Pet licensing: Owners, vets have mixed views
by Staci Giordullo
Patricia Powell didn't always walk on the right side of the law. Her crime? Not licensing her two dogs with the city of Los Angeles.
"I thought it was a bunch of B.S.," says the Angie's List member. "I thought it was a way for the city to gouge more money out of us."
However, Powell says she changed her mind after volunteering for a cocker spaniel rescue group that worked closely with the Los Angeles Department of Animal Care and Control. She learned the money generated from licensing fees went to support a variety of animal services including the shelters, cruelty investigations and emergency animal rescues during natural disasters.
"Once I saw what the money went toward, I felt differently," she says.
Pet licensing has its benefits
Angie's List members nationwide echo Powell's dual sentiments. In an online poll, nearly half of respondents who own a cat, dog or both say they don't think licensing is necessary or are indifferent. Yet 51 percent think it's a good idea.
Animal welfare experts say the benefits of licensing are threefold: it makes vaccinations mandatory, can help reunite a lost pet with its owner, and allows cities to track the number of cats and dogs for health and safety concerns.
Pet licensing isn't a new notion. The first paper licenses for dogs in this country appeared in Massachusetts in the late 1840s. Today, nearly all major municipalities require licensing or registration for dogs and a number of them are beginning to require cats be licensed.
Sixty percent of Angie's List members polled say licensing is mandatory in their area.
"Registering your pet is a part of responsible ownership," says Marti Ryan, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County Animal Services in Tampa Bay, Fla.
Member Matthew Suriano of Bernardsville, N.J., works as a police dispatcher and says he's constantly receiving calls about stray animals.
"If the dog is licensed, all I have to do is pull up its number and give the owner a call," Suriano says. "It's so much harder to track down an owner if the dog or cat isn't licensed."
'Money well spent'
Depending on where you live, you can license your animals at city hall, a veterinarian's office, an animal shelter or your local animal care and control department. Costs tend to be minimal — most cities charge less than $20 annually — but those with pets that aren't spayed or neutered often pay up to twice as much.
Money generated by licensing fees usually go toward an area's animal service budget to help support the day-to-day operation of local shelters, wildlife encroachment and animal control. Ryan explains the money also protects the public in a less-obvious way.
"People who violate the limits with animals usually move on to other things," she says. "There's a relationship between animal abuse and [other] crime."
Cats and dogs are required to be registered in Florida's Hillsborough County, which isn't a problem for member Tom Farrugia of Largo. Despite the county doubling the license fee last year from $10 to $20, he maintains it's a good idea for his two indoor cats to be registered.
"It's important to help the shelters cover their expenses," he says. "It's money well spent."
While pet licensing is a widespread practice, enforcement is a problem in many places. Penalties for unlicensed pets typically include a citation and a fine, but as state and local budgets dwindle, fewer enforcement agents are available to uphold the law.
Doug Junker, license examiner for animal control outside Minneapolis in Bloomington, Minn., says pet licensing in his community is based more or less on the honor system.
"We have two animal control officers who handle everything from dog and cat licensing to problem raccoons," Junker says. "We know we're not getting all the dogs. We try to keep the cost minimal — we're not after the revenue. We just want to make sure a dog is registered in case it bites someone or is lost."
Minimal enforcement is why Angie's List member Rollie Marcovitch of Bloomington believes so few pet owners get licenses.
"Unless the city had an awfully big staff and an awfully big budget, I don't know how they'd enforce it," she says. Marcovitch doesn't license her cat but she does license her dog, an 8-year-old boxer named Tai, even though she frets about the required rabies vaccinations.
Tai has kidney problems and although Marcovitch prefers a holistic approach to her pets' care, Tai still gets a three-year rabies vaccine to minimize health risks and meet licensing standards.
"I understand there have to be rules, and in theory, if everyone got a license I could see how it'd work," she says. "But I choose not to vaccinate my cat and that's required for a license."
Veterinarians on the front lines
She isn't the only one who thinks pet licensing is bunk. Dr. Dan Jordan of highly rated Animal Avian Hospital of the Village says the licensing system in Houston targets the wrong pet owners.
"Those who are already responsible pet owners are penalized and the deadbeats who never set foot in a veterinary office get off the hook," he says, referring to a city law that requires all vets to turn over names and addresses of customers whose cats and dogs receive rabies vaccinations.
The city, in turn, uses that information to ensure pet owners are complying with licensing laws. If an owner is found to be out of compliance, they are issued a letter to inform them of the laws.
"I don't like the idea of forcing my clients to register," says Jordan, who informs his clients about the licensing law but doesn't submit their names to the city without their consent.
Member Michelle Rossi agrees with Dr. Jordan.
"I think it discourages people from going to the vet or giving accurate information if they know it's being provided to the city," she says.
Rossi has lived in Houston for five years with her two cats and says she was unaware licensing was required.
"I think pet licensing has some theoretical benefits; however, I see it as a monumental task for the city and a burden on pet owners."
Houston vets get fines unless compliant
Dr. William Folger of highly rated Memorial Cat Hospital in Houston says when the city first issued the ordinance in 1985, he refused to submit his clients' information and was willing to fight the issue in court.
"Nothing happened," he says. "The city didn't push the issue so we kept chugging along."
That is until last September, when the city mailed letters to all Houston veterinarians in violation and threatened a $500-a-day fine until they complied.
"That caught my attention," Folger says. "My patients were upset, but I told them I couldn't afford that penalty."
Houston's regulatory affairs department mailed the letters after the city's Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care came under their direction.
"[BARC] was neglected and mismanaged, and was transferred to our department to get fixed," says Chris Newport, department council liaison.
He says two months after the letters, veterinary compliance went from 20 percent to 64 percent.
"A lot of folks just didn't know there was a pet licensing law," he says. "We can't do it without the cooperation of the veterinarians."
Animal control officers are now issuing citations for a first offense, instead of a warning, if your pet is found wandering.
"You won't have to come to court and pay the fee if you get your dog vaccinated and licensed," he says.
Indianapolis: A pet licensing holdout
While some areas struggle to enforce licensing laws, others don't have any such laws to worry about. According to Angie's List research, Indianapolis is the only city out of the nation's 30 largest not to require pet licensing because Indiana state law limits the fees municipalities can collect.
"Whatever license fee we'd charge could only be sufficient enough for us to pay for the administrative cost of the licensing system," says Teri Kendrick, administrator of Indianapolis' Animal Care and Control. "It could not generate additional revenue to feed and cover medical expenses for animals in the shelter. I'd have to know what the argued benefits and deterrents are before I could say I think licensing is a good or bad idea."
Indiana law does require pets be vaccinated for rabies and that veterinarians submit pet owner names and addresses along with vaccination information to the county's board of health.
Member Matthew Kettlebar of Westfield, Ind., says proof of vaccination should be a sufficient form of licensing.
"It's already a de facto license that ties my name to my dog and my veterinarian," says the owner of an English mastiff. "I feel any other licensing is an attempt to generate funds from pet owners — a pet tax."
Although some agree they shouldn't have to pay extra for owning a pet, Marti Ryan of Hillsborough County Animal Services points out that pet ownership is a privilege, not a right. Comparing it to owning a car, she says you can't drive without taking responsibility or without registering with the state.
"These are fees, not taxes," Ryan says. "User fees for those who want to love and nurture animals."
Want to know the pet licensing laws in your area? Ask a highly rated vet from Angie's List or call your local animal control department.