Towards Rational Licensing for Pets, Pet Owners, and Pet Breeders

Currently cities, counties, and states are engaged in legislating pet licensing and breeding restrictions for the purpose of reducing the number of pets who are dumped at shelters and who die in shelters. This is of course an admirable goal, but often the laws proposed are irrational, draconian, or poorly targeted. In this article I discuss an approach that emphasizes education of owners and breeders and licensing of them and that emphasizes training of dogs as being as important as spaying and neutering.
What I writer is far from being the last word and far from working out every detail.

Towards Rational Licensing for Pets, Pet Owners, and Pet Breeders

by Pam Green, copyright 2007


This article is addressed to legislators (and voters) who are contemplating regulations for pet animal ownership and breeding with the intention of reducing the rates of shelter intake and death, improving the quality of life for pet animals, and reducing the rates of nuisance and injury by pet animals to the general public. Potential means that are currently being considered to accomplish these goals are through license fee structure (with high fees for reproductively intact animals), through requirements for spaying and neutering of the majority of pet animals with provisions for special licensing of intact animals, and through special licensing of breeders and/or license requirement for each litter produced. The possibility of licensing pet owners generally has seldom been addressed, but may offer excellent potential for accomplishing the above goals.

My own background in writing this is over 25 years activity in my chosen breed of dogs, including about 15 years of participation in working dog competitions with my own dogs, and 20 years of participation in Rescue for my breed. So I very much share the goals of safeguarding animal welfare through encouraging responsible ownership and responsible breeding. I also completed an undergraduate major in Genetics and two years of graduate work in same, and a law degree and admission to the California state Bar.

My remarks will be especially directed at dogs, a subject I know well, with some remarks on how the situation differs for cats, a subject I do not know well. I will not attempt to discuss horses or farm livestock, although they too are worthy of protection. I do not attempt to discuss horses or livestock. This discussion relates to the current situation in the United States and especially California. The situation in other countries varies greatly from country to country, and I don't know enough about the situation in other countries.

I'd like to emphasize that any regulation should be on a state level or a national level, rather than patchwork on a county or city level. To regulate on a county or city level leads to the irresponsible owners and breeders simply moving as needed to stay in business, and it also threatens the law abiding and responsible owners and breeders with constant threat of change of rules at the whim of local government.Laws must be written to protect the rights of the responsible people as much as to impose duties and restrictions on those who would otherwise be irresponsible. Any regulation to be successful must first be well advertised to the public in a way that educates them as to the need for and benefits of the regulation. Ideally in states like California that have an Initiative process, a state wide animal welfare bill could be put through by the Initiative process, and thus would have the support of a majority of those who cared enough about the issue to go to the polls.

Also it is imperative to recognize that a law will be effective and accepted only if it is vigorously enforced with serious penalties and if enforcement is absolutely even-handed. The law must be seen to be enforced against those who are troublemakers and not to be unduly burdensome for those who have been responsible pet owners and breeders. Right now the main resistance to tighter animal regulation is coming from highly responsible pet owners and highly responsible breeders who fear that they will be regulated out of the right to continue enjoying their pets and responsible hobby breeding, but that the commercial pet stores and the large scale puppy mills will escape regulation entirely. It is imperative that the commercial pet stores and the puppy mills be subjected to much tighter regulation than the normal pet owners and the hobby breeders. It is the commercial pet stores and the puppy mill breeders who are creating the majority of physically unhealthy pets, mentally unstable pets, and pets who are unsocialized and dangerous.

To enable adequate enforcement of any new regulation of pets and owners, it is essential that the legislating jurisdiction adequately fund the enforcing officers. If the new law is enforced efficiently and even-handedly during its first 5 years or more and if those who would evade it are seen to be caught and penalized, then people will get used to complying and will be able to see if the effects are beneficial or not. Without funding of enforcement, only the more responsible people will comply and they will resent any infringement on their previous liberties and will be greatly angered to see the people who are the real source of problems failing to comply but not being penalized. To fund adequate enforcement will not be inexpensive !!! Every major city and every county will probably need one full time officer whose duties are to search the newspaper ads and internet ads and making phone calls to verify license compliance. This officer must also attend all flea markets and similar outlets to catch illegal puppy sales and dog sales at such events. The officer must also make visits to all commercial pet stores and large scale breeders to verify compliance. In some localities one added officer will not be enough. It will not be possible to fund such a program solely through fines and higher license fees, as the license fees must remain reasonable though the fines could be quite high. So the funding must come from either cutting some other programs or raising general taxes, both actions which will arouse resentment in some section, possibly a large section, of the voters and taxpayers.

