Question for ANIMALS 24-7 from a reader:
“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?”
ANIMALS 24-7 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.
Low income pet-keepers
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 pet-keepers 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.
Lower vaccination compliance
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.
U.S. trails in immunization
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 40 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
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.
Licensing rarely––if ever––fully funds animal control
This has rarely happened. The data below shows why.
The survey data dates to 2002, making it now twenty years 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, under former police officer Jerry Aschenbrenner, who headed Calgary Animal Services from 1975 until 2000, 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.
Why the “Calgary model” disintegrated
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 animal control under Aschenbrenner’s successor, “Bylaw” Bill Bruce, 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.
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.
Therefore, as of 2002 there was no demonstrable relationship between the rates of licensing compliance claimed by animal control agencies in eight representative cities which had each purported to enforce dog licensing for 20 years or more (in some cases 100 years or more), 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
All of these cities are now killing fewer dogs and cats per 1,000 human residents.
There is no evidence to suggest their licensing compliance rates have increased, however, while there is substantial evidence to suspect that licensing compliance in Tucson has plummeted.
Compliance vs. cost of license
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.
Disincentive to spay/neuter
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, as of 2002, was in the Northeast, which as well as having the highest rate of licensing compliance also had a shelter killing rate of approximately half the national average.
The widest differential was in the West, where shelter killing rates ranged 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 was 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, had shelter killing rates which mostly clustered just above the U.S. norms.
West Midwest Northeast South
Dog license, 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––something that has not changed a whit since 2002––that any data pertaining to it is inherently suspect, available from at most only about 25% as many jurisdictions as the dog licensing data.
Nonetheless, it seems to follow the same general pattern. ANIMALS 24-7, however, as of 2002 was unable to identify any jurisdiction in the Southern states which had 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
Just limit the numbers
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 ANIMALS 24-7 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 Cats/household Limits allow
62% / one 2% / one 48% / one n/a 25% / two 26% / two 28% / two 19% / two 7% / three 35% / three 11% / three 38% / three 6% / four+ 20% / four 13% / four+ 24% / four 4% / five 8% / five 4% / six 5% / six