Dogs Will Be Dogs… But Cats Won’t

Dogs Will Be Dogs… But Cats Won’t

By: Anna Sadler  Date: 06/10/1996 Category: | Animal Legislation | Feline Issues |

Laws being proposed, and in some cases passed, throughout the country are lumping cat and dog issues together, and are no more appropriate than attempting to put that square peg into the round hole. These pets are two different species, with totally different needs, requirements and associated social issues.

Some proposals even seek to add into this legal stewpot birds, fish and small mammals such as ferrets and hamsters, as well as potbellied pigs. A proposed ordinance under consideration in the city of Houston, Texas, would effectively cause any citizen who owns and breeds "any animal, fish, reptile or fowl for sale, barter, trade, gift, rental, exhibition or other commercial purpose" in that city to purchase a breeding permit. Thus, the pre-schooler whose mother buys him a pair of guppies (and to our knowledge, veterinary science has not yet perfected a technique for neutering or spaying guppies), would necessarily be subject to the requirement to purchase a permit for $100, and to meet stringent facilities, veterinary care, and records-keeping requirements.

For purposes of this article, though, we will limit discussion to laws affecting only dogs and cats . . . and hope that the lawmakers in the city of Houston display more common sense than the proposers of this ordinance.

Animal control laws are ordinarily passed to protect the public health and safety of a jurisdiction's citizens, and to protect them from being subjected to undue nuisiance caused by animals. Still other laws are appropriately passed to protect animals from human-caused cruelty, abuse and neglect. While these concepts sound simple and universal, nonetheless, problems arise in wording that includes both cats and dogs in specific provisions. The laws are generally worded to address dogs, with cats thrown in as an afterthought.

Begin with the basic differences between the species. Dogs can be confined to yards, while cats can scale and escape the highest fences. Some dogs can threaten public health and safety by being overly aggressive or biting, and can be viewed as a nuisance when they bark excessively or, if allowed to roam, when they strew trash. Cats protecting their territory often engage in loud battles, and leave pawprints on freshly-washed cars, but rarely destroy property. Both species become a nuisance when they defacate on other peoples' property or on public property. Both can be infected with the deadly rabies virus.

The most common law for pets is one requiring vaccination to protect the pet and the people it will come into contact with from rabies. Cats are generally thought of as a more common vector for this disease because unsupervised roaming is more likely to bring them into contact with the wild animals such as raccoons and coyotes that commonly carry the virus. However, incidence in the entire country in cats is very low - 288 in 1995, the last published U.S. report - despite thousands being tested each year (more than 2000 cats tested for rabies in California alone.) Certainly, because rabies is so deadly, it is appropriate that vaccination be required for any animal that is allowed out of doors. Unfortunately for cat owners, though, recent veterinary findings have linked vaccine-site sarcomas, possibly caused by the adjuvants commonly used, to the rabies vaccines, and a significant number of cats display an allergic sensitivity to the vaccine. Because of these possibilities, many cat owners are reluctant to have their cats vaccinated, and even if their cats are kept exclusively indoors, the owners are law breakers.

In association with the rabies vaccine requirements, most jurisdictions require that the animals wear tags indicating proof of compliance. Collars and tags are commonly worn by pet dogs, but again cat owners are loathe to comply. Because cats scale fences and trees, their owners reason, collars are likely to get hung up, and the cats can choke to death. This fear is, for the most part, unfounded, yet it persists. Cat owners will frequently use specially-designed break-away colors to avoid this hazard, but the most frequent result is that the collars do break away, and the tags are lost.

The next most common laws involve licensing of pet animals. Dog licensing is nearly universal, and an increasing number of jurisdictions are now advocating cat licensing as well. This licensing is purportedly intended to a) encourage compliance with rabies vaccination and b) identify lost animals so that they can be returned to their owners.

An erroneous secondary argument has evolved that pits dog owners against cat owners, and makes the claim that "for many years dog owners have paid, through licenses, for animal control services, and it is now time for cat owners to pay their fair share." This argument quickly loses its validity when the law is viewed as it actually is - an unpopular tax on pet ownership. Recent studies show a near-universal less than 30 percent compliance rate in dog licensing, with cat licensing compliance a dismal one percent or less, except in jurisdictions that employ costly and unpopular aggressive canvassing programs, where compliance then is never reported higher than 14 percent.

Additionally, in most jurisdictions, any funds generated by licensing goes, not to animal control services, but into the general fund. Animal control services should, more appropriately, be viewed in the same manner as other public services such as police and fire protection, because the entire population benefits, and as such should be funded by a broad-based taxation of all the citizens. People who have been victims of crime are not the only taxpayers to pay for police protection.

Licensing actually fails in its primary stated purpose, and discourages compliance with rabies vaccination laws. People on low or fixed income may not have their pets vaccinated for fear of fines if they are identified, and still others who may have more pets than their city allows under numbers limits, fear that their pets will be confiscated. People who feed "neighborhood" cats will not claim ownership of those cats when license fees and fines are added to the cost of vaccinations.

Again, cats and dogs are different. Reclaim by owners of cats from most shelters is abysmal, and could be greatly improved by some sort of identification. Because of the cat's nature to wander, often their owners are not overly concerned if their pet is gone for a day or two, and by the time the owner begins to worry and search, likely the cat has already been euthanized or adopted to another family. Widespread, voluntary identification that is not tied to license fees could reunite many thousands of lost cats with their families.