Finally, I would remind legislators that every perceived threat to the rights of companion animal owners and hobby breeders to own and enjoy their pets is an issue that will generate "single issue voting" by many of those who see their interests threatened. So when you vote for restrictions of ownership rights , you must be prepared for the possible loss of your office in the next election. I doubt very much that those who advocate such restrictions will be equally vehement in supporting your next election contest nor in voting you out of office if you do not vote for pet restrictions. That is not to say that you shouldn't do it. At least once in every person's lifetime comes an issue that is worth staking your career upon. Maybe this one is it for you. (And again, for legislators in California and other states with an Initiative process, this is one more reason to use that process ; voters will not be able to blame you for the outcome.)

Owner and Breeder licensing

Although most currently contemplated legislation and current regulation seems to be emphasizing licensing and regulation of individual animals, it is really the level of knowledge and responsibility of the owners and breeders that has the greatest influence on the welfare of the animals and on the potential for harm or benefit to the general public. So I think we should seriously consider licensing owners and breeders, with any animal licensing as a secondary consideration with rules that vary according to the owner/breeder's qualifications. Note : in the discussions that follow, I have not addressed the issue of persons who come into the state with a history of dog experience and expertise gained outside the state ; clearly we do have to provide some mechanism for recognizing this. I also do not address the issue of recognizing experience and qualifications gained during minority; but I've certainly met plenty of minors who are very expert and responsible dog caretakers, handlers, and trainers, and their qualifications need to be recognized.

For owners, let me propose a two tiered licensing scheme : "Novice Owner" and "Experienced Owner". There also needs to be some special provision of dispensations for those who serve as foster homes for any legitimate pet Rescue, or at least for those who are part of a Rescue recognized as a non-profit 501c organization. Possibly there should also be a special category for Livestock Ranchers whose dogs are essential to their livestock operation; or perhaps there should be special license category for Ranch Dogs who seldom or never leave the ranch.

To be licensed as a Novice Owner, the person would have to pass a course in Dog Care, Dog Training, and Canine Behavior that would cover the basics of this subject. Courses could be taught at shelters or in colleges or adult education. Such courses would have to be designed by persons who are genuinely qualified, such as Veterinarians, Veterinary Behaviorists, and Applied Animal Behaviorists. For those who are already experienced, the requirement could be satisfied by exam. Courses and testing should include video segments in which the student learns and is tested on ability to "read" (correctly interpret) canine body language. A Novice Owner would be permitted to own only reproductively altered (sterilized) pets, and might also be limited as to the number of such pets. The owner would also have to pass a test on local laws concerning dogs and sign a commitment to obeying same, ie as for an Automobile Driver's license. A person would not be eligible for a Novice Owner license if they have had a conviction for any kind of animal Neglect or Abuse nor for Dog Fighting during the past five years (or perhaps it should be ten years?).

To be licensed as an Experienced Owner, the person would first have had to qualify as a Novice Owner and have been licensed as such for at least a few years (3 years ?) during which they have never have had a citation upheld for violation of any of the local animal laws (including most emphatically leash laws). A person would be permanently ineligible for Experienced Owner status if they have ever have had a conviction for animal Neglect or Abuse or Dog Fighting. In addition the person would have to pass a more advanced course in either Dog Care, Dog Training, or Canine Behavior and would have had to earn an AKC Canine Good Citizen title on at least one dog owned during the previous three years or have earned some more rigorous obedience or working dog title (eg AKC's Companion Dog, UKC's U-CD, or Canadian Kennel Club CD ; or a first level title in Agility, Tracking , Herding, Hunting, or other work) on at least one dog during the past five years. An Experienced Owner would be eligible to own a reproductively intact dog, but would not be eligible to breed, ie not until obtaining a Breeder license, and the limits on number of pets owned would either be higher than for a Novice or perhaps there would be no limits in rural areas. (Local zoning laws might be more restrictive as to numbers of animals than the state law.)

