Research| Cats and the Law

Cat licensing laws require owners to register their owned cats with a government agency. This usually includes payment of annual fees and requiring cats to wear a collar and tag. Licensing laws are often passed with the claims that licensing fees will help fund animal services and the impoundment of unlicensed cats will help reunite animals with their owners. In practice, cat licensing laws are expensive, ineffective, and increase the number of cats killed in animal shelters. Cat licensing is not sound public policy.

The History of Cat Registration

Licensing requirements in the United States were first established for dogs in 1894, when the ASPCA began operating in New York City’s public animal shelters. The purpose of the $1.00 license fee was to fund animal control services and discourage animal control officers from kidnapping owned dogs to collect impound fees. Today, dog licensing is a common law around the nation.

However, it is incorrect to assume all laws that apply to dogs can also be applied to cats. Cats and dogs are different species with unique behaviors and needs. The most significant of these differences is that there are two general categories of cats where the law is concerned: pet cats–owned cats who are socialized to people and live indoors and/or outdoors, and community cats–unowned cats who are not socialized to people, are unadoptable, and live entirely outdoors. Elected officials need to consider how all cats will be impacted when passing animal control laws and policies, and the fact is cat licensing laws and policies harm all cats.

Licensing Laws are Expensive

Cat licensing programs are very expensive to implement, manage, and enforce. Basic operational expenses include staff salaries and benefits, office space and equipment, and database management. In addition, ensuring even minimal enforcement requires expensive advertising campaigns, door-to-door canvassing, issuing citations, collecting fines, and more.

By its nature, licensing increases the number of cats picked up by animal control and brought to shelters, which in turn increases shelter expenses. Taxpayers must pay for feeding and boarding seized cats until owners pick them up or until the minimum holding period expires. Jurisdictions must also pay for killing all animals not claimed or adopted, and for body removal and disposal. The intake of community cats in most locations guarantees continual seizures and killing costs, as these animals have no “owners” to claim them and cannot be adopted because they are unsocialized to people.

Meanwhile, the revenue generated by these programs is negligible. In many places, the revenue is placed in a general fund where it does not benefit animals. Even in jurisdictions that place the revenue into the animal control program, the program expenses often exceed the revenue taken in.

Licensing Laws are Ineffective

Licensing cats does nothing to ensure cats–both owned cats and community cats–are spayed or neutered and vaccinated. That means licensing does nothing to improve public health, address cat populations, or reduce the number of cats brought to animal shelters and killed. When people don’t spay or neuter their pets, it is usually because they are inhibited by the cost of the procedure and lack of access to clinics. Adding licensing fees on top of veterinary costs is likely to discourage spaying and neutering rather than encourage it.

Licensing laws also do not increase the chances of reuniting owners with lost owned cats. Relatedly, in a study published in The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, owners reported that most lost cats who find their way home do so on their own. Only a small minority are recovered due to their owners calling or visiting an animal pound or shelter.

Rather than waste time and resources on a weak law that doesn’t work, communities need to invest in successful, lifesaving programs like low-cost, high-volume spay and neuter services, voluntary and subsidized microchipping, and Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR).

Licensing Laws Do not Save Cats Rather, Licensing Kill More Cats

Cat licensing programs target all cats without tags for impoundment by animal control. Wearing a collar and tag is an impractical and unsafe requirement for cats. Licensing tags are awkward and heavy and poorly suited to a cat’s small frame. If a cat doesn’t wear a collar or her collar slips off or breaks away–as nearly all cat collars are designed to do to prevent strangulation–there is no way to identify her and she will be treated as a stray. If a cat is lost outside of her own jurisdiction, the locally-maintained license information will be useless in reuniting her with her owner. Additionally, community cats are unowned, so they do not have an owner to license them and ensure they are always wearing a collar, if they tolerate wearing a collar at all. The ASPCA, Best Friends Animal Society, and the Humane Society of the United States all agree that community cats should be exempt from licensing laws.

Licensing laws are also incompatible with TNR. Caregivers, who are good Samaritans–not owners–of community cats, may be cited by animal control for not licensing the cats or bullied into stopping care.
When cats are required to be licensed, all cats–indoor-only owned cats who accidently slip outside, indoor/outdoor owned cats, and unowned community cats who live outdoors–are at risk of being brought to an animal shelter. Far too many shelters do not have humane programs and kill many of the cats who enter their doors–especially community cats, who are generally not socialized to people and are not adoptable into indoor homes.

Licensing Laws: Harm Communities and Cats

From coast to coast, communities recognize the downsides of cat licensing programs. For example, the Portola Valley City Council in California voted in 2002 to start a cat licensing program, but just a month later changed their mind because there would be no significant financial gain in revenue to the county; identifying cats so that they are reunited with their owners could be handled by pet owners without a town mandate; only about one third of dog owners abide by the current law requiring dog licensing and that cat owners could be expected to ignore the ordinance as well, and residents’ response to the proposal was overwhelmingly negative.

Similarly, licensing requirements for cats and dogs in Burke County, North Carolina ended in 2010 because the compliance rate was so low–approximately 3 percent–that it was not cost-effective to maintain or enforce. According to the Assistant to the County Manager, the county received “in revenues $2,000 per year in license tax fees and it cost more than that to administer the tax.”

Since licensing programs are ineffective, expensive, and do nothing to help cats or people, many municipalities end up repealing cat licensing laws or deciding not to pursue them in the first place.

If there is a licensing law in effect or up for consideration where you live, there are steps you can take to stop it. Take a look at our Advocacy Toolkit, and download our sample letter to legislators on licensing requirements.