Full Title Name:  Detailed Discussion of State Cat Laws

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Rebecca F. Wisch Place of Publication:  Michigan State University College of Law Publish Year:  2005 Primary Citation:  Animal Legal & Historical Center 1 Country of Origin:  United States

This discussion analyzes the relevant state laws that affect cats. It also raises and attempts to answer several questions directed to cat owners, including licensing of cats, the feral cat problem, and state vaccination requirements.

I. History and Introduction

It is believed that cats have been domesticated as pets for thousands of years.   Cats have been central both as an efficient means of pest control and as companions for their humans.   In the United States, cats have been present with European settlers since the 1600’s.   The historical significance of cats has even been judicially recognized:

The time of its first domestication is lost in the mists of the dawn of history, but it is apparent that the cat was a domestic animal among the early Egyptians, by whom it came to be regarded as sacred, as evidenced by the device of Cambyses during his invasion of Egypt B. C. 525 or 527, which could scarcely have been feasible if the animal was then wild. From that day to this it has been a dweller in the homes of men. In no other animal has affection for home been more strongly developed, and in none, when absent from home, can the animus revertendi be more surely assumed to exist.

Thurston v. Carter , L.R.A. 1915C,359, 112 Me. 361, 92 A. 295, Am.Ann.Cas. 1917A, 389 (1914).  (For a truly historical note on cat laws, see Chapter 6, entitled "The Cat and the Law" from photographer and art critic, Karl Van Vechten's, The Tiger in the House (1922) available at http://petcaretips.net/cat-law-history.html ).

In fact, more people select cats than dogs as household companions in the United States.   Despite the popularity of this feline friend, laws that specifically regulate cats are few and far between.   An examination of the laws affecting cats, both historic and present, is instructive.

Historically, cats were exempt from larceny laws, despite their relative importance to the household.   This stemmed not from the disdain many claim to have for cats due to their elusive and independent nature, but rather due to their lack of commercial importance.   Indeed, the penalty for stealing another person’s cattle under British common law was death; lawmakers felt such a penalty was not fitting for a creature of no economic importance.

But it is urged that the cat is not the subject of larceny, and therefore its owner can have but a qualified property therein. Among the ancient Britons it was held to have intrinsic value, and the theft of a cat was punishable by fine. When, however, larceny became punishable capitally, the courts, to mitigate the severity of the law, held that certain animals were not the subject of larceny as not fit for food, or as base, or as kept only for pleasure, curiosity, or whim. They are instanced by Blackstone, as "dogs, bears, cats, apes, parrots, and singing birds, because their value is not intrinsic, but depending only on the caprice of the owner." 2 Com. § 393. And Hawkins, speaking of the subjects of larceny, says: "Thirdly, they ought not to be things of a base nature, as dogs, cats, foxes, monkeys, ferrets, and the like, which, howsoever they may be valued by their owner, shall never be so regarded by the laws, that for their sakes a man shall die." 1 Hawk. P. C. 214; 1 Gabb. Cr. L. 579. Me 1914.

Thurston v. Carter , L.R.A. 1915C,359, 112 Me. 361, 92 A. 295, Am.Ann.Cas. 1917A, 389 (1914).

Thus, history has not endowed United States' state codes with many laws relating to cats.   Certainly, the advent of anti-cruelty laws has been a remarkable step for the protection of both domestic and wild creatures.   However, the regulation of other aspects of cat ownership has not followed suit.  T he majority of cat-related laws address the same concerns as dog laws; that is health and licensing.  

Most states have not adopted specific “cat codes” as they have “dog codes.”   Three states, California, Maine, and Rhode Island, appear to be the exception.   It should be noted that some states have entitled sections dealing with dogs as cats as simply “Animal Control” while others have added the word “Cats” under traditional dog sections to include both pets.   (See, Minnesota’s Chapter 347 “Dogs and Cats” and Oklahoma’s Title 4, Chapter 3, "Dogs and Cats" but note that most of the statutes contained therein address dogs).   This change to include cats under the purview companion animal statutory sections may reflect a shift to recognize the increasing ownership of cats and the concomitant issues that have arisen.

This disparity in laws begs the question:   why are laws affecting dogs so extensive while those dealing with cats are few and far between?   Again, history lends an answer:

Acting upon the principle that there is but a qualified property in them [dogs], and that, while private interests require that the valuable ones shall be protected, public interests demand that the worthless shall be exterminated, they have, from time immemorial, been considered as holding their lives at the will of the legislature, and properly falling within the police powers of the several states. Laws for the protection of domestic animals are regarded as having but a limited application to dogs and cats; and, regardless of statute, a ferocious dog is looked upon as hostis humani generis , and as having no right to his life which man is bound to respect.

