On the politics of 'rabies tags' and pet licensing (Part 1: Why we fail)

Patty Khuly, DVM
Updated: October 01, 2010
Published: September 29, 2009
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In most municipalities in the US, dogs (and sometimes cats, too) require yearly licenses. The fees from these licenses are used to fund the animal services our municipalities provide. In some municipalities (like mine) there is no other source of municipal funding for animal-related services. Consequently, if people don’t buy tags...there will be no animal services.

Because the annual license has historically been tied to the timing of the rabies vaccine (thereby denoting the animal’s current-on-vaccines status), everyone refers to this license as the “rabies tag.”

But it’s more than that. Especially now that rabies vaccines are no longer required annually (veterinary science has deemed the every-three-year vaccine perfectly acceptable), it’s time the “rabies tag” graduated to a more apropos moniker: “the pet owner’s shelter tax.”

OK, so that’s not quite fair. After all, our municipalities do have a compelling interest in ensuring that each individual pet is cared for in a manner that addresses the public health imperatives of any given region.

The problem is how to enforce this kind of care. Whether it’s all about rabies vaccines, yearly stool checks or whatever else the public health officials of a given region deem necessary, there’s gotta be a way of setting a bar for animal healthcare. You may disagree, but I believe this regulatory infrastructure is crucial to public health. Think what would happen should a major zoonosis ever emerge to rival the threat of rabies.

A recap (since I know it’s confusing): So is the license about animal services funding, pet healthcare or public health?

Ideally, it’s about all three. Keeping tabs on pets’ health is undoubtedly in the interest of public health––especially when it comes to major cross-species diseases like rabies. The problem is that tagging for public health (as was historically the impetus behind individual licensing of dogs) is no longer the focus for most municipalities.

Instead, the license fees have become public funds for animal projects. In the most miserly municipalities (again, like mine in Miami), license fees are all that get applied to the entire County’s animal services budget. In other words, compliant pet owners pay the whole bill for any and all municipal animal care (shelters, animal control, cruelty investigation, wildlife encroachment, etc.).

Those who don’t own pets are typically pleased by this policy. Why pay for animals when we don’t own them?

Sadly, it’s this exact rationale that built the system’s stark fiscal divisions and thereby institutionalized it’s limitations. Though animal services extend to protecting public health as a whole and reflect the full spectrum of animal-human interaction, municipal officials are loathe to allocate funds to "pets” given the politically short-sighted distaste for choosing services for animals over those that more directly affect people.

However, the reality is that throughout most of the US, compliance with licensing only extends to about 30%-60% of dog owners. Where cat licensing is required, the compliance rate is far, far lower. Make no mistake, enforcing licensing is a logistical nightmare that relies on the responsible and law-abiding to support the whole of society in cases like Miami's.

Even worse is the fact that when the system fails its humans and animals (as it often will when so poorly designed), when strong-arm tactics are employed in enforcement (which is what municipal service providers feel compelled to do given their limited sources of funding), or when the law-abiding public begins to feel put upon (as is only natural given the built-in unfairness of the system), the entire organizational structure breaks down and nothing is successfully achieved.

More on this tomorrow, including the vet’s role.


On Today's DailyVet post: Do tax breaks for your pet make you HAPPY?