Pet Food Tax :

an alternative way to finance animal shelters

instead of relying on pet license fees

by Pam Green, © 2010

This article is based on a proposal I presented to the Sacramento County Bored of Supervisors. The version printed here is much expanded from the much more concise one presented to the Bored.
Because Sacramento County has been in financial crisis, the County Bored of Supervisors has slashed the Animal Control budget again and again. Currently the county shelter has such a low number of workers that minimally decent care is becoming impossible and the number of shelter animals will soar.
A huge part of the problem is that in Sacramento County only 14% of dog and cat owners are licensing their pets. (Yes, Virginia, Sacramento County does have the wisdom to require licensing of cats, though the fee is much lower than for dogs. It's fully appropriate and necessary to require owned cats to be licensed and Rabies vaccinate. Cats, owned and feral, constitute more than half the intakes in any shelter and far more than half the animals killed because not adopted.)
My proposal is that there be a pet food tax to provide for adequate funding of all Animal Control functions, including low cost spay/neuter programs. Dr Kate Hurley, DVM, head of the UC Davis Shelter Medicine program suggested that a successful pet food tax might fully replace the pet license as the funding for these programs, thus enabling the county to give free dog and cat licensing. I will discuss the potential benefits of free pet licensing.
(Note : another part of Sacramento County's Animal Control budget problem, something specific to this county, is that a few years ago a bond issue was passed to enable the building of a very nice modern shelter to replace the very deficient old shelter. Unfortunately no source of repayment for the bond debt was included. So now the interest costs on this bond are devouring most of the inadequate AC budget.)
This is part of a series on helping animal shelters to survive budget reductions.

Pet Food Tax as funding for Animal Control

why current funding is inadequate

The big reason current funding has been slashed and slashed again is that county revenues from all sources are down so much. "It's the economy" and it's the supid stupid stupid failure to save a healthy portion of surplus during the good years as a reserve against the inevitable bad years. The County Bored of Supervisors has made cuts to many county programs, but the cuts to Animal Control have been far more severe than those to almost all other programs. This probably reflects a belief that discarded pets have very little voter constituency and that most voters care more about Sheriff, Probation, and Fire programs because those cuts can be pictured as a direct threat to the safety of the voter. Of course if Animal Control fails to function , there will be an upsurge in the populations off feral cats which remain unvaccinated and unsterilized and there will be packs of dogs roaming the streets raiding garbage and , some of them , threatening pedestrians. At that point it will finally be recognized that a well run Animal Services program is relevant to public safety. But now the problem will be much greater and much more expensive to deal with.

Cities and counties accross the United States have economic problems and in many of them those revenue shrinkages have resulted or will result in cuts to the Animal Services or Animal Control programs. So this article would be relevant, perhaps in modified form, to many other localities. Readers, feel free to print it out and give it to your local legislators and budget authorities.

However Sacramento County is particularly bad off for two reasons . One is that the level of license compliance is extremely low, probably much lower than in many other areas. Secondly, and more unique to this county, is the very large debt expense for servicing the bond debt on the recently constructed beautiful state of the art animal shelter, a project instituted during the years of easy money and good county income.

the bond debt

Unfortunately, the Animal Care and Regulation department is facing difficulties this year, primarily due to the debt service that must be paid on the costly new kennel facility off Bradshaw Road. Supervisor MacGlashan was concerned about the cost of this building and the potential for a situation like this years ago, and voted against constructing the facility. It is unfortunate that the County now finds itself in a position in which debt service on a building is eliminating services.
                                  by e-mail from Supervisor MacGlashan

As to Supervisor MacGlashan's comments about the cost of debt service on the shelter building bond, of course she is correct that this is a huge amount and that the county is stuck with paying it and that those same dollars can't be used for something else.

BUT this amount will be exactly the same whether the shelter is utilized to the best possible extent and is filling its purpose bysaving the highest possible percentage of lives (and earning adoption fees, educating adopters to be responsible owners and ones who will gladly pay their pet license fees for many years), or whether it becomes purely an extermination camp rivaling Dachau (and shaming Sacramento to the same extent), or whether it stands empty ( it's pretty much useless for any other purpose -- can't simply convert it to office space or a shopping mall or even to a reform camp for delinquent humans ). This money must be spent every year for the next 30 years until the bond is paid off. The only question is whether the county and the citizens, and the pets , are going to get anything good out of this fixed expense.

It is certainly true that it was irresponsible to pass a bond measure without providing in the same measure a way to raise the funds needed to service the debt. (It's always irresponsible to commit to long term debt without committing to raising funds for those payments. That's as true for governmental bodies as it is for private individuals.) At the same time as this bond was passed would have been an ideal time to pass a dog and cat food tax or to raise the general sales tax sufficiently to service the bond debt. but it's not too late to put in a pet food tax or general sales tax measure onto the Nov ballot.

why funding through pet license fees will not suffice.

and probably can never be made to suffice

The current license compliance rate of only 14% shows that the vast majority, 86%, choose to evade paying pet license fees. These evaders will continue to do so unless Sacramento County finds a way to detect and compel the large majority of evaders.