Sentell v. New Orleans & C.R. Co. , 166 U.S. 698, 17 S.Ct. 693, 41 L.Ed. 1169 (1897).  

This statement more or less embodies the underlying reason as to why every state has some form of a “dog code,” while very few even address specific cat concerns.   Dogs have historically been the symbol of the hydrophobic, marauding beast, ravaging small children and livestock alike.   Cats, by virtue of their general overall size and jaw strength, were not seen as a threat to civilized society.   Further, cats in agricultural locations kept to themselves in barn communities, surviving with little concern or connection to human life.  As times change, however, so do the concerns of pet owners.


II. Questions for Human Companions of Cats

In present times, cats have become a permanent fixture in the homes of many Americans.   With this, come the usual animal concerns related to property damage and trespass as well as the continuing concern of cats spreading disease to human companions.   But, the popularity of cats has created a new and unique concern.  Overpopulation fed by human neglect has created the phenomenon of urban-dwelling, feral cats.  This overview will examine the pertinent state cat laws in existence with an attempt to answer those questions that implicate cat ownership.  It should be kept in mind that most laws that affect cats are enacted at the local or municipal level.  This paper will not delve specifically into municipal codes, but a future paper is expected to address local cat control with an examination of various ordinances.

A.  Which States Have Laws Specific to Cats?

Laws may pursue form over function.  Case in point is the fact that some states even have adopted "state cats" (although an examination of state symbol law reveals that many states have adopted a litany of “state symbols,” including dance, food, insect, and drink).   For example, the official Maine cat is, of course, the Maine coon cat.   1 M.R.S.A. § 217 .   Maryland’s state cat is the calico ( MD Code, State Government, § 13-317 ), and Massachusetts state cat is the tabby cat.   M.G.L.A. 2 § 30 .

With regard to laws that actually regulate cats, California has the most comprehensive section, which outlines the minimum time for weaning kittens, yearly veterinary requirements, and holding periods for impounded cats among others.   West's Ann.Cal.Food & Agric.Code § 31751 et. seq .   This section also has a comprehensive policy statement on the issue of feral cats (see infra for more on this issue).  Maine addresses the seizure of stray cats and vaccination requirements specific to cats.   7 M. R. S. A. § 3916, ME ST T. 7 § 3916 et. seq .   Rhode Island’s relevant cat law deals exclusively with the concern of roaming and feral cats under its “Cat Identification” act.   RI ST 4-22-1 et. seq.   Only a few states do not seem to have statewide provisions that specifically address cats by name, including Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Ohio, and Washington.   For the most part, laws affecting cats fall under the ambit of animal control laws that concern vaccination against rabies.

B.  Do Cats Need to be Licensed in All States?

Licensing of domestic animals may be mandated at the either state or local level.   All states require some sort of licensing for dogs.   Cats, however, are not required to be licensed by state law in any state except Rhode Island.   For example, in Colorado under the Control and Pet Licensing provisions, the requirements for licensing of dogs are specifically outlined, while anything specific to cats is left at the municipal level.

(1)(a) The board of county commissioners of any county may adopt a resolution for the control and licensing of dogs as provided in this part 1. Such resolution may:
( VII) Establish such other reasonable regulations and restrictions for the control of dogs and other pet animals as the board of county commissioners may deem necessary.

CO ST § 30-15-101 .

Similarly, in New Hampshire, local units of government are given the decision as to whether to mandate cat licensure.

The governing body of a municipality may vote to license cats in a similar manner as it licenses dogs. If a municipality elects to license cats, the same penalties shall apply for unlicensed cats as for unlicensed dogs, and the provisions of RSA 466:6-a and 466:8 of the preceding subdivision shall not apply to cats. If a municipality elects to license cats, it shall also develop a procedure similar to the procedure in RSA 466:4, III and 466:6 for group licensure. If a municipality elects to license cats, it shall require cats to have a form of identification, including, but not limited to a tattoo, collar, surgically implanted microchip or ear tag, or any other form approved by the commissioner of agriculture, markets, and food. The commissioner of agriculture, markets, and food shall adopt rules, under RSA 541-A, relative to the forms of identification.

NH ST 466:13-a.

Licensing of dogs is not just important as a mark of ownership, but also demonstrates an up-to-date rabies vaccination.   In Mississippi, both dogs and cats are required to be inoculated against the rabies virus.   While owners must obtain a certificate of rabies inoculation for both dogs and cats from the veterinarian, only dogs are required to wear tags showing current inoculation.   MS ST 41-53-1 – 41-53-13 .  