Both vaccination and licensing laws again fail to consider a basic difference between dogs and cats. Dogs are almost exclusively owned pets. Nearly half of all cats are unowned. They may be fully feral (many generations of unowned cats that reproduce in the streets and alleys), or "loosely owned" cats that benefit from the kindness of people who are willing to put out plates of food but who will not claim ownership or responsibility. These cat feeders may well respond to stringent enforcement of vaccination and licensing laws by denying the cats the simple kindness they have been receiving. On the other hand, innovative city education/voucher programs, such as one instituted in San Jose, California, to encourage people to assume responsibility for these heretofore unowned cats are proving successful beyond even the cities' expectations.

New trap-test-vaccinate-alter-return-maintain programs are proving very successful in many jurisdictions, and are promoted by national organizations such as Alley Cat Allies in Mt. Ranier, Maryland. In these programs, humane organizations identify colonies of feral cats and "caretakers" who promise to provide the basics of food and water. The cats are trapped, tested for the fatal viral diseases, vaccinated (including rabies), sterilized, and then released back into their controlled colonies. The colonies then do not suffer the population explosions that create a nuisiance for citizens as well as suffering on the part of the cats that overpopulate their "habitat" carrying capacity in food, water and shelter. The cats can then continue to fulfill their centuries-old public service job of controlling rodent populations in the stabilized colonies. Contrast this reasonable approach to the methods of population control of eradication by trap-and-kill that is neither humane nor effective.

The growing prevalence of "cat leash laws" also fail to address the feral and unowned cat populations, and can lead to over-aggressive enforcement and trap-and-kill methods. While pet cats being kept indoors, safe from the dangers of urban life, is a laudable goal, it is one better accomplished by emphasizing the benefits to the cat and its owner.

Another common law in cities and counties across the US that should be revisited is the one of establishing numbers limits. No animal law is more artibrary or discriminatory. Under these laws, dog owners are more subject to being "caught" in non-compliance than are cat owners, particularly those whose cats are kept exclusively indoors. The State of Pennsylvania, in a landmark high court decision, Commonwealth v. Creighton, abolished such numbers limits in that state as unconstitutional. The court explained that such an ordinance reached beyond the power granted to the borough to prohibit a nuisiance, absent any indication why more than the five cats or dogs allowed might constitute a nuisiance or a risk to the public health, safety and welfare.

The court added, "Even legitimate legislative goals (controlling nuisiances) cannot be pursued by means which stifle fundamental personal liberty when the goals can be otherwise more reasonably achieved."

Reasonable people can easily see how one barking dog kept outdoors can be more of a nuisiance than even 10 small dogs or cats kept exclusively indoors, or how a cat allowed out to roam can be more of a nuisiance than a well-behaved dog confined to its home or yard. Yet numbers limits continue to remain in force because it is easier for cities to enforce than a law that would require proof of nuisiance or health code violation. These ordinances are the most abused of all animal control laws, and used for harassment by feuding neighbors or families.

Finally, there is the wave of new laws designed purportedly to "reduce pet overpopulation" that began with the infamous San Mateo County, California, ordinance that mandated that all dogs and cats be neutered or spayed unless a breeding permit was purchased. These laws, with numerous variations on the original theme, are still being introduced in cities and counties across the US, backed by inaccurate and inflated "shelter kill" statistics, despite the wealth of current studies that show that the numbers of animals born currently bears little relation to the numbers killed in shelters. Euthanasia nationwide has dropped by 75 percent in the last 10 years, thanks to widespread education as to the benefits of neutering and spaying pets and the advent of low-cost programs and clinics to provide sterilization, as well as innovative approaches to increase adoptions.

Euthanasia of dogs has fallen more dramatically than that of cats because of the large numbers of cats that are unowned or feral, with no owner to assume responsibility for the sterilization, and the hapless feral cat that is trapped is far less likely to be considered adoptable. The truly successful programs such as the ones in effect in the city of San Francisco that have virtually eliminated euthanasia of all adoptable and treable/rehabilitable animals, address the real social issues of animals, and the root causes of animals dying in shelters.

Again, these breeding regulation laws are being written to encompass both dogs and cats, despite totally diverse physical, husbandry and social concerns. To enumerate only a few:

  • Cat breeders must of necessity keep larger numbers because the lack of effective vaccination protocols against several deadly viruses means they must be self-contained, and limits use of any outside stud service agreements;
  • Mother Nature demands that cats be bred more often than dogs, the failure to do so carrying consequences that mean the loss of reproductive capability.


This brief article cannot address the many other animal issues that are being addressed - either appropriately or not - by local, state and federal laws. Local animal control agencies and humane enforcement agencies must be given the tools with which to accomplish their jobs, but all too often when laws are being considered and even passed, the lawmakers are lacking in the vital input that can only be provided by those people most knowledgeable about the specific needs and requirements of their animals. One size does not fit all in animal law, and species differences must be recognized. Only by fanciers participation in grass roots political action groups dedicated to animal issues, and by sharing of information about just such differences discussed in this article, can reasonable and enforceable laws be enacted . . . and unreasonable and restrictive laws be blocked or overturned. Participation in civic boards and commissions, such as animal shelter advisory boards can be both a public service and a guarantee of a rational voice for animal welfare.

About The Author

Anna Sadler's photo
Anna Sadler - NAIA Board Of Directors
Board Member/Volunteer/Partner/Article Writer of the National Animal Interest Alliance.

All Authors Of This Article: | Anna Sadler |
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