One method of compelling most evaders to license their pets would be a return to the old system in use some years ago of having AC field officers do an annual house to house sweep checking to see if resident pets are licensed. This system was very successful. Most pet owners understood and complied with the sweeps. Most who were not going to be home during sweeps period simply taped their licensed to the window next to the front door so the documents could be read from the outside. However, with the present budget cut of field officers down to only two, such an enforcement practice will be impossible. These two officers will be pushed to the max to try to keep up with dangerous aggressive animal reports and similar high priority calls.

The recent proposal to try to require veterinarians to violate their legal duty of client confidentiality by reporting all dogs getting Rabies vaccinations would most likely have reduced the percentage of dogs being vaccinated without greatly increasing license compliance. Moreover, Rabies vaccinations are medically required only every third year, so even if every dog continued to be vaccinated on schedule , such reporting if perfectly performed would only have provided a 28% increase (33% less the 1/3 of the 14% already licensed). Many owners of indoor-only cats do not see any need for Rabies vaccination, and of course the ferals are not getting vaccinated at all. Fortunately this foolish idea was not adopted. It is in use in a few areas, including my own county (Yolo), but it's very easy for the person listed owner on the Rabies vaccination certificate to simply respond that they no longer own this pet. Or to respond , as I do quite truthfully, that this dog is a temporary foster dog and will be licensed by its adopter in their own city or county.

A final possibility to increase license compliance would be through recruitment and application of social pressure, peer pressure. This would require an advertising campaign aimed at complying pet owners and at non-pet owning citizens to seek out friends and neighbors who have unlicensed pets and to apply social pressure on them, to shame them into license compliance. Thatmight well boost compliance to some degree at the cost of a lot of social friction. A lot would depend on running a good advertising program (which would cost money to do) that gets law abiding people sufficiently annoyed at the license evaders to be willing to confront them. Given how few citizens will confront someone who is visibly abusing a dog out in public, I would not be overly optimistic that these same citizens will inquire the license status of a pet seen in public or at a home in which they are a guest and then proceed to lecture or shame the owner if the pet is not licensed.

A more extreme version would be to offer a "tattle-tale" reward of some portion of the fines for unlicensed pet ownership given to the person who reports (tattles on) the license evader. This method works well for the IRS in getting people to tattle on suspected income tax evaders, but the amounts involved are large enough that for some people it's worth the large tattler reward to destroy their relationship with the person on whom they are tattling. The fines for failing to license a pet are relatively small, so even giveing the entire fine to the tattler would probably not be enough inducement to over-come the belief most people acquire in elementary school that there is something wrong about tattling.

The current license "amnesty" (now extended through Oct 31, 2010 in Sacramento County) for people to license a previously unlicensed pet without incurring any penalty for previous failure to license may and should produce some added license compliance. That may only be true to the extent that owners of currently unlicensed pets fear that if they don't act during the amnesty, they might be "caught" and fined later on. In reality, the owner of an unlicensed pet can always make their own amnesty simply by presenting that pet as one only recently acquired. "He showed up as a stray on my doorstep and I only just now have decided to keep him. Isn't it wonderful how quickly he has bonded to me ?" Unless neigbors are questioned, this lie will pass easily. Similarly "A friend who was moving gave him to me a month ago." Or "she was a shelter-rescued foster dog, but now I've decided to adopt her myself", something that has happened to me a few times over the years. The variety of true reasons and very plausible lies to account for a previously unlicensed pet now being presented for licensing is limited only by the imagination. All are difficult to disprove without a field officer doing investigation.

So it's time to acknowledge that relying on license fees , so easily evaded, to fund Animal Services is just not going to get the job done. It's time to use a method that is difficult to evade and thus distributes the burden much more fairly. It's time to inaugurrate a pet food tax.

the advantages of a pet food tax as funding source

I was dead serious when I proposed a pet food tax to the Bored of Superviors.

A pet food tax has many advantages over the present system of funding Animal Control by relying on pet license fees.

political feasibility of a pet food tax

In California it takes a 2/3 vote to pass any tax. (Too bad it doesn't take a similar 2/3 vote to ratify any spending proposal. Too bad the taxpayer cannot designate which spending proposals his/her own taxes will be committed to.)

While it would also be possible to get a general sales tax increase on the ballot, say an extra 1/4 % or extra 1/2 % sales tax on everything currently subject to sales tax, I think it would be much easier to pass a 1% sales tax on dog and cat food only. A 1% sales tax on pet food that is irrevocably committed to funding Animal Services (animal shelter, AC officers, and low cost spay/neuter and low cost Rabies vaccination programs) would be seen by the pet owners as being fair.