In Virginia , the licensing of cats is again considered a local concern:

A. It shall be unlawful for any person to own a dog four months old or older in this Commonwealth unless such dog is licensed, as required by the provisions of this article.

B. The governing body of any county, city or town may, by local ordinance, prohibit any person from owning a cat four months or older within such locality unless such cat is licensed as provided by this article.

VA ST § 3.1-796.85 .

It even appears that Virginia law may undermine a cat owner's attempt to license his or her cat where a municipality has not adopted a cat licensing ordinance.  Under § 3.1-796.86 ,    “[a]ny person may obtain a dog license or cat license if required by an ordinance adopted pursuant to subsection B of § 3.1-796.85, by making oral or written application to the treasurer of the county or city in which such person resides, accompanied by the amount of license tax and current certificate of vaccination as required by this article.”  [Emphasis added]

In Louisiana, local units of government that decide to charge a license fee for both dogs and cats are required to issue tags to both dog and cat owners.  Both types of companion animals are then required to wear the tag affixed to a collar.

A. Each parish or municipality that levies a license fee on dogs and cats shall issue a metallic license tag to each dog or cat owner who applies therefor and pays the dog or cat license fee imposed by the issuing parish or municipality. The license tag shall contain a license number, the name of the issuing body and the calendar year for which such tag is issued. The tag shall be fastened upon the collar worn by the dog or cat owned or kept by such person. A license certificate shall also be issued for such license fee showing the name and address of the owner, a description of the dog or cat by sex and color, the breed of the dog or cat if known, and the year and number of the license tag. A record of all such information shall be kept by the issuing authority which shall be open to the public during regular business hours.

B. The governing body of each municipality or parish may, by ordinance, fix the sum to be paid annually for the dog or cat license fee, which sum shall not be more than eight dollars for each spayed or neutered dog or cat and not more than sixteen dollars for each unspayed or unneutered dog or cat. However, notwithstanding any provisions to the contrary, the governing body of any municipality or parish with a population in excess of four hundred seventy-five thousand persons may, by ordinance, fix the sum to be paid annually for the dog or cat license fee, which sum shall not be more than eight dollars for each spayed or neutered dog or cat and not more than sixteen dollars for each unspayed or unneutered dog or cat and any such funds derived from said license fee shall be dedicated solely for the capture, control, and housing of stray animals.

LA RS § 2772 .

In contrast, Massachusetts specifically gives the decision as to whether a cat wears the vaccination tags to the cat’s owner:

Whoever is the owner or keeper of a dog or cat in the commonwealth six months of age or older shall cause such dog or cat to be vaccinated against rabies by a licensed veterinarian using a licensed vaccine according to the manufacturer's directions, and shall cause such dog or cat to be revaccinated at intervals recommended by the manufacturer. Unvaccinated dogs and cats acquired or moved into the commonwealth shall be vaccinated within ninety days after the acquisition or arrival into the commonwealth or upon reaching the age of six months, whichever last occurs. It shall be the duty of each veterinarian, at the time of vaccinating any dog or cat, to complete a certificate of rabies vaccination which shall include, but not be limited to the following information: the owner's name and address; a description of the animal, including breed, sex, age, name and distinctive markings; the date of vaccination; the rabies vaccination tag number; the type of rabies vaccine used; the route of vaccination; the expiration date of the vaccine; and the vaccine lot number.

The veterinarian shall issue a tag with each certificate of vaccination. The tag shall be secured by the owner or keeper of such dog or cat to a collar or harness made of suitable material to be worn by the dog or cat; provided, however, that the owner of a cat may choose not to affix a tag to his cat, but shall have the tag available for inspection by authorized persons. In the event that a tag is lost, the owner or keeper of the animal shall, upon presentation of the original vaccination certificate, be issued a new tag.

MA ST § 145B .  [Emphasis added]

Wisconsin grants authority to enact ordinances to license cats to Milwaukee County , the state’s most populous county:

In a county with a population of 500,000 or more, the board may:
(12) Licenses for cats. Enact an ordinance requiring licenses for cats. The ordinance may require a person who owns or keeps a cat within the county's boundaries to pay a license fee, obtain a license tag and otherwise control the cat. An ordinance enacted under this subsection shall require the owner of a cat to present evidence that the cat is currently immunized against rabies before a license may be issued. All proceeds from cat licenses shall be used for licensing, regulating and impounding cats.

W.S.A. 59.79 .

