Des Moines is considering revising or eliminating its pet licensing program as a way to remove barriers for owners to care for their pets.
When animals end up in shelters, pet owners often face multiple hurdles in getting their pets back, according to Tom Colvin, the CEO of Animal Rescue League of Iowa, which provides shelter and field services to the city.
Rescue League and city officials say they’re taking their approach to how the city identifies and monitors pets, and want to re-examine their vaccination status while doing away with “punitive” ordinances.
“The reality is that people just have to lose their relatives because of penal ordinances that really have no function,” Colvin told Des Moines city councilors during a quarterly work session Wednesday morning.
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Councilors have approved the proposal by Colvin and Des Moines, deputy city manager Matt Anderson, to reconsider how the pet licensing program will work while the city negotiates a new contract with ARL.
“It’s one of those things that at least no one in Des Moines (the model) has looked at again since we did it,” said Anderson, who will lead the brainstorming efforts. “So we’re just asking whether the current licensing model is still the best way to track pets?”
28% of dogs, 16% of cats are licensed in Des Moines
Des Moines requires any animal over 6 months old to be licensed every year so the city can return a lost pet to its owner. It also serves as a way to ensure pets are vaccinated against rabies.
A pet license costs $15 per animal if spayed or neutered and $35 per animal if not spayed or neutered. According to the City of Des Moines website, owners found with unlicensed pets can be fined up to $500 or spend 30 days in jail.
But historically, an estimated 28% of dogs are licensed in Des Moines, while 16% of cats are licensed, Colvin told councilors during the work session. Des Moines has allowed a total of 14,615 pets this year, according to city data; that includes 10,655 dogs and 3,960 cats.
Colvin, who has led the organization since 1996, says the low percentages are no longer surprising. It is also difficult and ineffective to track down and fine owners who have not gone through the licensing process.
“You always struggle to get a significant percentage of dogs — and especially licensed cats — into any community,” he said. “It seems to be the way it is.”
“It tells you that whatever goal we’re trying to achieve with licensing, it’s not hitting the target, and licensing has been done and really hasn’t changed since microchips became the norm,” Anderson added.
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According to the city’s website, the fees collected for animal permits are used to enforce animal ordinances and to cover the cost of running animal shelters in the city. The fees collected are deposited into the City’s Community Fund.
Colvin said when licensing first began, it was often a way to offset the animal control costs a city earned to generate revenue. But these days, the cost of administration is more than the revenue, he said.
Colvin said the proposal was received positively by the council, with councilors asking about the program’s revenue and effectiveness.
“If it’s only 28% — even if we go to 35% — what are we doing it for?” Alderman At Large Connie Boesen asked about the program during the working meeting on Wednesday.
Colvin said a re-examination of the city program is a healthier way to address animal problems in Des Moines. The city currently has the highest rate of live release ever – 91% in 2021 compared to 35% in 2004, with more pets being adopted, reclaimed or transferred, according to the city.
“Pets are so important to people’s families,” Colvin said. “They are by far considered more like family members than ever before. So trying to break down barriers, working with people towards having pets just seems like a much better way to have a healthy community than having lots of unnecessary and punitive types.” … of approaches.”
“Let’s not make criminals out of people who are otherwise very good pet owners,” he said.
Alternatives are microchips, rabies vaccination clinics
There are no official recommendations on how to change the program, but Colvin said “everything is on the table” for discussion.
Eliminating late fees is high on the list, but in general, brainstorming other changes and alternatives will likely be a two-step process, Anderson said.
If the city eliminates one component, such as licensing cats, it must fill in the gaps elsewhere.
The purpose of licensing dogs is to encourage rabies vaccinations, but the percentage of cats that are licensed in a community has historically been “extremely low,” Colvin said. “So, trying to fine people for not getting permits for cats, managing costs with cats…is very problematic by nature.”
One consideration is to rely on microchips as a way to identify pets, as opposed to tags, which Colvin says often fall or get lost from pets. Microchips require a one-time fee to insert and owners must keep their contact details up to date.
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Another proposal is to no longer rely on permits to ensure that pets are vaccinated against rabies. Colvin said the low-cost vaccination clinics that ARL partners with are more effective. Since it is a public health issue, it should be considered as such.
Anderson and Colvin estimate that the team will come forward over the next six months to propose some recommendations to the board, although there is no set deadline.
Des Moines Register reporter Philip Joens collaborated on this story.
Virginia Barreda is the trending and general mission reporter for the Des Moines Register. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @vbarreda2.