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Cat Licensing: Analysis of Claims


San Francisco SPCA Position Statement, January 3, 1995

CLAIM: Cat Licensing will make cat owners more responsible.

Caring can't be mandated, and a licensing mandate will only end up punishing those who care. There are millions of compassionate people who provide abandoned cats with food, love, and shelter in their own homes. Others put aside their own needs in order to care for a beloved pet or make sure a shy and reclusive neighborhood cat has daily sustenance and medical attention. Still others work tirelessly to feed foster and rehabilitate feral cats and kittens, all at their own personal expense. For every one of these caregivers, mandatory cat licensing will exact a heavy toll. These people will either have to pay the license fees - or face citations, fines, penalties, and possible confiscation of the animals they love. These new burdens, inflicted on the very people who are doing the most to help cats in their communities, will force many to stop caring for these animals, or at least force them to care for fewer cats, with the net result being more cats left to fend for themselves and fewer people able to provide them with any kind of safety net at all.

In response to these concerns, some cat licensing proponents have said that enforcement won't be stressed, or will only be "complaint driven." In our view, passing laws that aren't enforced or are enforced sporadically is just as unfair and counterproductive: Few people are likely to comply with a cat licensing mandate that isn't enforced. (In Los Angeles, for instance, compliance rates of less than 1% were reported, in spite of a canvassing program.) And people who "voluntarily" comply can probably be counted among the most responsible (and affluent) pet owners in the community. We see little equity or sense in enacting a law that only ends up penalizing through a licensing tax the very people whose behavior is already exemplary.

Needless to say, truly irresponsible cat owners won't be affected. If the law isn't enforced, they are free to ignore it. If it is enforced against them, they are likely to surrender or abandon their animals, which will only add to the number of cats killed.

CLAIM: Cat Licensing will help raise the status of cats.

In our view this claim is on a par with the suggesting that licensing poor people or the homeless will help raise their "status." Of course, cat licensing proponents aren't making a comparison to people, but to dogs: if cats are licensed like dogs they will apparently enjoy the same "status" as dogs. Unfortunately, dog licensing didn't confer any beneficial "status" on canines: it was and is a tool for protecting livestock, enforcing rabies laws, and ridding the public streets of the perceived threat posed by unowned, free-roaming dogs. Indeed, since 1933 California dog licensing laws have explicitly authorized the impoundment of unlicensed dogs, and millions of dogs have been impounded and killed by animal control agencies throughout the state as a result of these mandatory licensing laws.

This is the precedent to which proponents of cat licensing appeal when they claim that licensing will raise the "status" of cats. We doubt, however, whether cats would choose such a status for themselves. They might well prefer to retain the unlicensed status they now share with humans. And the dogs may want to join them.

CLAIM: Cat licensing will result in more cats being redeemed at shelters.

Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that cat redemptions are just as likely, if not more likely, to decline once voluntary cat identification efforts are replaced with a coercive licensing mandate. In Los Angeles County, for instance, the number of stray cats redeemed by their owners was reported to be down 32% following implementation of mandatory laws.

Proponents have tended to ignore evidence like this, and instead point to the fact that dogs, who have been subject to licensing laws for years, enjoy higher redemption rates than cats. But dogs differ from cats in many ways, and there is no reason to think licensing is the factor that results in the higher redemption rate for dogs. Indeed, San Francisco 63% of the stray dogs at the City's Animal Care and Control Department were redeemed by their owners in the 1993-94 fiscal year. Yet less that 4% of the dogs impounded during that time were licensed. It seems clear, then, that factors other than licensing are responsible for the high redemption rate for dogs.

The most obvious reason for the difference between dog and cat redemption rates is the fact that a much higher proportion of the dogs who are impounded are "owned" in the first place. Few dogs are found, for instance, in the type of feral or doorstep colonies that thousands of cats call home, nor are there many unowned neighborhood dogs. Since most dogs impounded are likely to be "owned" by someone, it makes sense that many more would be redeemed. And since a much smaller proportion of impounded cats are "owned" - a Santa Clara study estimated that less than 9% of all stray cats handled by that county's animal control agency were owned - it makes sense that far fewer cats are redeemed. A licensing program obviously can't change that, unless, of course, it is accomplished by concentrated efforts to round up and kill all unowned cats in a community.

CLAIM: Cat licensing will help reduce the number of stray and abandoned cats.