Overall, state law appears almost reluctant to require licenses for cats.  Those states that recognize a need to provide identification and proof of vaccination for feline companions often defer to local levels to implement such ordinances.  The reasons for this may stem both from the perceived independent nature of cats or from a legislative deference to local control of animal issues.  Whatever the reason, cat owners should be aware while most states do not require licensing of cats, municipal ordinances may proscribe extensive requirements.

C.  What are the State Vaccination Requirements for Cats?

The majority of state laws affecting cats concern rabies control.   In Alabama, cat owners like dog owners are required to vaccinate their felines against rabies on a yearly basis.   A certificate proving vaccination is then filed with the owner as well as the local health department.  AL ST § 3-7A-2 .   Many other states also mandate rabies vaccination for cats including Arkansas ( AR ST §  20-19-202 ), Connecticut ( CT ST §  22-339c ), Rhode Island ( RI ST §  4-13-31 ), and Texas ( TX ST §  826.021 ), among others.

Most states require dogs to wear tags showing current rabies vaccination.  Some of these provisions may extend to cats as well.  In Alabama, there appears to be a requirement that cats wear tags at all times.   Failure to comply results in a penalty issued to the owner:

Coincident with the issuance of the certificate of immunization, the rabies officer, his authorized representative, or any duly licensed veterinarian, who provided the certificate shall furnish a serially numbered tag bearing the same number and year as that of the certificate, which tag shall at all times be attached to a collar or harness worn by the dog or cat for which the certificate and tag have been issued.

AL ST § 3-7A-4 .  Further, an owner faces a fine of twice the state approved charge for immunization if his or her cat is found “not wearing the evidence of current immunization as provided herein or for which no certificate of current immunization can be produced, and which is apprehended by an officer or other person charged with the enforcement of this chapter . . ."  AL ST § 3-7A-6 .

In South Carolina , the term “pet” in the vaccination law appears broad enough to encompass cats.  Section 47-5-20(c) specifically defines pet as "only domesticated cats, dogs, and ferrets."  SC ST § 47-5-20(c).   Thus, cats are required to wear tags showing rabies vaccination according to state law:

A pet owner must have his pet inoculated against rabies at a frequency to provide continuous protection of the pet from rabies using a vaccine approved by the department and licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture. Evidence of rabies inoculation is a certificate signed by a licensed veterinarian. The rabies vaccination certificate forms may be provided by the licensed veterinarian or by the department or its designee. The veterinarian may stamp or write his name and address on the certificate. The certificate must include information recommended by the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians. The licensed veterinarian administering the vaccine shall provide one copy of the certificate to the owner of the pet and must retain one copy in his files for not less than three years. With the issuance of the certificate, the licensed veterinarian shall furnish a serially numbered metal license tag bearing the same number and year as the certificate with the name and telephone number of the veterinarian, veterinary hospital, or practice. The metal license tag at all times must be attached to a collar or harness worn by the pet for which the certificate and tag have been issued . . .

SC § 47-5-60 . [Emphasis added]

This conclusion is buttressed by the fact South Carolina assesses a fine if a cat is found at large with no proof of immunization:

The county or municipal animal shelter personnel or governmental animal control officers shall pick up and impound or quarantine any dog running at large or quarantining any cat. To obtain release of his dog or cat, an owner or keeper must satisfy the animal shelter personnel that the dog or cat is currently inoculated against rabies and also pay an impound or quarantine fee determined by the governing body of the county or municipality. Payment of this fee bars prosecution under Section 47-3-50. All fees collected must be delivered to the county or municipal treasurer for deposit in the general fund of the county or municipality.

SC ST § 47-3-40 .  Whether this law is actually interpreted to require cats to wear vaccination tags or whether it is actually enforced as such cannot be determined by an examination of the law or cases.

The import of vaccination laws occurs when a dog or cat is found running at large.  In Colorado, uninoculated animals, which include both cats and dogs, are prohibited from running at large and are subject to destruction.  CO ST § 25-4-610.   In contrast, West Virginia has a unique statute which allows dogs and cats who are vaccinated against rabies to run at large:

Dogs or cats vaccinated in compliance with the provisions of this article may run at large in any area or locality: Provided, That the commissioner of agriculture may, pursuant to article nine of this chapter, exercise his discretion to establish a quarantined area or locality and to require all dogs and cats within the limits of any quarantined area or locality to be confined as provided in article nine: Provided, however, That a county commission or a municipality may adopt and enforce ordinances not inconsistent with the provisions of article twenty of this chapter of the code, as it considers necessary or convenient for the control and management of all dogs in the county, or a portion thereof, vaccinated or not, except as further provided herein: Provided further, That any county commission or municipality may not adopt any ordinance which purports to keep any vaccinated dog from running at large while engaged in any lawful hunting activity; from running at large while engaged in any lawful training activity; or from running at large while engaged in any lawful herding or other farm related activity: And provided further, That the provisions of this section shall not exempt any dog from any quarantine established by or any confinement order required by the commissioner relating to the establishment of a quarantine.