In "selling" the pet food tax to the majority of pet owners who love their pets, whether or not they have licensed them, first of all the law must absolutely positively irrevocably guarrantee that every cent raised by pet food tax will be spent only on Animal Services. These tax revenues can only be spent first on the shelter itself, on shelter staffing and operation costs (including field officers), with anything over that going to fund low cost spay/neuter and low cost Rabies vaccination. Or better yet, with that overage spent partly on low cost S/N and Rabies and partly reserved as a cushion against future lean years.
It's fair because it falls on all (almost all) pet owners and can't be evaded by some while others carry the burden. It's fair because it would fund a service that pet owners can recognize is relevant to pets and is needed mainly because of the presence of pets in society.
In "selling" the pet food tax to the general pet owning population, those who have been paying their license fees must learn that only 14 % of pet owners are obeying the license laws and that the other 86% are free-loading off of that responsible 14%. but the pet food tax cannot be easily evaded. The pet food tax will ensure that the 86% of non-licensers will pay their fair share.
A pet food tax would be even easier to "sell" to voters who do not have pets , because it wouldn't cost them anything personally and because a better funded Animal Control would benefit them by picking up stray animals and especially threatening and aggressive loose animals.
In "selling: the pet food tax to non-pet-owning people the arguement for the pet food tax has to stress the fairness of all (almost all) people who own pets paying for the public costs associated with pets. Stress that this tax will fund the A C field officers needed to prevent other people's pets from being a danger or nuisance to non-pet-owners.
Even if every pet owner voted against the pet food tax, or if the 86% who are license evaders did so, if a large majority of non-pet-owner voted in favor, the measure would pass by a landslide. Even the Tea Party people who oppose any tax they themselves might have to pay probably don't mind taxing someone else for something that they see as benefitting themselves..

To the extent that a pet food tax might ultimately lead to a phasing out of license fees (see below), such a tax could appeal to legitmate responsible dog and cat breeders very much. The legitimate breeders tend to resent the higher license fee for intact animals , at least if the difference exceeds the traditional twice as high rate. Some describe this higher fee as a "punishment" for them, even though they believe that the animals they produce will never become shelter intakes and that it is really the ordinary pet owners having accidental litters and the pet shop and puppy mill / kitten factory pets and the fereal cats who are the main source of shelter intakes. (RIght now there is no real proof of the original source of most shelter intakes ; mandatory micro-chipping prior to sale with record kept of the breeder or point of sale origin would allow such proof to accumulate within a very few years.)

(The purpose of the higher fee for intact animals is , of course, to encourage everyone who doesn't have a really strong reason for leaving their pet reproductively intact to get it altered. This is accomplished best if the higher fee is enough higher that the costs of alteration would be recovered in only one to three years. That means either the intact fee has to be at least half the usual alter costs at a private vet clinic or there must be enough low cost spay/neuter clinics available that the intact license fee is equal to or greater than the low cost S/N charge.)
Whether or not the license fee remains, legitimate breeders might appreciate as non-discriminatory the fact that a pet food tax would be exactly the same for an intact dog or cat as for an altered one. Of course a pregnant or lactating dog or cat does need more food and higher quality food than one who is not in those conditions, but all responsible breeders accept that and an added 1% in cost should not make any real difference. The period of greater food needs for reproduction is only a few months out of the year or out of several years.

In "selling" the plan of a pet food tax to the legitimate breeders, stress that a pet food tax does not discriminate between intact animals and altered ones , nor between breeder-owned animals and non-breeder-owned. legitimate responsible breeders are very much afraid (and to some degree rightly so) of being demonized and discriminated against. Many very responsible breeders are violently opposed to intact license fees that are many times the altered license fee and they are violently opposed to mandatory S/N laws. but they should be willing to support a pet food tax because they can see the fairness of it.

alternatives to percentage sales tax levied at customer level

There are some alternatives to a percentage sales tax. It could be a fixed amount per bag or per pound of food. But a percentage tax is something most businesses are familiar with and can set their registers up to include. And a percentage tax is something customers are familiar with. A 1% tax on pet food would mean that the large bag of dog food that most large dog owners buy, that 35 pound bag of good quality kibble that costs around $50, would now cost an added 50 cents. That's not a big hit and one could argue that anyone who cannot afford that really cannot afford to keep a pet.

There are alternatives to levying the tax at the retail customer level, ie when the pet owner buys the food from the store. It could be possible to levy it when the food is sold from manufacturer to the wholesale distributer or to levy it when the food is sold from the wholesaler to the retail outlet. These alternatives would "hide" the tax from being obvious to the pet owner, who would not be reminded of the tax at every purchase. It would just seem like a slightly higher price, and over the past few years pet food prices have been rising anyway.

potential objections from pet owners : inequality between pet types

One possible objection is that a pet food tax would cost the owner of a large dog more than the owner of a small dog and that it might cost more for the larger dog than for a cat.

