"How do municipal codes affect my dog?"
When planning a move to a new city, most people think to research schools, neighborhoods, and community resources available in that location. But, moving to a new location may bring another area to investigate, especially where it concerns the keeping of animals; that is the municipal code. Municipal codes usually regulate animals more specifically than state laws and may be enforced to a greater degree. While owning five dogs in one town may have been allowed, or even having a pet boa constrictor as a pet, a new resident in a particular municipality may face the difficult task of saying goodbye to those beloved pets.
Recognizing the need for local governments to exercise control over local issues, state laws may specifically grant municipalities the power to enact any animal-related ordinance. These ordinances may vary in subject and specificity, from those that detail the cleanliness of dog pens to those that prohibit the ownership of specific types of animals. Whatever the animal subject, most of the ordinances will be upheld if challenged as valid exercises of municipal authority.
This overview serves as a basic introduction to municipal ordinances. In doing so, the basic structure of an ordinance will be discussed as well as its relationship to state law. This discussion will also show some of the main animal care and control concerns raised in municipal ordinances across the country. Finally, the remedies, or punishments a municipality can invoke under these ordinances is examined along with examples of “model” animal care and control codes.
Also included are examples from various municipalities around the country. The Map of Municipal Ordinances includes two ordinances from each state, with one representing a larger metropolis and the other a smaller community (however, in the event a smaller community was not available to include, a code updated within the last two years was selected). Links to search engines of municipal codes are provided at the top of this page, or by clicking here.
An ordinance is essentially a law or portion of a larger code enacted by a city council, county board of commissioners, or other municipal representatives. These provisions often mirror state laws and provide an extra layer of protection for the peace and security of the residents in the municipality. Sometimes ordinances reflect a concern that is specific to the city, county, or township not relevant to state law. Municipalities are often created by a charter, meaning the duties and extent of powers exercisable by the municipality are outlined in a legal document signed by the leaders of the community. The power to then enact laws to control the conduct of the municipal residents is derived from this charter; the root of the power lies in state law.
States may specifically grant municipalities the ability to enact laws through the state constitution or legislation. This means that either the constitution or other state legislation has specifically stated that local cities, counties, townships, or other municipalities have the authority to govern the needs of their citizens. If the power is not explicitly granted by constitutional provision or state law, then it may be inferred through the concept of “police power.”
Police power is a legal term of art meaning a political subdivision (i.e., state, county, or city) has the authority to enact laws to protect the health, safety, and general welfare of its citizenry. While such a concept may seem self-evident to the governance of any area, it is not constitutionally granted. In the United States, there exists a hierarchy of laws. The federal constitution is said to be the highest law of the land. All citizens are subject to the provisions of the federal constitution. Federal laws, provided in the United State Codes (U.S.C.) constitute the second order of importance in this hierarchy. If any state or local law conflicts with either the United States Constitution or Code, it is preempted, or trumped by the higher federal law.
So, one may ask, why does not the federal government simply regulate all issues to avoid such legal conflicts? Two reasons justify the delegation to states. First, the United States operates under a system of state sovereignty. The founders of our legal and politically system in the U.S. felt that a centralized government smacked of the tyrannical monarchy they had just escaped in England. Second, it is impractical for a centralized federal government to enact laws that could govern all aspects of life in the varied social landscape of this county. As a result, states often wield the greatest power over the health, safety, and welfare of its citizens.
That being said, once populations grew in the various states, municipalities became concerned that state laws did not accurately address its citizens’ needs. Again, through the concept of police powers, municipalities were either explicitly or implicitly given the authority to enact ordinances for the care of its citizens. We now know these laws as ordinances, and nearly every municipality, no matter how small, has some local provisions.
From the states’ inherent police power rights, local governments may derive direct authority to regulate through the state’s constitution. Because police power is inherent to the state, local authority to regulate animals must be directly or even indirectly delegated. This can be achieved through a constitutional amendment. For example, the state of Washington Constitution provides: "[a]ny county, city, town or township may make and enforce within its limits all such local police, sanitary and other regulations as are not in conflict with general laws." Wash. Const. art. XI, sec. 11. See also, Lenci v. City of Seattle, 63 Wn.2d 664, 667, 388 P.2d 926 (1964). It is through state statute by which most states provide some grant of local authority. Only a few states do not appear to provide any specific written reference as to the right of local government to regulate animals (though the right may be derived from other broader sources dealing with animals in general). More often than not, the power also rests within statutory expression that grants municipalities broad and specific regulatory powers.
