Hamilton County dog licenses increase 44 percent
By Norma Bennett Woolf
Reprinted with permission from Dog Owner’s Guide, © October 2001

Owners of licensed dogs will receive a message from the Hamilton County Commissioners this fall: even though you are not responsible for the majority of animal control problems in the county, you must foot the bill to the tune of $13 per dog and $65 per kennel, a fee hike of 44 percent.

In an era when local governments throughout the US realize that animal control is a community problem that requires general budget funding, commissioners John Dowlin and Tom Neyer voted on August 29 to increase the toll on people who already license their dogs.

Citing the unfairness of taxing responsible dog owners for the bulk of enforcement against scofflaws, Commissioner Todd Portune voted against the increase.

The license increase was also opposed by Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes and Ohio Valley Dog Owners Inc. and in a draft document from the Hamilton County SPCA.

In a letter to Dowlin and Neyer dated August 31, Rhodes wrote: "As you know, I am deeply concerned for the continued success of the licensing program given the whopping increase. It is unfair to place the entire burden of supporting a program which benefits everyone on law-abiding dog owners alone."

In testimony presented to the commissioners on August 29, OVDO said: "As population has grown in urban and suburban areas and we have become more aware of animal needs and community safety, the demands on animal control budgets and programs - like other social services - have increased. Unlike other social services, one group of people has been singled out to pay the price - the dog owners who are already abiding by the law. It is unjust to require them to shoulder all or most of the increased financial responsibility for a law enforcement program that benefits all citizens simply because they are easy to find."

The draft document from the SPCA noted: "The sale of dog licenses in Ohio was never intended to support the entire operation of urban dog control. ... At some point, the fact that the auditor's office and SPCA Cincinnati are doing their best with available funds to issue as many licenses as possible needs to be stated. However, dog control services are provided to every citizen of Hamilton County even if they do not own a dog. To supply that service on a superior basis, every citizen must be called upon to support that service."

The new rate places Hamilton County in the upper bracket of dog license fees in the state. Lucas County (Toledo) is higher at $15; Seneca County (south of Lucas County) matches the new Hamilton County fee at $13. Montgomery County (Dayton) has a $12 fee, and Butler, Clermont, and Warren counties adjacent to Hamilton County charge $10. Kennel licenses are available for breeders and hunters at a fee five times the cost of individual licenses in each county. Kentucky dog owners pay $1.50 per dog in Campbell County and $5 per dog in Boone and Kenton counties. The animal shelters in these counties are government agencies and receive the bulk of their funding from county tax revenues.

The law

The situation in Hamilton County and the State of Ohio is a microcosm of animal control nationwide. Here, as in most of the US, dog licenses are mandated by state law, but each county sets its own rates. Dog license money goes into the Dog and Kennel Fund, a budget category originally set up to compensate farmers for the loss of livestock to unidentified marauding dogs. Urban counties see few livestock claims these days, so they use the fund to finance the impoundment and disposition of stray dogs. In Hamilton County, the commissioners contract with the Hamilton County SPCA¹ to provide these services. Cost of the contract increased from $542,400 per year in 1996 to $607,488 in 1999-2000, then to $703,560 in 2001. The contract runs through 2004; increases for 2002 and beyond will be based on salary increases for county employees.

The auditor collects dog license fees in each Ohio county. In Hamilton County, the dog warden was deputized to administer the license program by the previous auditor, but Rhodes resumed that responsibility in 1996. Today, about 60,000 county dogs are licensed, up from about 53,000 in 1996. In an effort to increase licensing and help reunite lost dogs with their owners, Rhodes introduced "Dusty's Dogs," a 24-hour telephone hotline and Internet connection that allows citizens to return a dog directly to its owner instead of calling the SPCA.

From January 1, 2001 to September 3, 2001², Dusty's Dogs received 6272 calls from people seeking to match license numbers on dog tags to the names and addresses of dog owners in the database. Dusty's Dogs can also be accessed from the auditor's website, so these calls do not represent the entire use of the system.

In spite of evidence that license tags can reunite lost dogs with their families, studies⊃3 show that as many as two-thirds of owned dogs in the US are unlicensed. The formula devised by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association⊃4 estimates that 40 percent of American households own at least one dog and 30 percent of dog-owning households have more than one dog. With 60,000 licensed dogs, Hamilton County could be home to more than 110,000 unlicensed dogs.

Who uses the system?

