Licensing Felines Stirs Cat Fight Among Animal Lovers

The debate rages over whether we should be required to license cats much in the same way we license dogs in the United States.

Some say it's a meaningless law that can't be enforced. Licensing defenders say it gives felines some long overdue respect. Why do many humane organizations want cats licensed? The answer: To help make people responsible for their pets and to raise the stature of felines in the public's mind. Moreover, licensing could help you find your missing cat. And, if your cat bites someone, health officials will know if he's vaccinated against rabies.

The Opposition

The opposition fears that animal control departments will use licensing as a route to feral cat roundups and mass euthanasia. Steven Chapman, animal control officer for the town of Sandwich, on Massachusetts's Cape Cod, admits he has little luck reuniting lost cats with their owners. For one thing, too many free-roaming felines look alike. Another problem is that many people fail to call him when their cats don't come home.

Enforcement is another problem. Few people feel they have to get their cats licensed. This is why Chapman enjoys telling the story of when, a few years ago, a woman reported her calico, Boots, missing. Chapman kept a lookout for the cat but had no luck. Then, two weeks later, someone called the precinct saying that a cat was crying in distress in nearby woods.

After an investigation, Chapman found a frightened calico entrapped in some brier. The cat was dehydrated, lacerated from the bushes and suffering from an injured rear paw. Dangling from her collar was a sight that made Chapman's day: a Sandwich cat license. It was Boots. "When I called the owner up," he says, "she started crying right there on the phone." Boots' owner is, no doubt, a big supporter of cat licensing.

But not everyone is sold on the idea. Mere mention of the topic ignites debate among animal lovers from coast to coast. Proponents often meet resistance from their local governments. When a county or town does ask that owners pay a fee for their cats to wear identification, opposition from certain residents can be ferocious. And when laws do pass, compliance tends to be low.

The Proponents

Despite the problems, supporters say licensing sends an important message about a cat's intrinsic worth. For too long, they say, felines have been an afterthought compared to dogs. Only in recent years have communities begun to mandate that cats be vaccinated against rabies. A big part of the problem is that cats can easily be acquired for free or cheaply. And, many times, when people move, they thoughtlessly leave their cats behind or drop them off at a local shelter. Meanwhile, a large segment of society believes cats belong outdoors. The sad reality is that cats die much younger outside because they're often struck by cars or fall prey to wildlife.

"By licensing a cat, you give him value," says Gini Barrett of the American Humane Association office in Los Angeles. "You acknowledge that you own the cat. And you're taking some minimal step in your mind of accepting responsibility. This is the single most valuable tool we have available to move the whole social view of cats forward."

Is Feline Licensing Taken Seriously?

Although it's the law of the land in a growing number of communities, cat licensing seldom gets into the books without a skirmish. Proponents say cat licensing helps animal control workers identify lost or injured cats, easing the burden on already overcrowded shelters.

Many towns make rabies vaccination a requirement for receiving a license. Usually, if a potentially rabid animal bites someone, animal-control workers euthanize the animal so its brain tissue can be analyzed for rabies. Should someone be bitten by a licensed and tagged cat, however, authorities can avoid putting him or her down and the person who was bitten can be spared treatment shots.

Critics' Views

The most vocal critics of cat licensing tend to be those who devote time to feral cats, feeding them, spaying and neutering them and securing veterinary care. They worry that strict laws on ownership make people legally responsible for licensing the animals they've helped and, in some places, this is technically true. Such laws, opponents say, will deter those who care about feral cats.

Their biggest fear is that if licenses are required, cats without them will be rounded up and killed. Most animal control officers are skeptical of such claims, saying they're too overextended and understaffed for such enterprises. And virtually all say they'd never round up cats anyway.

What does happen, however, is that residents complain about feral cats and animal control often provides traps and takes in the captured cats. "The lack of licensing then becomes the mechanism by which [animal control] tells the person to stop feeding the cats, even if the person is trapping them to sterilize them," says Nathan Winograd of the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which vehemently opposes cat licensing. "Or they won't release impounded cats unless they're licensed. When you're talking about someone who's feeding a feral cat colony, those costs are sometimes prohibitive."

Education: The Key to Understanding

Becky Robinson, executive director of Alley Cat Allies, a feral-cat advocacy group in Washington, D.C., believes that instead of devoting their efforts to cat licensing, humane groups and communities should educate the public and provide help with spaying and neutering and low-cost veterinary care for those citizens trying to help strays. "They don't need laws," she says. "They need programs."

The Debate Continues

Yet no one says that cat licensing alone is the answer. It's simply a powerful tool for bolstering the public's perception of cats. "Laws serve many purposes," says Barrett. "One is that they give our citizens, our society, guidance on how they should behave. We used to throw trash out of our cars all the time. We passed laws that said you can't do that.

"And while there's not a police officer on every corner watching, most people don't throw trash out of their windows anymore. It's about time we used the same technique that has worked on so many other social issues to help save the lives of our animals."