WV ST § 19-20A-8.   This statute, of course, recognizes the ability of local units of government to establish limits to the running at large of animals.

In Wyoming, the board of commissioners for a specific county may establish a rabies control district where owners may have to show proof of vaccination through a rabies certificate and also may “ may adopt such rules and regulations as necessary to implement the program for registration and immunization of dogs and cats in the rabies control district, including the requirement that registered dogs and cats be tagged or marked in such manner as to make them readily identifiable.”   WY ST § 11-31-214 In New Hampshire , an owner must certify under penalty of law that he or she has immunized his or her pet against rabies.   It also appears that absent a rabies quarantine, cats and dogs may run free:

Every dog, cat, and ferret 3 months of age and older shall be vaccinated against rabies. Young dogs, cats, and ferrets shall be vaccinated within 30 days after they have reached 3 months of age. Unvaccinated dogs, cats, and ferrets acquired or moved into the state shall be vaccinated within 30 days after purchase or arrival, unless under 3 months of age, as specified above. Every dog, cat, and ferret shall be revaccinated at such intervals and with such vaccines as the commissioner shall specify from time to time. In rabies infected areas, dogs, cats, and ferrets recently vaccinated shall be kept under control for at least 30 days before being allowed to run free.

NH ST § 436:100 .  [Emphasis added]

While many of the statutes discussed mandate vaccination for cats, few mandate the wearing of a collar or tags.  Again, the perceived distinction between cats and dogs appears to be a factor. 

D.  Why Aren’t Cats Required to be Leashed or Collared?

The answer to this question may have a multitude of answers.   Again, historically cats roamed agricultural areas as a means of pest control.   Thus, leashing the cat would impair its ability to catch rodents.   Many cat owners worry about strangulation if cats were required to wear collars.   Some groups contend that restricting a cat to a collar or indoors goes against its basic instinctual nature.  (See, The Feline Resistance at http://www.felineresistance.org for example).  Even communities that desire to impound at large cats under state law are hampered by the lack of state requirements to restrict cats to leashes.  In Mississippi, an attorney general opinion specifically provides that the county authority to regulate dogs at large does not apply to cats.   Op.Attny.Gen. No. 2002-0259.  It should be noted that cat owners now have new and improved leashes and harnesses that allow cats to venture safely outdoors.   In any event, the answer to this question depends in most part on which cat owner you ask.

E.  What About Free-Roaming or Feral Cats?

The State of Wisconsin recently made headlines when the Wisconsin Conservation Congress (a legislatively established congress that acts as an independent advisory board to the state Natural Resources Board) passed a measure to classify free-roaming cats that did not display collars as “unprotected species.”   This measure entitled Question 62 , would have allowed Wisconsinites to kill such domestic cats just as they can kill other “pest” mammals such as starlings or skunks.   Proponents of the measure cite the damage to native fauna, especially species of songbirds, caused by these roaming felines.   Opponents contend the measure is cruel and may be ineffective at curbing the feral cat issue. 

On May 25, 2005 at the regular meeting of the Natural Resources Board, representatives of the Conservation Congress told the Board that the Congress' Executive Committee has declined to pursue the issue.  (See the NRB's May 25, 2005 minutes, page 5 at http://dnr.wi.gov/org/nrboard/minutes/M05/0505%20minutes.pdf ).  Feral cat advocates claimed victory in a campaign against the measure that gained national and international attention.  (See Alley Cat Allies at http://www.alleycat.org/wi.html ).

In 2002, the City of Akron, Ohio adopted an ordinance that allows the animal control department to trap any free-roaming cat based on the complaint of any resident.   (See, http://www.ci.akron.oh.us/Temporary_Pages/cats.htm .   Note that t he city website does not contain a link to the actual text of the ordinance.  The group formed in response to the passage of the law (CHAP – Citizens for Humane Animal Practices) contains a reproduction of the text at http://www.saveourcats.org/akron_ordinance.htm .  Also see Lexis-Nexis’ library of municipal codes at http://municipalcodes.lexisnexis.com/codes/akron/ ).   CHAP states that some e stimates show 82% of the cats impounded were killed on the first day of impoundment despite state law that requires a three-day holding period.  This group also suggests that some of the citizen complaints were actually neighbors retaliating against one another.  Despite heavy criticism from various groups, as well as a challenge by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), the ordinance remains in effect.