If you want a special category for Livestock Rancher, I'd suggest that it be limited to those who either earn at least 50% of their total income by livestock rearing or whose livestock earnings cover at least 50% of their mortgage payment. This license would entitle them to keep only dogs who are essential to the livestock operation as either herding dogs or livestock guardian dogs. Whether or not a Rancher license would include owning reproductively intact dogs, it would not allow breeding. To breed dogs, the Rancher would have to qualify for a Breeder license. (Note : I've seen a great deal of casual breeding on ranches and a lot of dogs who prove unsatisfactory for work wind up at the shelters.)

For people involved in Dog Rescue and foster care, I'd suggest that anyone who (a) already qualifies as an Experienced Owner or (b) qualifies as a Novice Owner and is working as part of a Dog Rescue organization that has 501c status or as a foster home volunteer at any established Animal Control shelter , SPCA shelter, Humane shelter, or other established shelter should be eligible to foster dogs. Fostering means temporary care , usually for several weeks or months, until the dog is permanently adopted. Normally a foster dog will be spayed or neutered fairly early in the foster period unless there are health reasons to delay. Someone who qualifies in this category should be allowed to keep several foster pets in addition to their own owned pets, but they should be expected to alter the foster pets as early as reasonably possible and always before placed into an adoptive home. A foster pet should not need a local license. If you want to add some requirement that the foster home be open to inspection by local Animal Services to ensure that all animals are receiving appropriate care, that would be a good thing to do. Any person who has ever been convicted of Animal Hoarding aka Animal Collecting should be permanently ineligible for Rescue/Foster status.

For hobby (small scale) breeders, I'd likewise suggest a two tiered licensing : "Novice Breeder" and "Experienced Breeder". There must also be very strict licensing and requirements for commercial pet stores and for large scale breeders.

To be licensed as a Novice Breeder, the person would have first had to qualify as an Experienced Owner for at least several years (3 years ?) and would have had to pass a college level course in Genetics that included a section on population genetics (the genetics of change in populations through selective breeding). Again, this might be passed by examination. The person should also have qualified as a dog trainer by earning obedience or working titles on at least two dogs and should have put Canine Good Citizen titles on all intact adult (2 years or older) dogs owned during past 5 years. Ideally the person should also have experience teaching basic training courses. A Novice Breeder would be eligible to breed one litter a year or 12 puppies, whichever is greater (this takes into account that small breed dogs tend to have only a few puppies per litter, but large breed dogs may have a dozen in one litter). The Breeder would have to make a signed commitment that all puppies will be raised inside the house and would be properly socialized ; unfortunately this is something difficult or impossible to enforce. Likewise the Breeder should sign a commitment to being available as a mentor to all who buy puppies from that Breeder, but again this is impossible to enforce.

To be licensed as an Experienced Breeder, the person would first have had to qualify as a Novice Breeder for at least 3 years and would have had to accumulate some number of Continuing Education credits in any of the following : Genetics, Canine Medicine, or Canine Behavior. To continue to be licensed as an Experienced Breeder, some number of Continuing Education credits would need to be earned during each subsequent 3 year period. The breeder must have earned intermediate or advanced obedience or working titles on every intact adult dog that not too old or disabled to compete before breeding from that dog. The Experienced Breeder should also have some proof of ability to teach others to do basic dog care and training. Perhaps membership in one of the dog training organizations that emphasizes training for pet dogs would be appropriate. Unfortunately in the US, we don't really have an effective licensing scheme for dog trainers or behaviorists. Note that anyone who is a board certified veterinary behaviorist or applied animal behaviorist would clearly qualify. An Experienced Breeder would be allowed to have 2 litters or 24 puppies a year, whichever is larger. Maybe it should be 3 litters or 36 puppies a year or maybe there should be some possiblity of "carryover" of litter rights not used in one year to a future year ? The same commitments as for Novice Breeder as regards in home rearing, etc would apply of course, but again it is difficult to impossible to enforce such requirements.

