Cat Licensing: A Bad Idea

An occasional, but ongoing debate continues on Whidbey Island about possibly making cat licensing mandatory the same as dogs on the island. The idea of licensing cats for a while was gaining popularity in various jurisdictions, as a way to augment funds for animal programming. But several respected groups are questioning and discouraging this practice.

Alley Cat Allies is very direct in their opposition to cat licensing, “Mandatory cat licensing ordinances are a license to kill.” The problem is that licensing “funnels even more cats into a system which offers them little chance of survival” (Alley Cat Allies, “Cat Licensing: A License to Kill”). The San Francisco SPCA, National Animal Interest Alliance, as well as Alley Cat Allies list the basic mythology associated with cat licensing:

Myth #1: Licensing helps reunite lost cats with their owners.

Truth: Nationally, shelters only reunite 2% of incoming cats with owners. Most cats do not do well with collars, and even if they do adapt to them, they are soon lost as many of the modern collars are designed to break away (to avoid strangulation). Mandatory cat licensing has made no impact on return to owner in jurisdictions that have mandatory licensing, and in some cases return rates have even gone down, as more cats are introduced to the system, stretching resources. What does work in returning more cats to owners is microchipping, doubling the 2% return rate to 4% for cats (American Journal of Veterinary Medicine). By the way, WAIF also successfully doubled the national average of returned cats to owner (4% returned) without mandatory licensing. For dogs, WAIF is three times the national average, returning 66% of lost dogs to their owners (compare to 22% national average – AJVM).

Myth #2: Licensing generates revenue for animal control.

Truth: The costs associated with running licensing programs often exceed the revenue it generates (staffing costs, equipment, data-base management, publicity costs, collecting fines, etc.). Existing mandatory dog licensing programs only minimally provide funds for animal control if at all, with the remaining coming from the general fund of localities. The rare exception has been the Calgary Model, and the innovator of that program has said that such a program would not work on Whidbey Island (too small and rural, lack of animal control personnel and other resources).

Myth #3: Licensing ensures animals are spayed/neutered and vaccinated against rabies.

Truth: Spay/Neuter surgeries alone ensure spaying/neutering, and vaccines alone ensure vaccinations. Licensing only discourages these by adding licensing fees on top of veterinary fees. (SFSPCA)

Myth #4: Cat licensing will help reduce the number of stray and abandoned cats.

Truth: The only way cat licensing will reduce the number of stray and abandoned cats is when it is enforced by rounding up unlicensed cats and killing them, according to the SFSPCA report. This would be particularly true for “community” (and feral) cats.

Myth #5: Cat licensing will help raise the status of cats.

Truth: The rationale here is that somehow, dogs are accorded special “higher” status because they are licensed. A favorite quote I have read here on the island is that “cats are treated like noxious vermin” because there is no licensing required for cats. If status is related to licensing, cats should count their lucky stars as they are not impounded into a shelter for not being licensed. In most people’s view this elevates the status of cats above dogs, who unfortunately can find themselves impounded for non-compliance. Whidbey Island, contrary to treating cats like vermin, has maintained no kill status for cats for decades (over 90% live release rate). Cat adoption centers are maintained in Freeland, Oak Harbor, and the main shelter in Coupeville. There is currently only one place for dog adoptions, at Coupeville shelter. Seems cats are treated just fine, thank you.

Myth #6: Cat licensing will make cat owners more responsible.

Truth: “Caring can’t be mandated, and a licensing mandate will only end up punishing those who care,” the SFSPCA report said. This is especially true if such licensing, like dog licensing, is not enforceable. With only one animal control officer for the island, their time is more useful in identifying and stopping neglect and abuse situations, rather than checking on licensing compliance.

Finally, Myth #7: Regulating cat owners through licensing and other mandates is the only way to solve cat problems.

What the Calgary, Canada model and other similar models have taught us, is that incentives, not mandates, tend to drastically increase spay/neuter surgeries, microchipping, and other proven activities that help reduce cat and dog problems.

What the above myths/truths have in common of course, is that they are based upon certain assumptions including enforcement across all situations, including feral and community cat populations, in which those cats will not be licensed, thus that potential to be picked up and taken to shelters or destroyed. Oak Harbor does require cat licensing, but that municipality also has just one animal control officer, making enforcement minimal. Property owners tend to be held responsible to deal with community cats, rather than requiring animal control to respond to problem areas. Yes, dog licensing has merits due to public safety concerns, but mandating unenforceable measures historically has minimal success.

For many jurisdictions, the guaranteed “Free Ride Home” has been one of such incentives to help reunite the lost with owners through licensing. It is doubtful that a “Free Ride Home” program would provide such an incentive here on Whidbey Island, mostly because with only one or two animal control officers for the whole island (who already occasionally returns animals to owners if they are known at pickup), no such guarantee can be made.

Whether tagging, or licensing, or microchipping, such efforts increase the possibility of a pet being found and the owner notified. This should provide the incentive. Such actions act as an “insurance policy” helping lost pets to be reunited with pet owners. A public marketing campaign that helps move pet owners move from a negative view of licensing from a governmental requirement, to one of helping ensure their pet is found when it becomes lost just might be the ticket!

Mandating cat licensing will do nothing to encourage compliance, and has the potential to make things much worse for cats. For feral/community cats, volunteers interested in helping these cats can do so by TNR (Trap, Neuter, Return) activities, or through Barn Cat programs, where colonies or individual cats are altered then placed in a rural setting (with permission of property owner). Such programs are helpful in controlling populations in a humane way, and provide the benefits of “mousers” being available to farmers. WAIF is working on ways to be more involved in responding to community cats. Currently, we do have coupons available to volunteers willing to live trap cats and take them to a participating organization to conduct the surgery. NOAH is one such organization that accepts our coupons.


Norma Bennett Woolf-Editor and Writer for National Animal Interest Alliance. “San Francisco SPCA: Mandatory Cat Licensing: Ill-conceived and Ill-advised”

Alley Cat Allies “Cat Licensing: A License to Kill”

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