Of related concern is the issue of whether a state confers “home-rule” power. Home-rule power generally refers to a portion of a state’s constitution or even a legislative enactment that allows local government to self-govern with respect to the terms laid out in the article or legislation. This apportioning of power typically allows local units to enact ordinances for the health, safety and welfare of its citizens. While an explicit discussion of home-rule authority is beyond the scope of this paper, suffice to say that states may delineate bounds of home-rule authority. Some states provide that a home-rule city may enact ordinances pursuant to its municipal charter, but the state legislature may limit or augment these provisions. 56 Am. Jur. 2d § 110. Other states may leave the home-rule power open-ended, such that a municipality may exercise all powers that have not been expressly defined by the state constitution or statute. Id. A state’s home-rule provisions inevitably determine the degree to which a municipality can enact ordinances and under what circumstances this can be done.
(For more on police powers and legal challenges to the exercise of municipal powers, see the Detailed Discussion of State and Local Dog Laws.)
Most animal control codes begin with a broad statement of purpose that describes the goal in enacting animal control measures. It also in effect reiterates the notion of the police power granted to municipality to protect its citizens. The section entitled, "Purpose" from Rockville, Maryland begins its animal control section with a purported goal in enacting the ordinance:
Sec. 3-1. Purpose.
The City of Rockville has undertaken to establish this Animal Ordinance to protect the public health and safety of its citizens and to promote the general welfare of the citizens and animals residing within the City. Animal ownership is encouraged and welcomed within this City; however, strong emphasis is placed on responsible ownership of animals. Animal owners are encouraged to respect the rights of their fellow citizens and also those of their animals. Primary responsibility is placed upon animal owners to properly train and/or secure their animals so as to prevent them from causing injuries and/or creating nuisances.
Sec. 3-1, Rockville, Maryland. Such a statement is not necessary to allow the municipality to enact ordinances that place restrictions upon animal owners, but it does remind owners to be aware that ownership of animals brings with it responsibilities to others.Companion animal owners should be aware that nearly all local ordinances contain restrictions on the running at large of dogs. As noted in the Overview of State Leash Laws, few states impose statewide requirements to leash dogs when outside their owners’ premises (but note that many states enacted laws that mandate impoundment of dogs found running loose - See, Detailed Discussion of Dog Impoudment Laws). In contrast, on the local level, most municipalities have enacted measures that require the leashing of dogs or prohibit the roaming of dogs.
In Idaho Falls, Idaho:Sec. 5-9-11, Idaho Falls, Idaho.
Houston also prohibits the running at large of dogs and also increases the penalty for such if the dog has been deemed vicious or dangerous.
Sec. 6-101, Houston, Texas.
Many municipalities have gone further to extend such restraint laws to cats as well.Sec. 11-1012, Grand Forks, North Dakota.
Many municipalities restrict the number of animals a resident can own. The ordinance may specify the number by type of animal owned. Most of the time, a specific quantity is provided (i.e., four cats and four dogs). However, the County of Larimer Colorado has left the quantity ambiguous:
Larimer County, Colorado, Sec. 6-81. Conceivably, a person could own many animals without violating the terms of the ordinance, or be found in violation for owning only one or two animals if such animals caused a nuisance to neighbors.
Potentially as ambiguous is the law in the Village of Hillside, Illinois. Hillside has an ordinance in place that limits the number of pets one can own in a residential house, duplex, or apartment to “two dogs and/or two cats in or about” the premises. Hillside, Illinois, Sec. 14-4. The ambiguity of the conjunctive “and/or” as well as the definition of “in or about” is surely ripe for controversy.
Kansas City Missouri is much clearer with regard to exactly how many of each species one may own:Kansas City, Missouri Sec. 14-28. In Orange County, California, a resident may apply for a permit to keep more than four dogs at his or her premises. Orange County, California, Sec. 4-1-76. In any event, residents would be advised to learn of these animal number limitation ordinances before acquiring future animal companions.Ordinances specifically targeting cats are increasing in number. This may stem from both the fact that ownership of cats has eclipsed dogs in the U.S. as the most popular pet and that fact that only two states regulate cats by state law (See, Cat Laws Detailed Discussion). In Ansonia, Connecticut, for example, the city has enacted an ordinance that restricts the number of cats one can own to four within city limits. Ansonia, Connecticut, Sec. 4-7.
Also on the increase are the municipalities that require cats to wear tags similar to requirements for dogs. Des Moines, Iowa is one such city that requires cats to wear tags:[Emphasis added] Des Moines, Iowa, Sec. 18-95.
A major impetus behind many of the recent cat ordinances has been the prevention of free-roaming cats. This has resulted in ordinances that prohibit cats from becoming a nuisance to other residents by causing damage to property or by making frequent noise. See, Grinnell, Iowa for example. Some ordinances have even defined “ownership” of a cat to include situations where “. . . the person harbors or lets the cat [over six months old] habitually remain or be fed around such person's house.” Grinnell Iowa, Sec. 3-33(a). Such a law reflects the concern of residents feeding feral or free-roaming cats while not housing them or providing veterinary care.
