Against mandatory cat licensing, by Richard Avanzino and Pamela Rockwell
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 1995:
Can licensing wipe out homeless-
ness, raise the status of the underprivileged,
eliminate the budget crisis, and make people
more caring and responsible? Few would
believe these claims, if made about a pro-
gram to license people. Yet, when it comes
to cats, we are asked to believe all these
claims are true: according to proponents,
mandatory cat licensing will put an end to
the problem of stray and abandoned cats,
raise the status of felines, increase funding
for budget-strapped animal control agencies,
and make cat owners more responsible.
Unfortunately, licensing cats, like licensing
people, won’t do any of these things.
The San Francisco SPCA has con-
sidered the various claims made for manda-
tory cat licensing, and has found neither evi-
dence nor common sense to support them.
In our view, the primary effects of mandato-
ry cat licensing would be to:
• Put the lives and well-being of
cats at risk, and rationalize round-up-and-
• Penalize responsible cat owners,
and force many compassionate caretakers to
stop providing for homeless cats;
• Cost taxpayers money; and
• Inappropriately expand the
power of government.
Indeed the most vocal proponents
of cat licensing have been animal control
agencies and humane organizations that hold
contracts to do animal control––the very
agencies and organizations that stand to gain
the most in terms of more staff, larger bud-
gets, and expanded enforcement power.
Since none of this expanded power will help
either cats, their caretakers, or taxpayers,
we cannot escape the conclusion that the call
for cat licensing has more to do with
entrenching bureaucracy than with compas-
sion, saving lives, and providing a helping
hand to those who care.
Claim: licensing will make cat
owners more responsible.
Caring can’t be mandated, and a
licensing mandate will only punish those
who care. Millions of compassionate people
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 personal expense.
Mandatory cat licensing will exact a heavy
toll from every one of these caregivers.
They will either have to pay the license
fees––in essence, a “cat tax” on each of the
cats they care for––or face citations, fines,
penalties, and possible confiscation of the
animals they love. These new burdens,
imposed on the very people who are doing
the most to help cats, 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 to help them.
Responding 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 counterpro-
ductive: 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, despite a canvassing program.
And people who voluntarily comply can
probably be counted among the most respon-
sible––and affluent––pet owners. We see
neither equity nor sense in enacting a law
that only penalizes through taxation the very
people whose behavior is already exemplary.
Needless to say, truly irresponsi-
ble 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 suggesting that licensing poor people or
the homeless will help raise their status. Of
course cat licensing proponents aren’t mak-
ing a comparison to people, but to dogs: if
cats are licensed like dogs, they say, cats
will 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, enforc-
ing rabies laws, and ridding the public of
other threats posed by unowned, free-roam-
ing dogs. Indeed, since 1933 California dog
licensing laws have explicitly authorized the
impoundment and killing of millions of un-
licensed dogs, just for being unlicensed.
This is the precedent to which cat
licensing proponents appeal when they claim
that licensing will raise the “status” of cats.
We doubt that cats would choose such a sta-
tus for themselves. They might prefer to
retain the unlicensed status they now share
with humans. Dogs might want to join them.
Claim: Cat licensing will
result in more cat redemptions.
Unfortunately, the evidence sug-
gests that cat redemptions are as likely, if
not more likely, to decline once voluntary
cat identification is replaced with coerced
licensing. In Los Angeles County, for
instance, the number of stray cats redeemed
by their owners was reportedly down 32%
after implementation of mandatory licensing.
Proponents tend to ignore such evi-
dence like this, instead pointing out that
dogs, who have been subject to licensing for
years, enjoy higher redemption rates than
cats. But dogs differ from cats in many
ways, and there is no reason to think licens-
ing is the factor that results in the higher
redemption rate for dogs. Indeed, 63% of
the stray dogs at the San Francisco Animal
Care and Control Department shelter were
redeemed by their owners during the 1993-
1994 fiscal year, even though just 4% of the
dogs impounded were licensed.
Clearly, factors other than licens-
ing are responsible for the high dog redemp-
Claim: Cat licensing will help
decrease shelter euthanasia.
Since cat licensing will likely result
in more cats being abandoned and/or surren-
dered to shelters, since it will not apprecia-
bly affect redemptions, and since it may
very well become an impetus to round-up-
and-kill campaigns, it is difficult for us to
see how it would result in a decrease in shel-
Claim: Cat licensing will raise
money for animal control.
Cat licensing will c o s t local gov-
ernments and taxpayers money, not raise it,
resulting in a net loss to animal control
and/or other vital government services.
Indeed, proposals to set a license fee at from
$5.00 to $10.00 probably couldn’t even cover
basic administrative expenses. Dog licensing
has been a net loser in many communities at
these fee levels; indeed, it was a net loser
for the American SPCA in New York City
even at a higher fee structure. There is no
reason to believe cat licensing could be any
more cost-efficient. High fee levels, mean-
while, discourage compliance––and enforce-
ment via door-to-door canvassing is extreme-
ly expensive in terms of the personnel time
that must be assigned to the task.
Claim: Dog owners help pay
animal control costs; it’s time
cat owners paid their fair share.
As noted above, the usually higher
licensing fees now paid by dog owners often
cover little more than the basic costs of
administering the licensing programs, if that
much. From a fiscal standpoint, therefore,
local governments and taxpayers, not to
mention dog owners, might be better off if
mandatory dog licensing were simply abol-
ished. In any event, enacting another costly
government program that won’t pay for itself
isn’t the way to give dog owners equity.
No doubt there will be animal con-
trol agencies and contracting humane organi-
zations who dispute our analysis and offer
projections to show that cat licensing will
make money for animal control service in
their communities. We believe these agen-
cies should be willing to stand behind their
projections by having their direct subsidies
cut by the amount they expect cat licensing
to raise. 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 bureaucracy at the expense of taxpay-
ers, responsible cat caretakers, and the ani-
Claim: Regulating cat owners
through licensing and other
mandates is the only way to
solve cat problems.
In our view, the way to teach peo-
ple to be responsible pet owners and help the
cats in a community is through voluntary
incentive-based measures that enable people
to do the right thing. Government mandates
that seek to blame and punish pet owners are
likely to be costly and counterproductive.
Moreover, it seems to us grossly unfair to
penalize the community at large through
coercive mandates, when it is the local shel-
ters 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 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, providing 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
neutering services would do far more to help
cats and reduce pet overpopulation than cat
licensing and other punitive mandates.
Pamela Rockwell is Ethical Studies
Coordinator for the San Francisco SPCA;
Richard Avanzino is president. This guest
column is adapted from the official SFSPCA
position paper on cat licensing.