Currently dog licenses do not discriminate on size, though there is a higher license for reproductively intact dogs than for altered ones. Currently in Sacramento County the cat license is noticably lower than the dog license. It's true that a 1 percent sales tax would mean that the owner of a small dog who eats maybe $20 in kibble per month is going to be paying less than the owner of a big dog who eats $50 in kibble per month. The pet food stores already charge more per pound for the exact same dog food in a smaller size bag than for the same food in a larger bag; eg the 20 pound bag costs significantly more than half of what the 40 lb bag costs. Small dog owners , unless they have many small dogs, usually buy the smaller bag as it's easier to store and will remain fresh for the likely period in which it will be used up. Of course some owners of small dogs buy more expensive fancy food for their pets, thus might well be paying as much per dog. (Some small dog owners also spend a lot on decorated collars and clothers for their "fur-baby" ; I don't see much of that for large dog owners.) As to shelter costs, it may well be that large dogs are at higher risk of being dumped at the pound; certainly they cost more per individual for the shelter to feed and cage clean. Large dogs also cost more for shelter vetting insofar as they take larger amounts off medication (most medications are dosed on a body weight basis). In any case most dog owners who are not absolute idiots know that a large dog costs more to keep than a small one. As a large dog person myself, I'd find it hard to believe that a 1% increase in the cost of dog food is really going to be a significantly bigger an objection for large dog owners as compared to small dog owners.

I haven't priced cat food , so I can't say how the costs of feeding a cat compare to those of feeding a dog. It seems fair to me that the average cat should be paying about the same as the average dog in terms of the reality that the owned cat population as a whole is contributing as much to shelter intakes and shelter costs as is the owned dog population as a whole. The unowned cat, ie feral cat, population also makes a very large contribution to shelter intakes and shelter costs. As mentioned below, the feral cats do not generate any license fees, but under a pet food tax those being fed by feral feeders would be generating tax income. It seems to me perfectly fair that someone who wants to indulge their feelings of doing good by feeding ferals should be contributing to the support of Animal Services just as pet cat owners should be contributing.

the funding level goal

The goal I envision is that the pet food tax could if set at an appropriate level provide all or most of the costs of running Animal Control and the Animal Shelter. I'd hope that it would generate more than that and could subsidize low cost spay/neuter programs (which in turn will over the long run reduce shelter intakes and thus reduce shelter costs) and subsidize low cost Rabies vaccination programs (which benefit the public health system and probably save some significant money there). For a pet food tax to be intelligently designed, some market research needs to be done to find out how much pet food sales are normal in the area , how much is dog kibble, how much is canned dog food, how much is cat kibble, how much is canned cat food. Do some number crunching. Maybe it will turn out that much less than a 1% tax is needed. The tax should be planned so that most years it will produce more than AC and the shelter are likely to need in order to be run in an excellent manner, some of the extra going to low cost S/N and Rabies and some of the surplus going into a reserve fund kept against future needs in years when a sour economy might cause revenues to drop or natural disaster or other causes might cause shelter intakes and expenses to go up.

Note : for Sacramento County, at some point in the future the bond debt on the new shelter will finally be paid off. Burn the mortgage ! At that time, it would be possible to lower the pet food tax and/or complete the transition to free pet licensing., as well as to make further increases in quality of care (especially vet care) given at the shelter and/or to reduce the adoption fees at the shelter (especially fees for the harder to place animals). Alternatively the liberated income could be used to further expand subsidized S/N and Rabies clinics and to expand the feral cat TNR programs. Perhaps some could go to funding classes for owners in pet care, pet owner responsibility, pet training. (If you think only dogs can be trained, not cats, that is really not true. Admittedly most cat owners are not as oriented towards training, which might be part of why they chose to have cats rather than dogs. But cats can be trained by positive reinforcement methods, and cats can be play-trained to run Agility courses, providing exercise and amusement to cat and owner.) The one place the liberated income will NOT go is into the General Fund or into any non-pet benefitting programs.

a more reliable, less evadeable , source of funding

All those pet owners who are presently evading licensing their pets (paying the pet ownership tax) will not be able to evade the pet food tax, not unless they want to spend a greater sum in car fuel to go outside the county to buy their pet food or spend an even greater sum doing home cooking pet food. If they start driving to a pet food store outside the pet food tax area, they will quickly discover how much more they are spending on car fuel. If they think that home prepared pet food is going to be less costly than commercial pet food plus pet food tax, they will soon find out otherwise. Home prepared pet food may be less costly if you have a farm and livestock raising situation or if you own a restaurant, but not at all for anyone else.

Now some people are doing home prepared pet food because ther pet requires a special diet for medical reasons and they are happy to spend whatever it takes to keep their beloved pet healthy . Such people are not the kind of pet owners who will ever let their pet become a problem to neighbors or society or who will let their pet wind up at the shelter. Likewise for those who do home prepared pet food because they believe it's a healthier diet.

In short a pet food tax will ensure that 90 to 95% of owned pets will be contributing to Animal Services funding. That's a higher percentage than any community gets in pet license compliance.. It's certainly higher than Sacramento County can achieve. Now if the pet food tax were state wide, it would be even harder to evade. Success in Sacramento could prompt state wide application because after all Sacramento is the state capitol, so sucess here would be visible to the state legislature. Even a more limited spread, spread to adjacent counties and included cities, would enhance effectiveness.