The only way cat licensing will reduce the number of stray and abandoned cats is if it is enforced by rounding up unlicensed cats and taking them to the local animal control agency where the vast majority will be killed. And this, we fear, is exactly what will happen. Many individuals and groups openly advocate for cat control measures like licensing as a vehicle for round-up-and-kill measures. And even animal control agencies that disclaim any intention of initiating round-up-and-kill programs will have to respond to complaints about cats from these individuals and groups, which will inevitably result in cats being rounded up and killed.

Without round-up-and-kill measures it seems apparent that cat licensing will only work to increase, not decrease, the number of homeless cats. Faced with citations and penalties for not complying cat caretakers who can't afford the new license fees will be forced to surrender their animals to the local shelter or abandon them to fend for themselves. Neighborhood cats, cats in doorstep colonies or multi-cat households, cherished pets owned by seniors on restricted incomes, feral cats with caretakers on limited budgets. These are the kinds of cats who will be most at risk, and for whom a licensing mandate could well be fatal. Of course, for the stray and abandoned cats already in the community, licensing will do nothing.

CLAIM: Cat licensing will help decrease shelter euthanasia.

Since cat licensing will likely result in more cats being surrendered to shelters and abandoned in the community, since it will not appreciably affect redemptions, and since it may very well become a vehicle for round-up-and-kill campaigns, it is difficult for us to see how it would result in a decrease in shelter euthanasia.

CLAIM: Cat licensing will raise money to help fund animal control agencies.

Cat licensing will cost local governments and taxpayers money, not raise it, resulting in a net loss to animal control and/or other vital government services. Indeed, we doubt whether revenues raised would even cover basic administrative expenses. For example, each license fee collected - and most proposals we've seen set the fee between $5 and $10 - will have to cover the costs of manufacturing, handling, storing and mailing the actual licenses (and/or implanting microchips), handling the checks and cash received, issuing receipts, recording and filing the necessary data on each cat and owner, updating the data as needed, responding to public questions and comments, mailing out renewal notices and reminders, preparing accounting statements and annual program reports, etc. This list doesn't include overhead or initial start- up expenses, like hiring and training staff to run the new program and developing new computer programs and databases.

And if the fees collected won't cover basic administrative expenses, they certainly won't cover the enormous costs of public awareness campaigns and enforcement. As noted above, "voluntary" compliance with cat licensing mandates is notoriously low. To raise compliance rates, the community will have to be made aware of the new mandate: door-to-door canvassing, city and countywide mailings, advertisements in local print media - all bear significant costs. And these campaigns will have to be repeated on a regular basis to maintain public awareness. Of course, these efforts alone won't ensure compliance, and they will have to be backed by meaningful enforcement. New enforcement staff will have to be hired, or existing staff taken away from other essential duties, in order to patrol the community for unlicensed cats, respond to complaints, issue citations, prepare reports,etc. And all these costs will have to be paid by local taxpayers, either through higher taxes or through cuts in other vital government services.

CLAIM: Dog owners contribute to animal control costs through licensing fees; it's time cat owners pay their fair share.

Just as licensing fees aren't likely to cover the real costs of a cat licensing program, we strongly doubt whether the fees now paid by dog owners cover much more than the basic costs of administering dog licensing programs. From a fiscal standpoint, therefore, local governments and taxpayers, not to mention dog owners, may well be better off if mandatory dog licensing were simply abolished. In any event, enacting another costly government program that won't pay for itself isn't the way to give dog owners the equity they seek.

No doubt there will be animal control agencies and contracting humane organizations who dispute our analysis and offer projections to show that cat licensing will make money for animal control services in their communities. we believe these agencies should be willing to stand behind these projections by having their taxpayer- financed budgets cut by the projected amount. Without this or a similar mechanism for accountability, we fear cat licensing will become yet another expensive government program that only works to inappropriately expand government bureaucracies at the expense of local taxpayers, responsible cat caretakers, and the animals themselves.

CLAIM: Regulating cat owners through licensing and other mandates is the only way to solve cat problems.

In our view, the way to teach people to be responsible pet owners and help the cats in a communit community at large through coercive mandates, when it is the local shelters who are the primary source of animals and whose policies and practices have the greatest impact, for better or worse, on local animal welfare issues.

We realize, however that in some cases local shelter policies may have failed and animal problems may be worsening in a community. In such cases, government intervention might be warranted, provided it is carefully focused to have the greatest impact. For instance, requiring shelters to alter animals before adoption and to devote a substantial proportion of their annual animal control and shelter budgets (e.g., 10-20%) to offering free spay/neuter services would do far more to help cats and reduce pet overpopulation than cat licensing and other punitive mandates.

* Source: CAT FANCIERS' ALMANAC, Volume 12 Number 2 June 1995