Plenty of loving dog and cat owners keep their pets up to date on rabies vaccines, check-ups and teeth-cleanings. But far fewer owners purchase a city license for their pet, let alone keep it up-to-date.
Stephanie Browning, director of the Columbia/Boone Health Department, said a city license is a way to identify animals and prove that a pet has a current rabies shot. It is also a way to raise revenue for the Animal Control Division, which serves the City of Columbia and Boone County.
Other cities, such as Jefferson City for example, do not require licenses for dogs or cats because their animal control service is privately funded. But Columbia’s Animal Control relies on a budget allocation from the city’s general revenue fund. The revenue collected from animal licenses for 2006 was $34,600, according to Janice Finley, city business services administrator. In that same year, Animal Control’s budget was $437,934.
Animal Control charges $15 for a one-year license for a dog or cat. The rate drops to $5 if the animal has been neutered.
Clint Mysharall said he had no idea that he needed a license for his border collie, Beignet. He said his veterinarian did not inform him of the ordinance and now that he is aware of it, he is not too worried about buying one.
“I’m sure there’s dozens of people who have no idea about it,” Mysharall said.
Even if people do know about the ordinance, many simply take the chance that they won’t get caught. Owners of indoor cats, especially, have little to worry about. The only way to get busted is if Animal Control responds to a noise complaint or picks up your loose animal.
It is a common occurrence to issue a court summons and it happens daily, said Molly Aust, Columbia’s senior animal control officer.
The maximum penalty upon conviction in Municipal Court for not having a pet license is $500 and/or 30 days in jail.
Robert Rinck, Columbia’s assistant city prosecutor, said that a $500 penalty is extremely rare.
“It’s one of those situations where the more serious the crime, the higher the fine is,” Rinck said.
Rinck also said he rarely sees these violations go to court because people can pay them off like a parking ticket if it is their first or second offense. First and second offenses also have preset fines, including court costs.
There is no accurate way to get an idea of how many pet owners there are in Columbia because so many people don’t buy licenses for their pets. It is also hard to get numbers for how many people have bought licenses because licenses are filed by hand.
Only within the last six months has the staff started to develop a computer database and begun to enter records and information.
Aust once counted the licenses from 2006, and she said that approximately 4,800 were sold. The total population of Columbia in 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, was 91,814. Aust estimated that maybe half of the people in Columbia are pet owners, and many owners own more than one dog or cat.
Other towns that mandate a pet license might require pet owners to purchase it at the town’s business and licensing office. Columbia, however, distributes city license forms and tags to every veterinarian in the city limits. It is up to these veterinarians to sell the license and, therefore, to enforce the ordinance — if they choose to do so.
“We don’t force people to get city licenses,” said Terry Chapman, a veterinarian at Noah’s Ark Animal and Bird Clinic. “We have information posted in the rooms, but we’re not the police.”
Cindy Lachnit, office manager at Rolling Hills Veterinary Hospital, agrees that the city has given veterinarian offices an inconvenient responsibility.
“It doesn’t seem like a totally fair way to do it,” Lachnit said. “They need to make them more efficient and not make them a burden to either people— the veterinarians or downtown.”
Other than the gratitude from the clients for saving them a trip downtown, veterinarians receive no compensation from the city for their extra work.
“It is a great service they do for their clients and for the city, too,” Browning said.
Tom Rose, veterinarian and chairman of the Board of Health, doesn’t think the pet owners lack responsibility. Rose is contemplating solutions, such as awarding veterinarians a percentage of the animal tax that is collected. In such a case, while veterinarians can’t force someone to buy a license, they might remind their clients about the ordinance more often and, consequently, increase awareness.
The Board of Health is also considering re-wording the pet license ordinance.
Rose said that the confusing wording might also be a cause of low pet licensing compliance.
Rose also wants better advertising. He has thought about inserting a reminder letter from the city in monthly utility bills. Such changes would have to be proposed and approved by the City Council.
“Certainly by the October (city council) meeting we should have something nailed down,” Rose said.