I know there is always fear that if one city or county has a higher sales tax than the adjacent one or ones, then people will do their shopping outside the county. That might be true for really "big ticket" items, though for those often the item will be bought from whichever source is most willing to "make a deal" when buyer haggles. (certainly true for cars !). For ordinary shopping most people will go for convenience of location of source. Groceries are bought close to home and as last stop on a shopping trip before returning home (certainly true if buying anything that needs to be kept cold or frozen). Most people buy their dog and cat food either at the grocery store or at a pet supply store (eg PetCo, PetsMart) that is located near where they buy their people food. (Some of us buy our pet food first and then buy our own food with whever money we have left over.) People who work in one area but live in another may well plan some of their shopping to take place in whichever of the two has lower costs, ie total costs, including taxes. But people are not going to drive very far to get a 1% lower sales tax on an item like dog food whose base price is similar in either location because the fuel costs for driving are now so very high. In the last few years most people have become keenly aware of the costs of fuel. Remember that the cost of a 1% pet food tax on a $50 bag of dog food (enough to feed one large dog for a month) is only 50 cents, which with fuel at over $3 a gallon and average car getting a lot less than 30 mpg means you can't drive very far before you've burnt up that 50 cent savings. If $3 bought you 30 miles distance, then 50 cents buys you 5 miles distance. That's not even counting in the value of your driving time and aggravation.

Those feeding feral cats will also not evade paying the pet food tax, and this might remind them a bit more that they should be trapping and altering every cat they are feeding so that they don't wind up with an ever increasing group of hungry ferals. Right now a lot of feral feeders are not very diligent about trapping and altering, so the problem gets worse and worse. Some of the feeders are elderly or in poor health and really need help to do trapping, but they should get that help before they start a feeding program. We need to develop a strong ethic that it's wrong to feed feral cats , however hungry they may seem to be, unless you are actively and competently trapping and altering them. Feeding ferals without effective TNR is just making a small problem into a larger and larger one.

(I see this all the time on an animal advocacy list I subscribe to. People who started out feeding one mamma cat and are now feeding dozens and now this person has been evicted or gotten ill and sent to nursing home or has died. So the plea goes out for someone to take over the feeding program. Meanwhile neighbors are debating setting out cat poison, and maybe some of them know which common substances are lethal to cats and fairly harmless to dogs and other non-felid animals. Or neigborhood delinquents are studying up to become serial killers by practicing on these unfortunate surplus cats.)
Given that feral cats are a huge source of shelter intakes and that a large number of them are not attractive adoption candidates, they mostly are a source of shelter costs for care, and ultimately euthanasia, and are much less likely to bring in any adoption fees. It's long overdue that those who are feeding feral cats should be contributing to the funding of the animal shelter. Of course with some feral feeder tax money coming in, the shelter could buy more cat traps that could be loaned or rented out to feral feeders to use to do TNR (trap-alter-release). And these traps could be loaned or rented out to people who consider their neighborhood to be over-run with feral cats to trap them and bring them in to the shelter as stray intakes.

transition towards free pet licensing

The idea of free pet licensing as a consequence of a sucessful pet food tax comes from Dr Kate Hurley, DVM, head of the UC Davis Vet School's Shelter Medicine program. She and I have kicked this around a bit over lunch and in e-mail. Please in reading the following, you can attribute anything you like to Dr Hurley and anything that you don't like or that seems silly to me. This idea is still very much a work in progress.

In putting a pet food tax on the ballot, it might be made more palatable to the voters if it included a provision that in any year that the tax raises more money than is needed to fund the shelter bond payment plus the shelter and AC operations and the S/N clinics (with Rabies clinics), then half the surplus will be banked for future years and the other half will be used to give a credit towards license renewal for those pets already licensed during the current year.

As a first step in this transition there could be a provision that people whose pets are already licensed could save up their sales receipts and when those receipts showed that the pet food tax already paid totaled twice the annual pet license fee for their particular category of pet (dog, cat, altered, intact) they could submit those receipts the next time the license is due and would be credited as having paid their license for that year. That sounds real good and very fair. the reality of course if that it takes a lot of discipline to save up all those receipts and submit them ; my guess is that less than 5% of people will actually do it, but being given the opportunity to do it will seem fair and attractive. Probably the same percentage of people as those who carefully clip grocery coupons from the newspaper, organize the coupons, and actually use every coupon relevant to those products they'd buy anyway. (Maybe I am skeptical because it takes more effort than I myself am willing to put into it ?)