In the Township of Hamilton, New Jersey, trespassing cats can be deemed a public nuisance:Hamilton Township, New Jersey Sec. 22-61. Suffice to say that recent cat ordinances place as many restrictions on feline companions their canine companions have enjoyed for years.
Recent claims of vicious attacks by pit bull dogs have prompted some municipalities to essentially outlaw the ownership of such dogs. In Louisville, Colorado, the municipal code contains this provision:Louisville, Colorado Sec. 6.12.160.
In Wilmington Delaware, residents may own pit bulls, but only if they comply with stringent licensing requirements.Wilmington, Delaware, Sec. 3-16.
In conjunction with breed-specific ordinances, many counties have dangerous animal ordinances. Not only do these ordinances provide restrictions on the ownership of dogs deemed dangerous (usually those dogs who have bitten or threatened to bite people), but they may also outline the procedure to appeal such a determination. The ordinance in Miami-Dade County, Florida typifies such an ordinance (abridged to show significant provisions):Miaimi-Dade County, Florida, Sec. 5-6.2.
Gilroy, California imposes a graduated scheme for determining the dangerousness of dogs:Gilroy, California Sec. 4-30.
Dangerous dog ordinances are often the strictest kind in terms of penalty. In Lexington-Fayette Kentucky, any vicious dog who inflicts serious injury on a person or domestic animal in an unprovoked attack will be humanely destroyed after a 14-day quarantine period. Lexington, Kentucky, Sec. 14-4.
Many cities have enacted ordinances restricting the ownership of poisonous reptiles or apparently dangerous snakes. For example, in Detroit, Michigan, residents are prohibited from keeping snakes or other reptiles except turtles under 15 inches in length. Detroit, Michigan, Sec. 6-1-4. Stamford, Connecticut has gone a step further to restrict the ownership of poisonous arachnids (e.g., spiders and such) in the city proper. Stamford, Connecticut, Sec. 111-12.
Some municipalities restrict ownership of animals deemed dangerous per se. For example, Des Moines, Iowa outlaws the ownership of wolves, oppossums, constrictor snakes over six feet in length, and piranhas, among others. Des Mones, Iowa, Sec. 18-196(4)(a – o). In contrast, Indianapolis, Indiana simply requires that one register his or her wild animal with the animal care and control division and then post a sign to warn people that a wild or dangerous animal is present on the property. Indianapolis, Indiana, Sec. 531-501 – 507.
The Lexington-Fayette, Kentucky code explicitly lists the “dangerous wildlife” residents are prohibited from owning. Section 4-11.1 follows the list derived from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources which declared the listed species of wildlife to be inherently dangerous to human health and safety. Lexington-Fayette, Kentucky, Sec. 4-11.1.
In addition to laws that address animals that are inherently dangerous to people, municipalities have recognized the inherent danger of certain exotic species to the environment . For instance, in Chicago, Illinois, a freshwater coastal city, there exist ordinances that criminalize the possession or importation of both the snakehead fish and the Asian carp. Chicago, Illinois, Secs. 7-12-380, 385. These invasive, non-native species often wreak havoc on freshwater ecosystems, and such an ordinance reflects a concern unique to that specific municipality.
Many cities establish the city proper as a “bird sanctuary” such that people are prohibited from taking or harassing birds in the area. In Lake Charles, Louisiana:
The entire area embraced within the corporate limits of the City of Lake Charles be, and the same is hereby designated as a Bird Sanctuary.
Lake Charles, Louisiana, Sec. 4-1. (See Also, Mobile, Alabama for a similar designation.)
The provision in Columbia, South Carolina provides a good example of an ordinance that extends this protection to squirrels:
Columbia, South Carolina, Sec. 4-1.
Two subjects seem to arise with frequency in municipal ordinances; they are barking dogs and proper removal of dog waste. Old Orchard Beach, Maine goes so far in its feces removal ordinance to specify that “[f]or the purposes of this section, disposal shall be accomplished by transporting such feces to an appropriate waste receptacle.” Old Orchard Beach, Maine, Sec. 14-7. The city of Salem, Massachusetts requires that an owner or one who has control of a dog in a public area has a duty to possess a means of removal when accompanying the dog. Salem, Massachusetts, Sec. 8-36(b). Medford, Massachusetts devotes six statutory sections to the matter, which ultimately proscribes a $50.00 fine for each occurrence. Medford, Massachusetts, Sec. 6-75. In Gilroy, California allowing a dog to defecate or urinate on private property is deemed a nuisance. Gilroy, California, Sec. 4.11.Nearly every municipality has some ordinance that addresses animal noise. Ostensibly, quantifying what level of noise and for what duration is difficult. The Old Orchard Beach, Maine anti-barking ordinance exemplifies this difficulty, as it prohibits the owning, keeping, or harboring of any dog which by loud, frequent or habitual barking, howling, or yelping disturbs the peace of any person. Old Orchard Beach, Maine, Sec. 14-8. In contrast, the town of Lisbon, Maine makes it clear that the barking must be:Lisbon, Maine, Sec. 6-33.