Commercial pet stores would have to be defined, though that seems fairly obvious that these are businesses that are conducted in a store rather than a private residence and that store sells live animals and animal foods and equipment (toys, training equipment, etc). Commercial pet stores should be required to post a large compliance bond (amount depending on number of animals carried), should be required to microchip every puppy and kitten prior to sale and should be required to spay or neuter every puppy and kitten prior to sale and should be required to guarantee sales price return and veterinary costs for any animal that falls ill within two weeks of time of sale and to post this guarantee prominently in the store and provide a copy thereof to all buyers and maintain a file of copies signed by buyers for 5 years after sale.. Stores should be required to provide vaccinations as per the current AVMA guidelines for the species. Stores should be forbidden to hold or offer for sale puppies or kittens younger than 7 weeks. Stores should be required to provide veterinary care for sick or injured animals and to submit dead ones for necropsy by a licensed veterinarian who is not employed by that store.. If it sounds to you like these regulations would take the profit out of selling puppies and kittens and thus discourage stores from engaging in this trade, congratulations, you are correct.

However nothing should be done to discourage pet stores from allowing their premises to be hosts for Adoption Events held by local shelters or other Rescue groups. In an Adoption Event, the store does not receive any portion of the adoption fee for the animals and does not charge any fee or rent to the group holding the event, and the animals are on the premises for less than 12 hours. The store may of course benefit financially by selling food and equipment to those who adopt animals, and indeed this is the store's incentive to host such events. Chains such as PetCo and PetsMart have found this to be a socially beneficial and financially renumerative alternative to engaging in the sale of puppies and kittens.

Large scale breeders would be anyone having more than 3 litters or 30 puppies a year, whichever is larger. Large scale breeders would have to pay a per litter or per puppy fee and post a compliance bond and would have to obey the same rules as to pre-sale microchipping and pre-sale spay neuter as the commercial stores and would have to make the same guarantees. There should also be a guarrantee against those inheritable diseases and disabilities for which genetic carrier tests in the parents are currently available; however the list of available carrier tests will be increasing from year to year. Sales of puppies younger than 7 weeks would be forbidden, though acceptance of a deposit of up to 100% of the price with transfer of physical possession at 7 weeks would be permitted. Large scale breeder premises would be subject to inspection without notice. All complaints by neighbors as to sanitation or noise would be investigated, and if the breeder has a second conviction for noise or sanitation or a first conviction for neglect or abuse or dog fighting , that person would be permanently ineligible for any breeder license or pet store license. Length of suspension of right to own any animals under an Owner license would have to be determined by the court, though the minimum for Neglect, Abuse, or Dog Fighting should by at least 5 years, perhaps 10 years.

Licensing of individual animals

Current discussions have focused on either charging very high fees for intact animals , sometimes with provision of a lower fee for intact animals who fill some set of exemption qualifications, or on requiring all animals above a certain age to be altered with some kind of provision for special licenses for intact animals filling some set of qualifications. Participation in conformation showing is usually one of the accepted qualifications for an intact license or a lowered intact fee. I think these schemes fail to address the more important causes of animal related problems.

These schemes seems to me to over-emphasize the role of reproductive intactness as a cause of (a) surrender of that individual to the shelter system, (b) generation of accidental litters or irresponsibly intentional litters , and (c) other public harms , especially dog bites. These schemes ignores the equally important role of training and responsible management of the dog by the owner. Shelter statistics (see first chapter of text Shelter Medicine for Veterinarians and Staff" by Miller & Zawistowski) show that dogs which had not had any formal obedience training were 3 times as likely to be relinquished to shelters as compared to dogs who had had some formal training ; and dogs which were reproductively intact were 2 to 3 times as likely to be relinquished as dogs which were spayed or neutered. This shows that training is at least as important as alteration with regard to entry of dogs into the shelter system. I don't know if there are equivalent statistics on effects training and alteration on dog bites, though we do know that unaltered male dogs seem to have higher bite risks than altered ones. Alteration does of course completely prevent litters. Training and use of management techniques such as leashes and fences can reduce accidental litters to some bare minimum.

I'd like to propose a three tiered scheme that does give a proper emphasis to the role of training.

If you want to add a Ranch Dog category for dogs that seldom or never leave the ranch (just as motor vehicles which never leave the ranch do not pay license fees), then perhaps those dogs who regularly participate in essential livestock work as either herding dogs or as livestock guardian dogs should be recognized as equivalent to having fulfilled the "earned a title" qualification for the titled but unaltered or the titled and altered fee. The owner would have to sign a statement that the dog is essential to livestock work and that the dog seldom leaves the ranch and is not being bred or allowed to have an accidental litter.

