Question for Merritt Clifton:
Our local animal control agency has proposed a county-wide ordinance to require all veterinarians in the county to report the personal contact information for each person who brings a pet to be vaccinated. This information is to be used to try to increase licensing compliance, as an attempted revenue generator. What do you think of this?
Merritt Clifton responds:
Apparently there is no idea so stupid that it will not be picked up and recycled, even after more than a century of ignominious failure all over the world.
The idea of requiring veterinarians to report clients to increase licensing compliance has been tried over and over again since 1895, when the American SPCA imagined that this was among the ways they could make licensing pay the cost of providing animal control service to New York City. The ASPCA lost money every year on the New York City animal control contract for 100 consecutive years, finally abandoning it in 1994. Even when some veterinarians actually sold dog licenses, licensing compliance remained low.
Veterinary resistance to participating in pet licensing schemes has always been intense. Reporting people who bring their pets to receive veterinary care is, first of all, an obvious nuisance, and feels to most vets like a violation of patient confidentiality, even in states where such reporting requirements have been found to be legal by the courts.
Second, people often come to a vet in the first place because an ailing or injured animal needs costly treatment. Most veterinarians insist that the animal receive a complete physical examination, and rabies vaccinations, as a reasonable part of the course of treatment. But this does cost money, and contributes to the reality that low income people and people on fixed incomes, or with large numbers of pets, often defer seeking vet care because of the cost. If those petkeepers additionally fear getting socked with a licensing fee, and perhaps a fine as well, for an animal who may be close to death, they may not bring their sick and injured animals to a vet at all. This does not serve the interests of the petkeepers, the veterinarians, the animals, or society as a whole.
Third, many people go to veterinarians who are not even within their licensing jurisdiction.
But the biggest reason of all why vaccination compliance should not be tied to licensing is that it tends to lower vaccination compliance. This has been seen over and over again since vaccination first became the norm for U.S. pets in the 1945-1955 time frame.
Initially, licensing was envisioned as a mechanism for ensuring vaccination, but petkeeper surveys made clear as early as 1960 and very firmly by 1980 that vaccinating animals had become vastly more popular than licensing ever was.
Around that time various jurisdictions began trying to use vaccination records, more specifically than just veterinary visits, to enforce licensing.
What this accomplished was to suppress vaccination rates in many of the poorest communities, where rabies vaccination was and is most needed.
Currently only about 55% of the pets in the U.S. have been vaccinated against rabies, or about a third of pet cats and two-thirds of pet dogs. This is dangerously below the 70% threshold for preventing outbreaks.
Even though canine rabies was officially eradicated from the U.S. about 15 years ago, we are not immune from the possibility of rabies crossing back into the U.S. from Mexico, or crossing back into dogs from rabid wildlife.
If anything lowers vaccination compliance, we are headed farther into dangerous territory. Increasing licensing compliance conveys no societal advantages, economic or otherwise, that come close to the advantages of maintaining a safely high vaccination rate. Indeed, the average cost of handling even one human rabies case exceeds the average annual cost of providing animal control service to a community of half a million people.
Because licensing schemes seem to promise badly needed revenue for animal care-and-control, animal care-and-control agencies, and the municipal governments that fund them, have long cherished the notion that through some combination of increased fees and increased enforcement, they could raise compliance rates to the point of making animal control operations self-sustaining.
This has rarely happened. The data below shows why. The survey data dates to 2002, making it now relatively old, but even with the advent of microchipping and quick-and-easy online pet licensing renewal, few communities report licensing compliance running above 25% of their estimated populations of animals eligible to be licensed. Further, it is still evident that higher licensing fees contribute to lower compliance rates.
At this point in the discussion, advocates of raising revenue through licensing usually mention the unprecedented and unequalled success achieved in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Calgary pushed estimated dog licensing compliance close to 90% at peak, but achieved this by making licensing very convenient, very inexpensive, and a valuable service to the pet keepers, in that licensed pets found at large received a free ride home.
The former Calgary success story, though, eventually ceased to be a success story. After more than 25 years of steadily increasing licensing compliance and an exemplary record in reducing shelter killing and protecting public health and safety, Calgary began trying to use their licensing program as a revenue generator, jacking up the licensing fees. Since then, licensing compliance appears to have fallen off sharply, especially among keepers of pit bulls, and Calgary has become, in recent years, the dogfighting and dog attack capital of Canada. While Calgary Animal Services is still supported by licensing revenue, it will have to get the scofflaw element under control, which it seems to be far from doing, before it can again claim to provide a successful operating model for other communities.