So what is at the heart of the "free-roaming" cat controversy?   As with most legal issues, two property interests lie at the heart of the debate.   Property owners cite destruction of their homes and yards from roaming cats as well as nuisance caused by noise and odor these cats produce.  State law in general shows a lack of direction in dealing with these conflicting interests.  Indeed, in Maine, for example, cats are not included in the definition of “animal” under the animal trespass statute.

6. Definition. For purposes of this section, the term "animal" does not include cats.

ME ST T. 7 §4041 .  Further, outdoor cat owners suggest most laws do not mandate the restriction of cats to indoor areas, and that domestic cats have an inherent need to roam.  This then leads to reproducing, free-roaming neighborhood cats:

Domestic cats have become America 's most popular choice for pets, and an estimated 9-12% of households feed "free-roaming" [FN1] neighborhood cats. [FN2] Almost 40% of the estimated seventy million cats in the United States may live a free roaming lifestyle without control of reproduction. [FN3]

A Public Policy Toward the Management of Feral Cats , Shawn Gorman and Dr. Julie Levy, 2 Pierce L. Rev. 157 (2004).   Wildlife lovers who express an aesthetic or recreational interest in observing small mammal and wild bird species also enter the debate.   Indeed, these groups contend that free-roaming cats represent an issue of non-indigenous species threatening native wildlife species.   I n a strict ecological sense, the domestic cat is an exotic species in the U.S.  This is not so under the law and in the court of public opinion.   Shawn Gorman and Dr. Julie Levy note that in the federal regulations that implemented the original 1900 Lacey Act (the primary federal law to control the illegal trade in exotic wildlife), the domestic cat is not considered an injurious species.   2 Pierce L. Rev. 157 (2004).   Id .  

The real problem stems from public acceptance of the cat as free-roaming has which has led to the almost intractable problem of feral cats.  Feral cats, which vary slightly in definition under states laws (see infra ), are those cats who live in the wild and are completely unsocialized with humans.  Since cats can reproduce exponentially, with one female cat capable of birthing as many as four litters of kittens per year.  (See, http://www.hsus.org/animals_in_research/species_used_in_research/cat.html ) colonies of feral cats can become a public health and nuisance crisis.  The situation is fed by humans who regularly abandon further unsterilized cats rather than take them to an animal shelter.  However, t he majority of state laws are ambiguous regarding the status of feral cats.  

As a result, feral cats have become a local issue.  While the Akron ordinance represents a "zero tolerance" policy toward the problem, many feline proponents advocate what is termed the "TNR method – Trap, Neuter and Release."   Using privately donated funds, volunteers maintain the colonies with food and veterinary case after trapping and sterilizing the members to prevent successive growth.   Advocates claim this is not only the most humane way of dealing with feral cats, but also uses the least public resources.   (See the Feral Cat Coalition at http://www.feralcat.com/ ).    

Other experts disagree.   In the article, Feral Cat Colonies in Florida: The Fur and Feathers are Flying , Pamela Jo Hatley writes that many conservationists and wildlife biologists oppose the TNR method.   18 J. Land Use & Envtl. L. 441   (Spring 2003).   Hatley claims that t his method may indirectly encourage irresponsible owners to abandon their cats in the wild instead of taking them to the shelter to face euthanasia.   Id.   The problem lies with the owners, and legal action under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Endangered Species Act, and state and federal wildlife laws would encourage accountability at the source.   Similarly, Gorman and Levy, supra , propose that the best avenue to control feral cats lies with either the federal Endangered Species Act or local municipal ordinances.   Under the ESA, the authors suggest certain populations of feral cats may pose such a threat to native wildlife species as to constitute a “taking.”   Id.   This would enable state and federal control of these colonies in a concerted effort to eliminate the problem:

. . . [O]n the national level, the Department of the Interior should strategically utilize the ESA to regulate feral domestic cats. In doing so, the agency should be permitted to use its discretion when applying the "best available scientific and commercial data" to individual ecosystems. This practice will inevitably lead to situations where feral domestic cats are not removed from areas due to an increase of adverse impacts to the native wildlife. Courts should not interpret this as inaction and failure of the Department to protect listed species, but rather the proper utilization of its resources.

On the state and local level, governments should work with the public to control unwanted cats. Plans should include educating the public on the importance of sterilizing their cats and other pets and preventing possible predation of native wildlife. Plans could also incorporate stiffer penalties for those who fail to follow ordinances requiring sterilization and confinement. By providing the public with the option of humanely reducing the population, governments give the public the option of becoming responsible pet owners while retaining the option to utilize other means to control the population if the public fails to act.

