’ waste was dropping on the cat’s head and the cat’s waste was falling on the ducks.
“Inside, we found another cat in a cage surrounded by birds. The cat didn’t have food or water, and there was no litter tray.
“Two men were playing catch using a live chick dyed pink. They were chucking it back and forth to each other like it was a ball.” In the end, she managed to get both cats out by giving the shop owner RO15 for both. One cat later died, despite treatment. Emily Shotter adopted the second cat.
Until things change – either with legislation or by other means – the animals in Oman’s pet shops have no protection or a voice to speak on their behalf. And their suffering will continue.
Official Review: By Deeba Hassan
Y Magazine found a complex procedure and confusion when we tried to find out who was responsible for pet shops
Muscat Municipality told us: “Before someone can bring animals into a pet shop, officials from the Municipality go to the place to check the safety standards and cleanliness of the shop. Muscat Municipality is responsible for checking the standards of the pet shop in general and the Ministry of Health is responsible for ensuring that the animals brought in are healthy.
“When someone wants to open a pet shop, they have to go to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry where there is a section which has representatives from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Labour and the Royal Oman Police, which help with the procedures and approvals.
“Municipality officials regularly visit the shops and if the pet shops are in poor conditions, they are warned. If, after repeated warnings the pet shop owners do not improve the conditions, they are asked to close the shop.
“If people see things related to the Muscat Municipality they want to report, they need to call 1111 – a free 24-hour hotline from where they will be directed to the right department.”
Y called the 1111 Municipality hotline on Monday (Feb 2), but was told by the lady who answered that Muscat Municipality was not in fact responsible for pet shops. Instead, she directed us to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries.
Y tried contacting the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, but there was no one available to speak to us.
We also spoke to the Public Authority for Consumer Protection, who said pets did not fall under its jurisdiction either.
Pet heaven or hell?
Amazon World, Markaz al Bahja mall in Al Hail
No natural light or fresh air. Had Persian and Turkish kittens for sale in small cages. Disgusting dirt-encrusted floor. Low food and water in bowls. Several cats didn’t respond to attempts to wake them.
Their response: The shop’s owner, Salim, said he was unaware of the condition of the cats. He arranged for one cat to see a vet immediately. He also promised to make the cages bigger and improve the animals’ living conditions. Y will go back to check.
Al Amzon World, Al Hail North (sister shop to Amazon World)
One of the worst with four adult cats kept in cages in a secluded area at the back. Cages with wire floors and no signs of food. Little water and filthy litter trays. No natural light, no toys and no bedding. All looked lethargic and depressed. Male ginger Persian in appalling state in a cage with matted fur falling out.
Their response: Salim said he would organise for the ginger Persian to see a vet.
Animal World, Al Araimi Complex – Linked to Nawras Vets and Sama clinic
One of the better pet shops. Dogs and cats in glass cases at the back. Very clean, but no stimulation, toys or bedding. Some didn’t have water in their bowls. Turkish Angora kittens in front window with low water. Topped up when we demanded three times.
Their response: A member of staff said the dogs were exercised every day and that toys and bedding were removed during cleaning (Note: there was no evidence of cleaning when Y was there).
No natural light and stank. White Persian kitten in terrible state sharing a dirty cage with a Tortoiseshell kitten. Cross eyed Siamese sitting in litter tray. Eight cats in one dirty cage, many with eye infections. Large white breeding male cat in dirty cage on floor.
Their response: The manager told us that the cats are let out of their cages for exercise every day and they give sick animals medicine. He admitted one of the cages was too small.
Creatures, SABCO Centre – linked to Capital Vets
One of the better pet shops. Cats kept at the back in a glass-partitioned room. Clean cages but white female Persian had an eye infection. A Himalayan kitten, very thin and with matted fur, wandering around loose.
Their response: We were informed that the Persian is undergoing treatment. All cats have bedding and toys that are removed during cleaning (Note: there was no evidence of cleaning when Y was there).
Creatures World, Al Hail North
Two adult cats in small cages with barely enough room to move. Forced to sleep right next to stinking litter trays.
Their response: One of the cats turned out to be pregnant. They admitted one of the cages was too small.
Creatures Kingdom, Funzone, Qurum
Cats and dogs in clean but small cages. Cages looked old, dark and dim. Dog cages were almost the same size as the cats’. No toys or bedding. Food and some water. One of the Persians appeared to have an eye problem.
Their response: Unable to contact, Y will return to check later this week.
The story of:
Ricky Bobby: Heather Duncan saved a pet shop kitten
My husband Colin and I already had one “bin” cat, Stephen, who we rescued from the streets near our home in Azaiba, Muscat. We also had an adult German Shepherd dog called Penny, not to mention a toddler son, Spencer, who has just celebrated his first birthday. So getting another cat might have seemed a crazy idea but I wanted a companion for Stephen.