A really good pet food tax might perhaps raise enough that, as the next step in transition, pet license fees could be seriously reduced or eliminated for pets that were already paid for their first year of licensing and microchipped at time of first licensing (or had been microchipped at some other time). Maybe initially the free license would be only for altered pets. Later, as the third step in transition, free licensing could be expanded to include reproductively intact pets whose owners have passed some kind of responsibility test (or for dogs, dogs who have passed a basic training / behavior test such at the Canine Good Citizen test (available on the AKC web site and described in the Training section of my site). Eventually, as the final step , contingent on shelter intake numbers dropping by a certain percentage or to a certain number well under the shelter's carrying capacity , all reproductively intact pets would be eligible. In any case , the requirement for the pet to be microchipped is essential.

political feasibility (again)

Of course the most certain way of passing a pet food tax on the ballot would probably be to couple it with an ending of the pet license fee for all dogs and cats, either ending the license fee immediately when the food tax goes into effect or, more prudently, a year after the food tax has gone into effect and contingent on the food tax bringing in a certain specified amount of revenue. The more gradual transition outlined above might be the more prudent in terms of being sure that the food tax does bring in enough revenue to cover our currently high shelter case-load. Also by giving the free license first to altered pets and to already licensed pets, we would be rewarding those who have already acted responsibly and lawfully, and we might thus provide incentive to others to do likewise.

first we have to define goals for the free license program.

The primary goal would be for all pets (dogs and cats) to be licensed and microchipped and to have owners keep their contact info current and to update the database on changes of ownership. The annual license renewal would require that the owner confirm or update all contact information every year and every third year show proof of Rabies vaccination or veterinary letter stating reasons why the animal's health precludes such vaccination. The pet owner's update could be done either by hardcopy form ("snail mail") or via the Animal Services web site (or statewide web site, etc). The Rabies certificate or letter could be either hardcopy or perhaps the vet could file this directly to the database.Similarly the vet doing spay or neuter could notifiy the database of this change to altered status. It would also be the responsibility of the owner to notify the database of any changes of ownership. Probably owners should also notify the database of death of the pet. Ideally someone would notify the database if the owner were to die while the pet is still alive, giving notice of the change of ownership.

The microchip would thus serve very similarly to the way that the VIN (vehicle identification number) serves for motor vehicles. The pet license would serve much as car registration serves, and the pet license and microchip database would serve much as the DMV database serves. The purpose of course is to enable a lost pet or stolen car to be returned to its owner and also to require that owners be held responsible for their pets or cars.

Whether the owner has to pay for the microchip insertion or not might depend on whether the pet food tax is generating enough revenue to fund free chipping or reduced cost chipping for every pet or for those pets whose owners meet certain low income criteria or all owners might be required to pay as the cost of entering the free license fee program. These chips are NOT expensive (under $10 when bought in quantity, and a city or county might well be able to get a better bargain than that) and the actual insertion can be done by anyone qualified as a veterinary technician. Indeed many dog breeders who are not vet techs are doing their own insertions. It's a safe and simple process. Animal Services could very well run microchip clinics at the same time they run Rabies clinics.

Althugh there was recently a rumor going around the internet that microchips could cause tumors, the scientific evidence is that while they might do so in mice or rats, there have been less than a handful of reported cases of a tumor occurring in a dog or cat at the same site as a microchip. That's an infinitesimal percentage of total number of dogs and cats who have been chipped. A dog or cat has more chance of being struck by lightening than of getting cancer from a microchip.

This goal of positive identification of pets by microchip would be intended to make it possible for licensed pets to get back to their owners ASAP with minimal costs to shelter system if the pet did accidentally get loose or lost, thus rewarding responsible owners for complying with the system. The Canadian city of Calgary has had a wonderful response to their policy of returning licensed pets to owners without running them through the shelter whenever the license contact information makes it possible to do so. That would be true whether licensing is free or for fee. In Calgary, people are so much impressed with the policy of direct return of pets that the vast majority of pet owners willingly pay their license fees. Calgary is currently collsecting enough in license fees to fully support their Animal Services. (Of course it could be that Canadians are just more socially responsible and law abiding than Americans , or maybe just that they pay taxes more willingly because they percieve a larger share of their taxes being spent on things that actually benefit ordinary citizens. In any case, Calgarians now seem to believe that their dog tax is worth paying.)

Another goal is to make tracking of Rabies vaccination easy (so a bitten person could find out very quickly if the biting dog or cat was current on vaccination) and facilitate reminding owners when re-vaccination is due.

If the owner contact information includes a current e-mail address, the system could also facilitate sending out disease outbreak warnings ( realistic update on new pet disease like dog flu) and info on other newly discovered dangers (the recent emergence of grapes and raisins as a threat) , info about pet food recalls, or to get feedback from large semi-random population on experience with any issue potentially affecting pets. It would also be a way of de-bunking false rumors of dangers.

It would be a way to let pet owners know of new services available or remind them of already existing ones , eg low cost S/N clinics, vaccination clinics, training classes, opening of new dog park.

All of the mass distribution of information plans assumes that majority of owners have an e-mail address and will update changes to the license database, since e-mail is the most cost effective way to do a lot of this. Web sites are another way , a way that wouldn't be limited to pets who are licensed , not unless the system were to make the pet's license number the owner's "password" to access site or to access priviledged portions of site, thus making these portions a benefit of complying with licensing.