Anti-barking ordinances oftentimes are couched in nuisance terms; that is, a dog may be deemed a nuisance if he or she barks excessively, destroys property, or engages in any other anti-social behavior. (See the Rockville, Maryland ordinance for example). In Nashua, New Hampshire, the animal noise nuisance ordinance is very specific:Nashua, New Hampshire, Sec. 5-13. In this case, the "nuisance" may then be subject to removal, or, in this case, impoundment. Residents in any municipality should keep in mind removal of a frequently loud animal is the usual recourse under most ordinances.
Ordinances may also fill in a gap left by state law. For example, few states overtly regulate traveling circuses or other animal exhibits through state codes (See the Topic Area on Zoos for more on this subject). In Biloxi, Mississippi, the city has enacted an ordinance prohibits performing animal exhibits or circuses in which animals are induced or encouraged to perform through the use of chemicals, mechanical, electrical or manual devices in any manner which is likely to cause physical suffering or injury to the animals. Also, the ordinance mandates that animals are given sufficient food and water and not tied or staked along any public thoroughfares. Biloxi, Mississippi, Sec. 4-1-8. In a similar vein, Las Vegas, Nevada has an entire section devoted to the duties of professional animal handlers with regard to their animals. Las Vegas, Nevada Chapter 7.40.
Many municipalities regulate the keeping of honey bees. In Dover, Delaware, the location of beehives in relation to schools, museums, and other public buildings is specified. Dover, Delaware, Sec. 18-16. Beekeeping provisions are also outlined by ordinance is Lake Charles, Louisiana and Phoenix, Arizona (Sec. 8-8(f)).
Generally, municipal codes impose a fine or other such monetary penalty for violations. Another available remedy all jurisdictions employ is the use of impoundment. Animals found in violation of a code are subject to seizure, impoundment, and potential euthanasia. Burlington, Vermont specifically lists impoundment as an available remedy in addition to the monetary penalties imposed. Burlington, Vermont, Sec. 5-24.
In Lexington-Fayette, Kentucky, violations of the animal code act as a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine or possible imprisonment:Lexington-Fayette, Kentucky, Sec. 4-34.
East Lansing, Michigan explicitly defines violation of the code as a “municipal civil infraction” incurring graduated penalties for subsequent offenses. East Lansing, Michigan, Sec. 4-6. Detroit categorizes violations as misdemeanors, with a potential penalty of up to $500 or 90 days imprisonment. Detroit, Michigan, Sec. 4-34.
Regardless of the penalty, many municipal ordinance subject overlap similar state laws. Violation of an ordinance may also lead to violation of a state law. Depending on state law concerning double jeopardy (the constitutional prohibition against placing a person in jeopardy twice for the same crime), violators may face prosecution under the harsher state law or both local and state laws.
Municipal codes should do two things: first, they should make clear what rights and responsibilities are provided by the code in a clear and easily understood manner; second, codes should also be organized in a such a way to make finding a section relatively quick and easy. Codes do not necessary need to long and detailed to effect these goals. Rather, it is the codes' organization that enables laypeople to comprehend the terms.
Indianapolis, Indiana is one such municipality with a model animal code. The code itself is separated into various, easy to understand articles on specific animal-related subjects. For example, there are separate articles on Cats and Dogs, Wild or Dangerous Animals, and Impoundment and Disposition of Animals. Further, the code begins with a definitional section that one can cross-reference the terms included in the code. Finally, enforcement of the code (e.g., what remedies the city can pursue if the provisions are violated) are spelled out an entirely separate article that also explains when impoudment of an offending animal is allowed.
Rockville, Maryland's code is similarly subdivided into separate articles based on the subject matter. In its enforcement section, a section is devoted to how a person may seek review of a decision of the Animal Matters Board. This is critical because many actions taken by animal enforcement personnel are summary, in the sense that an animal is taken an impounded, and a decision may be made before an owner has an opportunity to be heard.
There are many other codes available on the map that provide glimpses into what model codes provide. Oftentimes, codes are so complex only attorneys can decipher, or attempt to decipher, their meanings. Moreover, many codes enact laws that clearly conflict with higher state laws or rules set forth by state administrative agencies. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for residents to effectively comply with all laws. Local laws should provide a code that works to the benefit of all without resorting to unnecessary litigation. The best way to achieve this is to be aware of changes to your own municipal code and get involved with the meetings that adopt new provisions.