2 Pierce L. Rev. 157 (2004), p.180-181.

Regardless of the side one takes on the feral cat issue, it is plain that very few states address the feral cat issue on a statewide basis.   Those that do address feral cats do so in a definitional section, rather than a full-on section pertaining to the control of these animals.   Virginia is unique in its definitional treatment of feral cats in that it defines a feral cat as a companion animal:

The following words as used in this chapter shall have the following meanings:
"Companion animal" means any domestic or feral dog, domestic or feral cat , nonhuman primate, guinea pig, hamster, rabbit not raised for human food or fiber, exotic or native animal, reptile, exotic or native bird, or any feral animal or any animal under the care, custody, or ownership of a person or any animal that is bought, sold, traded, or bartered by any person. Agricultural animals, game species, or any animals regulated under federal law as research animals shall not be considered companion animals for the purposes of this chapter.

Va. Code Ann. § 3.1-796.66 .  [Emphasis added]

This may inure certain rights and actions under law to those owners who care for such animals, including anti-cruelty laws and the state’s civil recovery for damage to companion animals.   However, while this definition brings feral cats under the ambit of companion animals for owners, a subsequent section states that the retention period for feral animals can be shortened in certain cases:

F. Nothing in this section shall prohibit any feral dog or feral cat not bearing a collar, tag, tattoo, or other form of identification which, based on the written statement of a disinterested person, exhibits behavior that poses a risk of physical injury to any person confining the animal, from being euthanized after being kept for a period of not less than three days, at least one of which shall be a full business day, such period to commence on the day the animal is initially confined in the facility, unless sooner claimed by the rightful owner. The statement of the disinterested person shall be kept with the animal as required by § 3.1-796.105. For purposes of this subsection, a disinterested person shall not include a person releasing or reporting the animal.

Va. Code Ann. § 3.1-796.96 .   Again, in legal terms, this reflects the lessened property interest one has in feral animals.

California is the only state to address the feral cat issue in a comprehensive cat code.   Within California’s section on cats, is a legislative policy statement regarding feral cats.   It provides:

(a) The Legislature finds and declares the following:

(1) Domestic cats' temperaments range from completely docile indoor pets to completely unsocialized outdoor cats that avoid all contact with humans.

(2) "Feral cats" are cats with temperaments that are completely unsocialized, although frightened or injured tame pet cats may appear to be feral.

(3) Some people care for or own feral cats.

(4) Feral cats pose particular safety hazards for shelter employees.

(5) It is cruel to keep feral cats caged for long periods of time; however, it is not always easy to distinguish a feral cat from a frightened tame cat.

(b) For the purposes of this section, a "feral cat" is defined as a cat without owner identification of any kind whose usual and consistent temperament is extreme fear and resistance to contact with people. A feral cat is totally unsocialized to people.

(c) Notwithstanding Section 31752, if an apparently feral cat has not been reclaimed by its owner or caretaker within the first three days of the required holding period, shelter personnel qualified to verify the temperament of the animal shall verify whether it is feral or tame by using a standardized protocol. If the cat is determined to be docile or a frightened or difficult tame cat, the cat shall be held for the entire required holding period specified in Section 31752. If the cat is determined to be truly feral, the cat may be euthanized or relinquished to a nonprofit, as defined in Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, animal adoption organization that agrees to the spaying or neutering of the cat if it has not already been spayed or neutered. In addition to any required spay or neuter deposit, the pound or shelter, at its discretion, may assess a fee, not to exceed the standard adoption fee, for the animal released.

West's Ann.Cal.Food & Agric.Code § 31752.5 .  This policy statement reflects the issue of "ownership" of such cats as well as the local government need for flexibility in dealing with these animals.

Other states have followed suit in at least distinguishing between domestic house cats and those cats who have experienced little human socialization.   Illinois defines a feral cat as:

§ 2.11b. "Feral cat" means a cat that (i) is born in the wild or is the offspring of an owned or feral cat and is not socialized, or (ii) is a formerly owned cat that has been abandoned and is no longer socialized or lives on a farm.

510 ILCS 5/2.11b.   This latter part, which defines a feral cat as one who simply lives on a farm, likely eliminates the long-standing role of “barn cats” who aid farmers by eliminating rodents.