The other side of goals of getting all pets chipped would be that the microchip and database system enables AC and the legal system to identify the "bad owners" ie those whose pets are causing problems. For example those owners whose dogs are repeatedly found running at large, ie off leash and outside fenced home ground or other place such as Dog Park where being off leash is legal and acceptable. For example those scum who abandon their pets on lonely country roads (many of which seem to lead to my home). These owners could then be targeted for educational interventions (ideally first resort) and for disincentives (ie punishment). Those whose dog/cat are loose repeatedly could be dealt with with escalating fines, and three-strikes-S/N laws . (And perhaps the very first time a bitch or queen is picked up stray and in estrus, the owner could be required to prove non-pregnancy or perhaps a safe abortion method will become available, or perhaps an immediate spay would be require. Note that a wandering in heat bitch is likely to become impregnated, and an in heat queen is nearly dead certain to do so.) Owners who don't redeem their pet because they don't want to pay the fine, would not escape the fine and indeedthe fine should be doubled or tripled. Those who simply abandon a pet (whether in city park or lonely country road) , would likewise be subject to the abandonment laws already on the books but currently practically unenforceable.

If license and microchip database were to include information as to the animal's breeder (owner of dam at time of birth) and/or the original point of sale (eg pet store, internet breeder, whatever), this would enable identification of individual breeders and sales sources who were the originating source of more than their share of shelter intakes. These individuals could be targeted for education or discipline. Over the next few years, data would accumulate that would prove beyond dispute what percentage of total pound intake had originated with pet stores and large scale commercial breeders versus the percentage originated from small scale hobby breeders. There's a pretty good chance that this would exonerate hobby breeders as a class, though it might identify as problems some individual breeders. I know that hobby breeders want to believe that they are not the source of problems, and many whom I know go to great efforts to screen and educate their puppy buyers so they will be responible owners who will keep a lifetime commitment to their dogs. (I don't have many acquaintances among the hobby cat breeders, but I'd guess the same is true of many of them.) If several years of data analysis proved that the majority of intakes were pet store dogs and cats or large scale commercial breeders, then legislation could be addressed to those sources, and the "heat" and "demonizing" taken off the hobby breeders.

creating more rewards for those who license (paid or free)

To get a high rate of compliance with free licensing (and even more so for paid licensing), in addition to requiring a good advertisement program, probably would require a very secure "grandfather" provision that allowed everyone who currently has more dogs than legally allowed (zoning etc) to license all their dogs without any fear of reprisals. The reality is that there are a lot of people who do have one or more extra pets but who are otherwise law abiding and who aren't causing problems in the neighborhood. But they are justifiably afraid to license all their pets for fear of legal reprisals, being told they must give up the "extra" pets. At the very least their current pets deserve protection. If we want to require all dogs and cats to be licensed and microchipped, then we have to extend legality to all currently owned pets.

Ideally numbers laws should shift from numbers per se to impact on neighbors Define the conditions that would be presumed to be a "nuisance" in legal sense (just as we define noise limits from other sources). Numbers don't necessarily mean nuisance. One dog running loose repeatedly in neighborhood is a nuisance, especially if that dog is dog aggressive or threatens humans ; five dogs staying at home peacefully or walking on leash peacefully are not a nuisance. One dog barking all night is a nuisance to neighbors within half a mile (maybe further ?) ; five dogs who occasionally bark for a few minutes but are kept indoors and quiet at night (crates or bark collars if a particular dog requires same) are not a nuisance. One dog walked on leash but whose owner never picks up poop might be disagreeable, maybe even a nuisance, but 6 dogs walked on leash whose owner does pick up are not a problem. One cat who yowls half the night is a nuisance ; five cats who are quiet are not. One outdoor or indoor-outdoor cat who poops in neighbor's flower beds could be very disagreeable (and could be a source of toxoplasmosis infection resulting in serious birth defect if a pregnant woman is stupid enough to do gardening without gloving up and washing off carefully) ; five cats kept indoors and using their litter boxes (which the wise owner cleans daily and disposes of contents properly) are not a problem. One unaltered cat who is allowed outdoors is a nuisance, because an unwanted litter , grand-litters, and great-grandlitters are certain to result; five unaltered cats kept strictly indoors might make the house horrifically and ineradicably stenched from urine spray, but that would be the owner's problem, not the neighborhood's nuisance.

