In the Old Dominion, where one's pedigree often smooths the pursuit of happiness, cats and dogs of questionable ancestry have been cruelly snubbed.

In a formal ceremony in Richmond, Virginia Gov. John N. Dalton this week signed into law a bill that gives new protections to Virginians who buy a diseased pedigreed dog or cat from a licensed pet store.

These protections, however, do not apply to buyers of a cheap cat or low-cost dog. Under the law, the corpse of a recently purchased pedigreed dog can be returned to a pet store in exchange for its purchase price. The law is silent on what an owner should do with the corpse of a newly purchased mutt.

"It's not possible to get people through every emotional bump and jolt," said Del. Robison B. James (D-Henrico), defending the bill he sponsored in the General Assembly. The bill generated more mail in the recent session than the proposed Equal Rights Amendment.

"These pets are small-cost items so we deliberately excluded them. After all, you're talking about $25 for a mixed-breed animal versus up to $500 for a pedigreed dog or cat," James said.

The cost-accountant approach to pet guarantees has peeved some animal authorities.

"I think it's pretty discriminatory," said Deborah Butler, an investigator with the Arlington Animal Welfare League. "I own an all-American alley cat myself and most people I know don't have pedigreed pets."

Fairfax County animal control director Richard F. Amity says the law is "outrageous."

"What difference does it make what you pay?" said Amity, who himself owns a economy-priced cat. "That's like selling contaminated food and saying it's okay if you get salmonella as long as you knock down the price."

The new law says that the buyer of a pure-bred cat or dog who discovers within 10 days of purchase that the animal is diseased can receive a full refund or replacement from a pet store. Unofficial estimates put the number of dogs and cats in Virginia at 1.6 million, about one-third of which are pedigreed.

"It's not discriminatory," said Jeff Brown, vice president of the 4,000-member Virginia Federation of Dog Clubs and Breeders, which lobbied for the bill's passage. "It covers 90 percent of sales by pet dealers because they sell very few nonregistered animals."

In order to counter the newly legislated prejudice against felines and canines of unknown parentage local animal shelter officials suggest that would-be pet owners adopt animal for free from a local pound.

"In many cases," said Amity, "they're just as cute and make better pets."