We went to look at several pet shops and ended up in one where Colin spotted a cute Turkish Angora kitten in a cage. He was very small and being bullied by the other cats. I left the shop for a moment and went I came back my husband had bought him for RO130.
When we got him home we realised how thin he was. He was around six weeks old and clearly hadn’t been fed well enough. He also had sores on his skin and hadn’t been given any jabs.
Now, almost seven months on, Ricky Bobby, or RB as we call him, is awesome. He’s probably one of the lucky ones, as we haven’t had any health issues with him. He does have a constant runny nose and his legs are slightly too short, probably because he’s so inbred. He can jump onto a chair, but he’s not a great climber.
You need to use your own judgement when buying from pet shops. A lot are sick or fall ill and die. Some of the passports they come with are fake and their ages are often wrong. I don’t want to keep the trade going, but sometimes you can’t walk away. We couldn’t have left that little guy there.
Emily Shotter has three rescued cats
Ifirst met Moet when I went to the vet in Muscat one day for the usual supplies. They knew about my love of cats and said they had a one-year-old blind cat up for adoption, but she wouldn’t be advertised because they wanted the right owner for her. My instant reaction was that I didn’t want a blind cat. I’m out all day at work and a cat with those needs seemed too difficult. However, they asked me to “just come and see her”, so I did. There she was, a sweet little champagne coloured Persian, with stiches where her eyes had recently been removed. I crouched down to stroke her and she instantly rolled over for tummy rubs, purring loudly. I was sold. How could I not take her?
She was one of a few cats that had recently been rescued from a pet shop and the vets believe she had already been blind for several months, perhaps due to untreated cat flu. She’d spent her life in a pet shop cage and both her eyes had become infected, meaning they had to be removed completely. She also had to be wormed, vaccinated and spayed, which was all done for free by Al Qurum Veterinary Clinic in Muscat.
Five months on, she is a vibrant, talkative, playful and incredibly happy girl. She manages to get around my flat almost like any sighted cat would; chasing balls around at top speed and climbing up and down from the bed and sofa easily. She has settled in well with my other cat Luna, who was also rescued (in October 2013) and my most recent addition, Lily, who was rescued from horrible conditions at Seeb Souq a few weeks ago.
Our cat had died the year before and we weren’t really looking for another one. Then I walked into a pet shop in Muscat, saw Alfie and fell in love with him. He was in a cage and the conditions were okay, he was quite clean. I asked an assistant, who told me that he was a female Bengal around three months old, when in fact he turned out to be a male Silver Tabby closer to seven months old.
I’d always wanted a Silver Tabby, so after visiting five times I bought him. His passport, which seems to be genuine, says he is from Ukraine. When we got Alife home, he was very frightened at first and hid for three days. He was also full of ear mites. We soon realised that he couldn’t jump onto our sofa. He’d been in a cage for so long without any exercise that his back leg muscles were too weak.
Now Alfie is 14 months old and absolutely fine. He’s very playful and very loving. He doesn’t like sitting on laps, which might be because he wasn’t handled or socialised as a kitten. I’m an animal lover and buying from pet shops is not something I thought I would do. But there are many cats that need homes and if you can rescue one, then I think it is worth it.
It took us a long time to commit to having a pet. Moving countries can be a stressful time for animals and as expats; this is something we had to consider. But having grown up with a multitude of pets in my family, I know just how important it is for children to have this experience.
Not long after arriving in Muscat, I decided my daughter and I were ready for the commitment and soon found a gorgeous litter of Himalayan kittens on the website Dubizzle. The family we bought Ally, our kitten, from were experienced breeders who know exactly what it takes to keep cats healthy and happy.
When we picked her up; we knew she’d had the best possible start to her life. She was a little shy at first, but it wasn’t long before she was racing about the house and bonding with my daughter and me. A couple of days after Ally became part of our family, we took her to the vet for her vaccinations and a check-up. The vet knew immediately that she wasn’t from a pet shop. “She is so much healthier than the pet shop kittens we see,” he said. “She is in very good health.”
And I have to say that she is. Looking at the photos in our cover story this week, there is a remarkable difference. While Ally is full of energy, her fur thick and glossy, the other cats I’ve seen in pet shops are not quite as lucky. From eye infections, to listlessness, dehydration and stomach problems, they face a litany of health issues the older they get – and their new, unsuspecting owners are paying a high price for this.
Ally turns one in May and she has grown into a playful, cat who loves meeting new people. We know we’ve been very lucky with her, I just wish it could be the same for the pet shop animals.