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The Purpose of Pet Licenses

By: Alex Lieber

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Getting or renewing a dog license is a yearly requirement in many cities and towns in the United States, and more municipalities are requiring licenses for cats as well. But what is the purpose of the license, and what are the consequences of not renewing them each year?

Owning a dog and, in many cases, a cat is considered a "privilege" rather than a right. The difference between a privilege and a right can be best explained by using driving as an example. Because cars are both useful and potentially dangerous, governments regulate how they can be used and by whom. Drivers must follow rules on the road or lose their driving privileges.

The same principle applies to owning a pet. Most people live in relatively close proximity in cities, towns and suburbs, and pets can affect the health and well being of the community. So, for everyone's protection, local or county governments regulate pet ownership.

It is important to note that laws governing pet licenses can vary widely between cities, counties and states. You should also note the distinction between a rabies tag and a pet license. For instance, some rural areas may only require proof of rabies vaccination and not a pet license. (However, all licenses require proof of rabies vaccination.)

Licensing Your Pet Has Several Benefits

  • It ensures that animals receive vaccinations against diseases such as rabies, which is potentially fatal to humans and other animals

  • It tells animal control officers that a dog or cat has an owner, helping to reunite the pet with his family

  • Licenses also help municipalities keep track of how many pets a person owns. Some towns regulate the number of animals that can be kept in a dwelling for the health and safety of the community.

    Most people associate a pet license with the tags around the collar. Tags may indicate proof of rabies vaccination and/or the pet's license registration. It is possible for a pet to have three separate tags: one for rabies, one for the license and one containing the owner's contact information.

    A tattoo or microchip may also indicate that your pet is licensed. Again, check with your municipality's animal control department to find out what type of proof of license is required.

    Licensing your pet is very important. If your dog or cat gets lost, a license may protect a lost pet from rapid euthanasia. Because of overpopulation, city shelters often must euthanized pets after a period of time. In Broward County, Florida, unlicensed pets are euthanized after only 3 days. On the other hand, pets with licenses are held for at least 5 days while the county tries to contact the owners.

    A license tells animal control officers that there may be a family searching desperately for the pet – and their contact information should be on file. Depending on your municipality, a license may provide other benefits. For instance, it may guarantee emergency treatment if your pet is found injured.

    Pets may get a license when they are obtained from a city shelter or when you bring your pet to the veterinarian for the annual physical or rabies vaccination. (Some have the authority to sell licenses.) Otherwise, you may have to bring your pet's proof of rabies vaccination to the local animal control department.

    You can usually purchase a license and tags through your local animal control department. The cost depends on the municipality, but fees are usually minimal, such as $10 to $20 each year. A municipality may charge more if your pet is not spayed or neutered – sometimes double the price. This is because overpopulation is a serious issue, so people who don't spay or neuter should pay more to help cover the cost of taking care of unwanted animals.

    The fees usually go toward city or city-affiliated shelters, veterinary care, as well as to help pay the salaries of the animal control officers. The failure of obtaining a license can mean a fine and/or late fees. For instance, instead of paying just $10 for a license when you obtain your pet, you may have to pay double for the license, plus any fines that the officer levies.

    A license must be renewed each year. In cities that require annual rabies vaccinations, the renewal date may correspond with the date of the rabies vaccination. For areas that allow rabies vaccination every 3 years, the license must be renewed annually with proof of when your dog was vaccinated. Usually, dogs and cats aged 2 or 3 months must wear license tags (some cities require a juvenile tag for pets 2 to 4 months, then require an adult tag after that). Special tags may be required for trained guard dogs.

    The Indoor Cat Debate

    Many people believe that it is wrong to require a license for indoor cats that never go outside. Animal control offers counter that any pet can escape her home. The risk may be greater, they say, because an indoor cat won't know the neighborhood and is less likely to be able to find her way back.

    More and more cities are requiring licenses for cats. Again, the purpose is twofold: provide contact information if the pet is lost, and to ensure that a pet has received the necessary rabies vaccination.

    Keep in mind that laws vary on what pets require licenses. Some cities may not require the licensing of cats or other types of pets, such as ferrets, while others may require a special permit for certain species of reptiles. Check with your local animal control department or your local shelter to learn about the licensing laws in your area.

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