Rhode Island has adopted a “Cat Identification” law that is aimed at reducing the number of unidentified, free-roaming cats.   RI ST § 4-22-1 – 10 .   The stated purpose of the law is to provide protection to cats under law, equal to that dogs now enjoy.   RI ST   § 4-22-1 .   The law mandates that cat owners (other than some limited exceptions) maintain some form of identification on their cats like a tag, microchip, or tattoo.   RI ST   § 4-22-2 (d).   Any cat found “free-roaming” or “feral” as defined by law displaying such visible identification is impounded for five days prior to sale or destruction as opposed to the two day period for unidentified cats.   RI ST   § 4-22-5 .   Essentially, this law reduces the time length required by the state animal control laws for those cats considered “feral.”

Connecticut expressly gives the authority to control feral cats expressly to municipalities:

(a) A municipality may adopt an ordinance requiring the registration, within one year of the adoption of such ordinance, of keepers of feral cats in residential or commercial areas. Such ordinance shall require that any such keeper shall register with the animal control officer for such municipality who shall provide information to the registrant regarding the proper care and management of feral cats. For purposes of this section, "feral cat" means a free-roaming domestic cat which is not owned and "keeper" means any person or organization, harboring, regularly feeding or having in his or its possession any feral cat. Refusal to permit any animal control officer to impound a feral cat shall be deemed evidence of keeping. Such ordinance shall require that such keepers shall provide for the vaccination of such cats against rabies and the sterilization of such cats. Such keeper shall be considered an eligible owner for purposes of the animal population control program established under sections 22-380e to 22-380m, inclusive, provided such cats are adopted from a municipal pound.

(b) A municipality may adopt an ordinance providing that no person owning or keeping any cat shall permit such animal to (1) substantially damage property other than the property of the owner or keeper or (2) cause an unsanitary, dangerous or unreasonably offensive condition. Violation of such provision shall be an infraction.

CT ST  § 22-339d This law reflects what is truly happening to address the feral cat issue.  Either impliedly or expressly, state law considers feral cats a local issue.  Unfortunately, local units are often hampered by a lack of funding to permanently control the feral cat problem.  As suggested by Hatley as well as Gorman and Levy, the feral cat issue will not be resolved absent an effort from all levels of government.  

F.  Are there any Statewide Sterilization Requirements for Cats?

The feral cat population explosion leads many to wonder: do states impose mandatory sterilization for pets?  Most states require sterilization of cats and dogs that are adopted from releasing agencies (pounds, shelters, and the like).  Beyond that, states are somewhat limited as to how to force owners to sterilize their current pets.

In most states, the sterilization laws operate as an agreement signed by a new owner at an releasing agency stating that he or she will have the animal sterilized within the requisite time period.   ( See , 3 P.S. 459-902A – 911A ; AZ ST 11-1022;    KS ST 47-1731   MO ST 27-403.1 ; MT ST 7-23-4202   OK ST T. 4 Sec. 499 et. seq .; RI ST 4-19-16 ; TN ST 44-17-501 – 505 ; TX ST 828.001 – 015 ; UT ST 10-17-101 – 107 ).  States may also word the laws such that failure to comply with the law results in a monetary penalty.  For example, Florida provides a first a legislative public policy statement that the state should reduce the number of unwanted and unneeded puppies and kittens.   In doing so, the state mandates that either the animal control agency sterilize the animal prior to adopting it out or enter into a written agreement with the prospective owner that requires sterilization.   Failure to sterilize the pet within the proscribed time period results in both forfeiture of the deposit and an additional fine.   FL ST 823.15(1) – (3).

Interestingly, New Jersey has gone a step further by providing low-cost sterilization for pets if their owners qualify (generally, individuals who are receiving some form of state or federal assistance).   Owners simply pay a nominal ten dollar fee, which is forwarded to the Animal Population Control Fund.   NJ ST 4:19A1 – 421B-3 .  Such a program reflects a shift in thinking toward incentives versus punishment to encourage responsible ownership of pets.

G.  What happens if my cat is impounded?

Laws regarding the impoundment of dogs and cats are consistent in most states.   Generally, the period of retention for an owner to reclaim his or her pet is between 72 hours and ten days.   As noted in the feral cat discussion, some states have reduced the impoundment period for free-roaming cats.   To reference such laws, go to the Map of State Dog Laws and look for the relevant impoundment laws or see the Detailed Discussion of Dog Impoundment Laws .


III. Conclusion

Whether the reason is history or perceived biology, state laws controlling cats are limited in number and application.  Unfortunately, with cats surpassing dogs as America's favorite pet, the burden has fallen to local governments to implement measures to control unwanted and roaming cats.  This has sometimes led to community conflicts and drastic consequences for free-roaming cats.  Most people recognize the key is responsible pet ownership, achieved through proper immunization and sterilization of feline companions.  Laws, whether state or local, can only operate at the reactionary level; owners must take proactive measures.


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