Now for any license scheme , there is the question of age. Many proposed regulations kick into play when the puppy or kitten is 4 months old , which probably reflects the veterinary fact that this is the age for Rabies vaccination. Now certainly all dogs and cats should be required to be vaccinated for Rabies at the age of 4 months or soon thereafter, because that is a public health issue as well as a pet welfare issue. But the conventional age for alteration is 6 months and not all owners or vets are comfortable doing it any earlier; this is a matter of some controversy that won't go away any time soon even though pediatric spay / neuter in shelter situations has a long history of good results. More importantly to any scheme that allows a lower fee for "competition" animals, all conformation showing and all obedience and working events have a minimum entry age of 6 months. Often for performance events, a dog will not really be ready until considerably later, usually at least a year old and for some events more likely at least two years old. So either (a) you have to get people to accept that paying the high intact fee until the animal is old enough to compete and earn its exemption is justified, ie just the price of keeing their options open, or else (b) you have to put in some kind of rebate scheme if the animal does earn its exemption within some period of time after it becomes eligible to compete. Or thirdly, (c) you could raise the age at which the higher intact fee begins to a later age, even though that does risk some accidental breedings ; perhaps charging a very high litter fee for litters to underage animals would be the answer ?

There is also the question of which obedience or working titles would be recognized.

Notice that I do NOT include conformation titles or conformation participation as resulting in a lower fee. That is because conformation participation does not have any significant effect on preventing an animal from being surrendered to the shelter or on preventing accidental or intentional breedings or on lowering risks of bites. (If anything conformation showing should be discouraged, as the practice of doing too many breedings to a small number of winning show dogs has very bad genetic consequences , especially in terms of diseases controlled by recessive genes.)

I also don't advise an exemption for merely participating in any kind of competition ; only the earning of an actual title should be recognized. It is too hard to document merely entering a competition; but it is easy to document the earning of a title.

To make things simple, I'd suggest making the AKC sponsored Canine Good Citizen test the standard of minimum training. This test, entirely on leash and appropriate to any breed of dog, is one that is a pretty good reflection of what almost all pet owners actually need in order for their pet to be controllable in the home and in public. (It's also what a working ranch dog needs to be controllable at the vets office or in public.) Unfortunately it is a one time test, so does not really show consistency of behavior. What I would suggest is that a dog be eligible for the lower "trained" license fee if it has passed the CGC any time within the past 18 months or perhaps the past 30 months. Thus one passing of the test would give one year or two years of "trained dog" license fee. Upon passing for a third time, the dog would be permanently eligible for the reduced "trained dog" fee. I should add that this test is fairly easy to give, and if it is made the minimum standard, then local authorities and local shelters should host the test at least 4 times a year, preferably more often. The test description is available through the AKC website.

Now there are other more demanding obedience titles , such as Companion Dog (AKC's CD, UKC's U-CD, or Canadian Kennel Club's CD) , Companion Dog Excellent, and Utility Dog. These tests have to be passed three times to earn the title. I think these would qualify the dog for the "trained dog" fee for life. And there are a wide range of working dog titles in disciplines such as Tracking, Herding, Field / Hunting, and the fun sports of Agility and Rally Obedience. Any of these should qualify for the "trained dog " lower fee.

If you want to automatically qualify Police K9s and the various Disability Service Dogs (including guide dogs, hearing dogs, etc) for the lowest license fee or for a lifetime free license fee, that would also be quite appropriate. These dogs don't get discarded into the shelters and they do not get inappropriately bred. Disability Service dogs are usually altered before they begin to work ; Police Dogs are usually not altered, but they are seldom unsupervised by their officers. You also have to make some kind of exemption for Service Dog puppies who are being reared as future service dogs or service dog breeders.