And while on the subject of numbers, a good license system (paid or free) should make provision for Rescue homes and Foster homes to have larger numbers. Let the Rescue / Foster home have the normal (zoning permitted) number of pets who are permanent pets and in addition let the home foster 50% or 100% more additional animals who are there as foster pets. Thus if zoning allows 4 pets per household, let the legitimate Rescue or Foster have 2 to 4 additional foster pets. This would enable Rescue and Foster care people to lighten the shelter's case load by removing animals that need special care or that are more appropriately placed by someone who has special knowledge of that particular type of animal or has a backlog of adopters for that breed or in any other manner is better able than the shelter to get that animal adopted. This should be a win-win-win situation : the shelter wins, the foster home wins, and most of all the animal wins by having an enhanced chance of adoption.
Now of course there would have to be some measures taken to ensure that someone claiming to be a "rescue" or "foster" actually was such and was doing the job in a reasonable manner. Perhaps to qualify , the applicant would have to be working under a recognized 501c3 non-profit organization. Perhaps the applicant would have to have a consent for extra animals signed by all contiguous neighbors. Perhaps there would be a premises inspection prior to granting Rescue/Foster status and perhaps an annual scheduled re-inspection. Also there would need to be a procedure for neighbors to file a complaint, and for such complaints to be rebutted , if in the future the foster home became a problem for neighbors. For those foster homes in rural circumstances, "neighbor" might be limited to those within a certain distance.
Note that by limiting the number of animals being fostered to 50% or 100% of the number of permanent animal residents allowed by relevant zoning, this would set a limit that does not allow for the build-up of a "hoarding" or "collecting" situation. Each foster animal would have to carry a "foster" license tag, transferable to a new foster animal when the old one is placed.
If the license system has made the transition to all licenses being free, then of course the foster licenses would also be free. The foster home is after all performing a public service by lightening the case-load of the shelter. But if ordinary pet licenses are still carrying a fee, then perhaps the foster licenses should as well : either a blanket fee licensing the home to do rescue and foster or a fee per animal per year, transferable from one foster animal to another.

It's essential that the license should bring the pet a license tag as well as microchip . Remember that whenever a lost pet is found, the finder can almost always read a phone number or a license tag number and make use of that information to set the owner contact process into motion. (OK, a blind person finding a tagged pet would find the tag manually but would need to ask someone else to read the number. Not that we couldn't have Braille on the tags, but it's probably not necessary).

To make the microchip seem desirable, either make it free (or free for those below some income level) or do it at cost ($10 to 15?). If pet is already chipped, then all that is needed is to add that info into the database.

Ideally all communities would settle on a single standard as to chip frequency, eg adopting the Euro standard already in place. Right now there are at least four different chip frequencies in use in the USA and not all makes of scanner can detect and read all kinds of chips.

To make all this work good PR program is essential. It needs good ads to make everyone know that a chipped and tagged pet has excellent chance of getting back home (unless of course a car gets it first or any of the other dangers inherrent in being outside owner's fence and leash). Start a program (as in Calgary) where pets who are licensed and either chipped or wearing their contact info (usually phone numbers) on collar or harness will be returned home without entering shelter whenever AC officer is able to do so (ie owner is reached at the contact number and is willing to meet officer to take pet back). Make is so that the licensed and chipped or tagged pet will get a certain longer amount of "hold for reclaim" time if they do enter shelter. Maybe the very first time the pet is picked up there would be no charge at all for the first day at shelter , ie owner reclaims within first 24 hours ? Pets who are NOT licensed but DO have chip or collar ID get a shorter "hold for owner" period before moving into adoption. And pets who are NOT chipped and NOT ID'd on collar are moved into adoption either immediately or after only 24 or 48 hours. Once a pet moves into adoption, then unless the owner can prove the pet is actually currently licensed, the only way the owner would then get the pet back is to adopt his own pet, but of course usual alter rules apply. The rational for quickly moving into adoption pets who don't have a chip or a collar ID tag is if you don't care enough to license and either chip or collar ID , you don't really own your pet because you are not taking basic responsibility as owner. From the shelter's viewpoint, the faster an unowned or irresponsibly owned pet moves into adoption, the more of the resources that are spent on that pet are going getting that pet out of the shelter as a living adopted pet. Days spent waiting for an owner who never comes are simply wasted resources, and every extra day is an added risk of the animal catching a contageous disease or passing one on to other shelter residents.

Maybe licensed pets are eligible for free Rabies vaccinations or free if owner's income is below a certain level. To do this we have to convince the city/county/state budget that keeping a high level of Rabies vacc will save more money from the Public Health budget for treatment than it costs to provide the vaccs.

How can we add to the list of benefits for licensing and microchipping? Do we need to do more than make it free and upgrade the licensed pet's return-to-owner benefits ? THE MORE OWNERS PERCEIVE LICENSING AS GIVING THEM BENEFITS, THE MORE OWNERS WILL WILLINGLY LICENSE THEIR PETS.

Note : however we do this there will still be some owners who absolutely refuse to license their pets. These are the ones who are just dead certain that "registration is the first step towards confiscation" , ie arguement similar to the mind set of the hard core gun nuts. About 20 years ago I wrote a wickedly satirical piece entitled "Dog Owners of America"(it's on my web site at ) It was intended to satirize the gun nut position, but today , thanks in part to some of the lunatic fringe of the AR movement, there are some people who would take this arguement very seriously. Of course if the pet-ownership-is-slavery nuts ever really DO take control, they will be able to find all the hidden unlicensed pets simply by banning sales of pet food and by other means.


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site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 7/04/2010 revised 7/12/2010
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