Five Maryland counties already have it. Others are considering it. But the mere idea of cat licensing sparks debate as noisy as a fight between toms in a back alley.
“Dog licensing is done in 90 percent of the jurisdictions in the United States,” says Frank Branchini, director of Anne Arundel County’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “When it gets to cat licensing it’s an issue.”
Prince George’s, Montgomery and Baltimore counties have required licenses for roughly 10 years. Calvert and Talbot counties adopted the practice a year ago. Anne Arundel’s program began Jan. 1. Ordinances have been proposed in Baltimore City and Queen Anne’s and Howard counties. Most require that animals wear identification and a tag proving they were vaccinated for rabies.
John Conover, animal control director for Queen Anne’s County, is among activists who believe licensing reduces the number of cats euthanized and increases the number returned to owners.
“We get hundreds and hundreds of cats and we have no way of identifying them,” Conover says.
And Tahira Williams, Anne Arundel’s animal control administrator, says that only 34 of 4,400 cats brought into her agency last year had identification.
Animal activists say licensing would help control feline overpopulation because it encourages spaying and neutering by setting higher fees for unaltered animals.
But there’s the rub for some cat fanciers.
“My opinion is that the SPCA and animal control … they’re anti-breeder,” says Linthicum resident JoAnn Genovese, president of the Black-Eyed Susan Cat Club. “They’re going after the wrong people. We don’t let any kittens go to a home without a spay/neuter contract.”
Lee Brown of Annapolis, who breeds Siamese cats, says licensing is “one more added expense” in an already expensive hobby. Brown must pay $120 to license her four Siamese under the current Anne Arundel law, with fees of $30 per unspayed or unneutered cat or dog and $4 for altered animals.
In March, Brown’s county council will vote on a new bill that would cut unneutered and unspayed fees in half.
Collars are another sticking point.
“It’s very dangerous to put a collar on cats because they do get hung up,” Brown says.
Cat owner Janice Steiner of Linthicum says a cat may venture into a wooded area, snag its collar on a branch and hang to death. “They freak out if they get caught,” she says.
Not so, argues George Whiting, director of Prince George’s County Animal Control. “You don’t see dead cats hanging from trees,” he says. “It just doesn’t happen.”
In his 16 years in animal control, Whiting has never seen a dog or cat strangled by its collar.
In Anne Arundel County, Branchini has seen one case in the past six years, and that, he says, was a dog. Safety collars that break at certain pressure levels avoid the problem, he adds.
Kelly Allen says that in her 10 years with the Talbot County Humane Society she has seen about three collar-choking incidents. To be safe, Allen says her county does not require collars.
Even so, she adds, “It would help in returning them if we have a number to call…. A majority of people want the tag on the cat.”
But the most urgent concern to many licensing advocates is rabies.
A virus found in saliva, rabies spreads when the saliva contacts open wounds. It attacks the central nervous system. By the time symptoms appear — changes in behavior, paralysis of throat muscles — the disease is almost always fatal, in humans and in animals.
Last year alone, 17 cats and three dogs tested positive for the disease in Maryland.
“We have had about 10 times more cats rabid over this last 14 years than we have dogs,” says Dr. Jack Grigor, Maryland public health veterinarian with the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
One infected cat can expose on average six people to rabies, Grigor says.
And Branchini warns that cats “are less likely to be vaccinated for rabies than dogs…. They’re more likely to be let out at night where they have contact with wildlife.”
Advocates acknowledge that even where licensing exists, residents aren’t too quick to respond.
In the first three weeks Anne Arundel’s policy was enacted about 22 people purchased licenses, Branchini says.
Tom Barnhill of Montgomery County Animal Control says about 4,500 people purchased licenses the first year in his county. Now, about 13,500 cats are licensed annually. But Barnhill admits, “There are probably three to four times as many cats as … we have licensed.”
Talbot County’s Allen remains positive about licensing. “Nuisance calls regarding cats have declined. People are more responsible about letting their animals roam at large,” she says. “I think the relationship between neighbors has improved.” -30-