I would NOT automatically qualify "working ranch dogs" (herding and livestock guarding dogs) as being "trained" because there is not real standard of what constitutes a usefully trained dog; also , more importantly, too many ranchers are quick to discard a dog who does not work to their satisfaction, either killing the dog at home or dumping it at the shelter, and too many ranchers let their dogs breed too often and too unselectively and without regard to whether they have good homes waiting for puppies. However if you want to automatically qualify for "trained" fee one dog of a herding or flock guarding breed for every so many head of sheep or so many head of cattle, it would save a lot of arguments. Incidentally the Australian Shepherd Club of America does have a Ranch Dog certification program that evaluates the dog's ability to perform valuable work on his own home ranch. Many working herding dogs also compete in herding trials and so do have independent evidence of their trained abilities.

And what about cats ?

I am not qualified to discuss cats at any length. But there are a few obvious differences between cats and dogs that affect what is appropriate for a regulatory scheme.

The most obvious is that while most dogs do have owners (in the US), there are many feral cats who are ownerless. So you have to make some kind of rational provision for encouraging people who are kind enough to put out food for feral cats to also try to do Trap, Alter, Release , yet you cannot penalize those who set out food but are not successful in trapping. For Trapping programs to work, the alters have to be subsidized or free for the person who does the trapping, which means tax dollars at work.

The other obvious difference is that the concept of obedience and performance training and titling does not apply to cats. There simply are no working tests or obedience tests for cats. So if you want a three-tiered license scheme for cats maybe the right one is to have very high fees for unaltered cats, minimal fees for altered cats that are totally indoor, and moderate / intermediate fees for altered cats that are either partly or fully outdoor. I would not allow unaltered cats to be anything but 100% indoor cats, for the obvious reason that any outdoor time carries considerable risk of a litter resulting. The partly or fully outdoor cat should also be required to have annual testing for toxoplasmosis , or if a vaccination should become available for toxoplasmosis, then such vaccination should be required. Toxoplasmosis is transmitted by cat feces even in minute amounts and it can cause very serious birth defects in human children. Of course ALL cats should be required to be vaccinated for Rabies, as they are just as capable as dogs of catching it and of transmitting it to other animals and to humans.

While I would NOT take any notice whatsoever of cat conformation showing as justifying a lower intact fee, if you do decide to do so, it's important to understand that once a cat has titled it is usually not allowed to be shown and once a cat begins its breeding career it is usually not practical to show it because of behavior issues. Or at least that is what my cat-breeding friends tell me.

Things NOT to do :

Please do NOT leave it up to each county or city to decide which dog or cat registries they will recognize. That leads only to a patchwork of inconsistent regulations and total confusion. It may be better NOT to have registration be an issue at all, since even the more respected registries (definitely including AKC) tend to function as paper-selling factories. Also there are breeds that have their own registries that may not be well known to anyone outside the breed but which are at least as responsible as AKC is. (eg Australian Shepherd Club of America is far more effective in promoting trainability and working capability than AKC even pretends to be.) And there are various foreign registries that are very responsible. It is just impossible for local authorities to sort out the legitimate registries from the totally bogus paper mills.

Please do NOT let cities and counties pass regulations (other than zoning) that are more restrictive than the state regulations. Once there is a state law, let the local laws be consistent with it.

Please do NOT pass breed discriminatory regulations. If you eliminate breeds that are currently favored by gang and criminal elements and by people who have their own "anger management" or "hostility" issues, they will simply turn to other breeds. Any medium to large dog can be "weaponized" if the owner is either (a) sufficiently ignorant and thus fails to do the things needed to raise a nice sociable dog or (b) sets out to deliberately create a dangerous dog. Once you set out on the slippery slope of banning breeds or trying to sterilize entire breeds, you will wind up having to ban every dog who is "bigger than a bread-box" --- and even small dogs can bite hard enough to be really painful for the recipient. Instead make stronger laws against dog fighting and make stronger laws and penalties for injuries by dogs off their owner's own fenced property (especially off leash and off their owner;s fenced property) and when neither the dog nor its person is being threatened by the person who is bitten. Criminal liability for injuries by dogs whose people have encouraged them to be dangerous or who have known they were dangerous but failed to manage them appropriately to ensure safety are fully justified and are supported by almost all normal responsible dog owners and breeders.

REMEMBER : you must be at least as vigilant to PROTECT the RIGHTS of the normal responsible majority of pet owners and hobby breeders as you are to restrict the misdeeds of the irresponsible and malevolent minority.


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site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 4/19/07 revised 7/01/07
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