Dog & cat licensing compliance, costs, and effects
Regulations of any kind seldom succeed unless a large majority of the people or institutions to be regulated are already voluntarily in compliance or willing to become compliant with relatively little nudging at the time that the regulations start to be enforced. If more than a small percentage object to a regulation enough to become scofflaws, the enforcement burden becomes overwhelming, and the regulation eventually tends to be ignored or repealed.
Dog and cat licensing follows the trend. Because compliance with pet licensing tends to be less than a third of the 90% compliance rate that is usually the minimum needed for regulations to be within the reach of effective routine enforcement, there is no demonstrable relationship between the rates of licensing compliance claimed by animal control agencies in eight representative cities and their rates of dog and cat killing per 1,000 human residents:
City Dog/cat licensing rate Killed/1,000 in 2002
Tucson 57% 42.9
Chicago 25% 18.2
Philadelphia 25% 19.7
Seattle 25% 11.2
San Francisco 15% 2.6
Salt Lake City 13% 9.9
Fort Worth 10% 32.1
Milwaukee 10% 10.5
U.S. average 28% 16.8
There is a demonstrable relationship between compliance and the cost of a license. The lowest license fees, on average, are charged in the Northeast, including the New England states, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, and these states do appear to have the highest rates of licensing compliance. The next lowest fees are charged in the Midwest, with the next highest rates of compliance. The highest fees are charged in the West, whose compliance rate is only two-thirds of the rate in the Northeast.
However, contrary to the findings of single-city surveys done mostly in the 1970s and 1980s, before the majority of owned dogs and cats in the U.S. were sterilized, charging markedly higher fees to license unaltered animals appears to create a disincentive to licensing more than to encourage more people to get their pets fixed.
The lowest differential between the average cost of licensing intact versus altered dogs is in the Northeast, which as well as having the highest rate of licensing compliance also has a shelter killing rate of approximately half the national average. The widest differential is in the West, where shelter killing rates range from some of the lowest in the U.S., along the West Coast, to some of the highest, in the Southwest. The next widest differential is in the South, with the lowest licensing compliance and shelter killing rates tending to run between two and three times the U.S. norm. The Midwest, with a relatively low licensing differential and relatively high compliance, has shelter killing rates which mostly cluster just above the U.S. norms.
West Midwest Northeast South
Dog licence, intact: $28.21 $11.72 $ 9.72 $17.86
Dog license, altered: $10.50 $ 4.70 $ 4.58 $ 5.93
Dog licensing compliance: 24% 28% 32% 10%
The dog licensing sample size per region was in the low dozens, roughly proportionate to human population distribution, and appeared to be representative of both urban and rural areas.
Cat licensing is still so rare and compliance so low that the data is inherently suspect, coming from only about 25% as many jurisdictions as the dog licensing data. Nonetheless, it seems to follow the same general pattern. I was, however, unable to identify any jurisdiction in the Southern states which has tried to license cats.
West Midwest Northeast South
Cat license, intact: $20.00 $ 9.67 $ 8.20 n/a
Cat license, altered: $ 7.00 $ 7.00 $ 4.60 n/a
Cat licensing compliance: 15% 2% n/a n/a
The oldest regulatory approach to pet overpopulation, directed at preventing public nuisances rather than at preventing animal suffering, was to limit the number of dogs and/or cats per home. This approach has recently been dusted off and pushed again here and there as a purported defense against backyard breeders and animal hoarders.
There is no evidence that it has ever worked, or will work, since enforcing pet limits is as difficult as enforcing licensing.
But I was able to identify the thresholds at which all but a few dog and cat keepers would comply with pet limits. The table below shows at left the percentages of pet keepers who keep common numbers of animals, and shows at right the percentages of animal control ordinances that set limits at each number.
Limits restricting the number of dogs per household to four or fewer, and the number of cats per household to six or fewer, would appear to start out with high enough compliance that effective enforcement might be possible, at least in theory.
Dogs/household Limits allow
62% / one 2% / one
25% / two 26% / two
7% / three 35% / three
6% / four+ 20% / four
4% / five
4% / six
Cats/household Limits allow
48% / one n/a
28% / two 19% / two
11% / three 38% / three
13% / four+ 24% / four
8% / five
5% / six