Animal services cost California local governments about $250 million each year. Individual dog license fees have increased in many California counties and cities in recent years, but the revenues generated from these licenses cover only a small fraction of the cost to fund animal services. Most of the rest is paid by the taxpayers. This revenue shortfall is mainly because fewer than 1 in 4 dogs in California is licensed, even though licensing has been mandated by law for many years. It’s fair to ask how public policy decisions of lawmakers have influenced licensing rates, and how licensing rates impact other goals.
Dog licensing serves multiple roles:
1) To track compliance to rabies vaccination where required for public health reasons. This is the reason California state law mandates dog licensing.
2) To provide a means of identification for dogs that is tracked in the municipality’s database in case they are picked up stray, so they can be returned to their owners. “Your dog’s license is his ticket home.”
3) To generate income for the municipality to operate its animal services programs.
Higher rates of dog licensing lead to higher return-to-owner rates (RTO) when dogs are picked up stray, because more dogs are wearing their identifying license tags. Higher return-to-owner rates means fewer dogs need to be housed in public shelters. This reduces shelter costs and reduces the number of dogs euthanized, both important societal goals.
For the animal services authority, return-to-owner is the lowest cost way to deal with dogs picked up stray. Dogs that are quickly returned to their owners don’t consume limited resources in the municipal shelter. Some animal services departments return licensed stray dogs directly to the owner, bypassing the shelter, reducing costs to the bare minimum.
Calgary animal services leads the way in North America, saving 95% of dogs they process thanks in large part to a return-to-owner rate for impounded dogs of 86%. Key to Calgary’s success is a dog licensing compliance rate that exceeds 90%. For a city of over 1 million people, Calgary has a relatively little public animal shelter space because their return-to-owner rate insures that most dogs are not housed in shelters for long. Calgary achieves this success at no cost to its taxpayers, the costs are almost entirely covered by pet license fees.
In California, only 62% of dogs in public shelters are saved. Return-to-owner for impounded dogs is a paltry 21%, in large part because only 22% of dogs are licensed in California. The low return-to-owner rates means that stray dogs must be housed longer in shelters, until they are either adopted out or euthanized. This increases costs. The low rates for dog licensing means that California’s taxpayers must cover most animal services costs.
Over the years, Calgary has implemented policies to incentivize dog licensing, including quick and convenient licensing options, and discount perks at retailers. Calgary’s pet owners know that many valued services are paid for with their pet licensing fees, including educational programs on responsible dog ownership, over 100 off leash dog parks in the city, a low-cost spay-neuter clinic, returning stray dogs straight home rather than impounding them at the city shelter, and other valued services. Calgary’s residents have a very positive opinion of their city animal services department, with 91% giving it high marks in a citizen satisfaction survey. As a result, pet licensing rates have trended upward in Calgary over the years.
Over the same time, many California communities have implemented coercive policies that have had the opposite effect. Among these coercive policies are mandatory spay-neuter laws. Mandatory spay-neuter laws are different than any other policy that governments impose on citizens. Instead of fees, fines, or even incarceration, mandatory spay-neuter laws impose forced surgical procedures. No other aspect of the US legal system mandates forced surgery. Reasonably so, many pet owners perceive mandatory spay-neuter laws as especially oppressive, whether lawmakers intend them to be or not. This negative public perception drives down pet licensing compliance.
California communities that have implemented mandatory spay-neuter ordinances have experienced significant declines in dog licensing compliance
Los Angeles Animal Services admits that mandatory spay-neuter has reduced their dog licensing income:
“the number of dogs for which unaltered licenses (and in many cases breeding permits) have been paid for and issued has dropped since implementation of mandatory spay/neuter. Because of the steep license differential, loss of higher priced licenses have resulted in lower revenue trends.”
Los Angeles Animal Services lost $440 thousand in annual licensing revenue since the 2008 MSN ordinance went into effect. That’s on top of the licensing income lost due to the downward trend in licensing compliance after Los Angeles enacted their 2000 MSN ordinance.
Sacramento County instituted mandatory spay-neuter on the 2nd impoundment in 1995. There were proposals in during 2006 and 2007 to pass more comprehensive MSN in Sacramento County, but those efforts were defeated. Note: the large gap in the data reflects Sacramento County’s lack of full reporting to the CDPH.
In California jurisdictions without mandatory spay-neuter ordinances, dog licensing compliance rates tend to be higher:
NO mandatory spay-neuter – dog licensing compliance rate
Contra Costa County – 34%
San Luis Obispo County – 34%
Orange County – 32%
Ventura County – 34%
Mandatory spay neuter – dog licensing compliance rate
Santa Cruz County – 13% [MSN since 1995]
City of Los Angeles – 13% [MSN since 2000, made stricter in 2008]
Los Angeles County – 20% [MSN since 2006]
Sacramento County – 14% [MSN on 2nd impoundment since 1995]
Contra Costa County does not have mandatory spay-neuter, and dog licensing compliance has held steady there.
Mandatory spay-neuter laws break the bond of trust between many dog owners and their government. Dog owners have seen what happens after mandatory spay-neuter laws go into effect. Licensing makes their dogs known to government, and dog owners fear that government will whittle away their right to make their own informed choices about responsible dog ownership. An increasing number of dog owners would prefer that their government not know about their dogs.
Dog owners have seen the City of Los Angeles implement increasingly strict mandatory spay-neuter ordinances over the years that have turned law-abiding citizens into targets of their government. Dog owners have witnessed the enormous multi-year battles in state legislatures that have been required to stop mandatory spay-neuter laws. They have watched the spread of mandatory spay-neuter laws despite a consistent track record of failure.
Dog licensing is not the only path to saving stray dogs in community animal shelters. Some communities have achieved success with a greater emphasis on comprehensive adoption programs for dogs picked up stray. But returning stray dogs to their owners is a proven way to save lives. Even dogs that would be difficult or impossible to adopt can be returned to their owners, and dog licensing enables that. But high dog licensing rates require a level of trust between dog owners and their government that does not exist in many communities, thanks in large part to the policies that elected officials have chosen to pursue.
Whether policy makers intend it or not, mandatory spay-neuter laws are perceived by the public as especially oppressive and drive a wedge between the public and animal services departments. This perception reduces dog licensing rates, reduces dog licensing income, reduces return-to-owner rates, increases costs, and kills more dogs. Fortunately there are successful models that build public confidence, save money, and save lives.
California dog licensing compliance rates are calculated using:
Number of dogs licensed in a jurisdiction
- Annual reports from the California Department of Public Health that include the number of dogs licensed in each county
- Reports by Los Angeles Animal Services that include numbers of dogs licensed, here and here
Total number of dogs in jurisdiction
- US Census Bureau data for county or city average household size and population as a function of year
- The average number of dogs per household from the APPA National Pet Owners Survey
Many thanks to the National Animal Interest Alliance for their assistance with this report.