No leash for felines: Michigan laws unequal for cats, dogs
Melanie Maxwell I AnnArbor.com file photo
Unlike dogs, cats don’t have to be vaccinated against rabies, licensed or restrained in Michigan - leaving counties and cities on their own to decide how cats and their owners should be treated under the law.
“Humans let cats come and go; we don’t do that so much with our dogs,” said Linda Reider, director of statewide initiatives for the Michigan Humane Society. “Our culture is different with cats than with dogs.”
Dogs have to adhere to tighter restrictions because of the Michigan Dog Law of 1919. Originally, the law’s intention was to reduce the risk of a dog biting a human and transmitting rabies, or from roaming and damaging livestock.
“There was a problem more with loose dogs biting people and they wanted to make sure people were safe from a terrible disease,” Reider said.
Dog licensing was developed as a way to track rabies vaccinations in dogs, which is required by state law. Washtenaw County officials have reported compliance with dog licensing is about 11 percent.
Reider said cat licensing is difficult to enforce in municipalities that have passed such ordinances, as many cats wander from house to house and multiple people feed them, Reider said.
“Many cat owners don’t want to license their cats - they don’t see the purpose of it,” Reider said. “At the Michigan Humane Society, our stance on owned cats is that the safest place for owned cats is to be is in the home or under direct supervision.”
Ordinances that prohibit pet cats from roaming at large are typically complaint-inspired and complaint-enforced, Reider said.
In Washtenaw County, several cities have taken their own steps to implement some restrictions on the pet cat population.
Ann Arbor’s ordinance pertaining to cats require the animals to be vaccinated against rabies. Ypsilanti has a similar ordinance, in that dogs and cats must have rabies vaccines if they are in public places.
The two cities are the only municipalities in the county to require pet owners to vaccinate their cats against rabies.
In Michigan, there are more stray cats than there are dogs, Reider said.
There is less of a dog rabies problem now than there was in 1919, Reider said. Bats are the most predominant carrier of rabies in Michigan.
Cats typically come into contact with a bat more often than dogs do, leaving a population of vulnerable animals that may not be vaccinated against rabies because it’s not mandatory, Reider said.
“It’s been estimated that there are as many free roaming cats as there are owned pet cats,” Reider said.
However, neither of Ann Arbor nor Ypsilanti have ordinances that would make cats running at large illegal - whether they’re pet cats or cats without owners.
The Humane Society of Huron Valley recommends to its adopting owners that they keep their cats indoors - but should an owner want an outside cat, HSHV advises fitting the cat with a breakaway collar with an identification tag and a microchip.
“There’s a mentality that cat’s aren’t happy unless they’re outside and I don’t think that’s true,” said Deb Kern, marketing director for HSHV.
Kern said the Ann Arbor area community needs to have a conversation about the need to identify pet cats so they’re not observed as strays.
In Saline, Manchester and Milan, each of those cities has ordinances that make it illegal for a cat to run at large off an owner’s premises and not within reasonable control.
Other Michigan cities have taken a stricter approach. In Battle Creek, all dogs and cats must be licensed and any animal - whether licensed or unlicensed - must be on a leash a maximum of eight feet long if traveling beyond the owner’s property.
Frankenmuth also has a strict cat ordinance. Cats must be licensed as well. Should a cat roam at large, the owner would be charged a $25 fine for the first offense, $50 for a second offense and $250 for each offense after that.
The number of pets Frankenmuth residents are allowed to have is limited to two dogs and two cats under the city’s ordinance.
Kern said licensing cats would help shelters tremendously.
“Cats are more free-roaming and people might wait a while for the cat to circle back,” Kern said.
Under state law, if a cat does not have any identification and is put in to the care of an animal shelter, the shelter can post the cat for adoption after three days. Many more pet owners visit animal shelters to search for their lost dogs than their lost cats, Kern said.
HSHV attempted to pursue cat licensing during a series of discussions they had with Washtenaw County officials in 2012 regarding animal control service levels, but there was no traction to pursue such an ordinance, said Tanya Hilgendorf, president and CEO of HSHV.
Licenses could help track vaccines and could help match lost cats back to their owners quicker - thereby reducing shelter costs, Hilgendorf said. Licenses would also generate revenue from fees that could be used to fund animal control services.
Outside of Michigan, some states that have attempted a proactive approach to implement laws concerning identification, vaccination and licensing of cats:
- California’s include possession requirements for non-domestic cats, as well as vaccination and impound procedures for domestic cats. Legislative policy standards are also written for feral cats.
- Maine’s include rabies vaccination requirements, stray cat procedures and animal trespass statues that exclude cats from its purview.
- Rhode Island may have the most strict cat law of them all: Its laws create a “Cat Identification Program” and require cats to display some kind of identification - including a tag or tattoo - to reduce the feral/stray cat problem. Cats without identification are impounded for less time.
- Virginia: A county, city or town can prohibit a person from owning a cat unless it is licensed.
- Wisconsin: A county board of commissioners in a county with more than 500,000 people can enact a cat-licensing ordinance.
Though the measure was defeated, a law introduced in Wisconsin in 2005 that would have allowed hunters to shoot any cat found roaming free that did not have a collar or other signs of domestic ownership.