Like many other states, Ohio passed dog license laws in the 1920s as a means of identifying dogs that attacked livestock. If the dogs were licensed, the farmer could find the owner and ask or sue for compensation for dead or injured sheep, cattle, pigs, horses, or poultry. If the dogs were unlicensed, the farmer could get reimbursement from the Dog and Kennel Fund.

As cities and suburbs grew and complaints about loose dogs multiplied, license programs expanded to pay for impoundment of these dogs and fines for failure to license increased. Some governments operated their own animal control agencies and some contracted with non-profit humane organizations to provide the service. Some instituted door-to-door canvasses by dog wardens to sell licenses. Some found that the Dog and Kennel Fund did not cover expenses, so they provided additional money in their county budgets.

According to a study⊃6 by the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, 84 percent of the 131,333 dogs entering shelters in 1996 were strays and only 17 percent were reclaimed by owners. Thus the expenses to impound and house more than 100,000 stray dogs in the state were paid by the relative few who obey the law and buy a dog license. In 1999, the Hamilton County SPCA impounded 4612 stray dogs, returned 1243 to their owners, sold 462, and euthanized 2907. In 2000, the SPCA impounded 4498 dogs, returned 1180 to their owners, sold 336, and euthanized 2982. In the first six months of 2001, the SPCA impounded 2174 dogs, returned 268, sold 139, and euthanized 1757⊃7.
This shelter has a higher than average redemption rate with 27 percent of dogs returned in 1999 and 26 percent returned in 2000. However, the rate for the first six months of this year falls far below that number at 12 percent. One possible reason is the increase in fines for failure to license and failure to confine a dog that can bring the total cost of redemption to more than $218.⊃8

What happens to unclaimed dogs?

Different states have different holding times for impounded stray dogs, but those for Ohio and Kentucky are typical. Ohio law requires that unlicensed stray dogs be kenneled for three days and licensed dogs kept for two weeks. Kentucky law requires that impounded stray dogs be kept for five days. When the required holding period expires, the dogs become the property of the organization or agency to dispose of as they see fit. Dogs that are healthy and have good temperaments are offered for adoption, but if they are not adopted within a reasonable length of time and kennel space is needed for incoming dogs, they, too, are likely to be euthanized.

Criteria for adoptability varies with each shelter and often depends as much on available space as dog health and temperament.

Effectiveness of licensing programs

When states passed dog license laws 70-80 years ago, they could not have foreseen the pressure that would be placed on the system or the evolutionary change in attitude about community animal control as dogs evolved from working partners to members of the family and citizens demanded relief from dogs that roam free, disturb the peace by barking, menace passersby, and destroy property. As communities expanded and people began living in ever-closer quarters, the burden on animal control programs also grew, but by this time, dependence on dog licensing as a source of revenue was cast in stone in many areas and license fee boosts became the norm when costs of impoundment swelled.

Through the years, however, it became evident that the majority of dog owners do not license their pets and that the majority of dogs impounded as strays are unlicensed. Some governments increased the fines for violations of the licensing and confinement laws so that those who fail to license and confine pay for the violation, but some experts say that cost increases lead owners to abandon impounded pets, not reclaim them.

"There are many reasons why licensing has an overall negative effect," said Bob Christiansen in the article "License failures: Here are the reasons why!" ⊃9 from the Save Our Strays website. "The poor simply do not license their pets. As a result, they run scared of authority. They are afraid to make use of any services that will expose them to law enforcement. They do not visit veterinarians, participate in shot clinics, use low-cost spay-neuter programs, or seek health assistance for injured or suffering pets. They do not redeem pets that end up in shelters and often dump pets rather than take them to shelters and face possible fines. When confronted by officials that require payments for fees and fines, owners forsake ownership. After all, the average cost to obtain a new dog is $50-$75, or in some cases, by simply answering an ad in a paper."

Christiansen also said that dog licenses are a tax on pet owners, that stray pets have a "tremendous impact on shelter capacity and are the root cause of high euthanasia rates" and "negatively impact the resources of the system" when they are not reclaimed.

Some Ohio counties deal with dog license scofflaws by sending animal control agents door-to-door to find unlicensed dogs. Some counties approach dog licensing as an identification method so that stray dogs get back home - an identification method mandated by law, and some counties make animal control an integral part of the county budget.


  1. The SPCA recently changed its name to SPCA Cincinnati.
  2. Report from the Hamilton County Auditor's office, September 4, 2001.
  3. Save Our Strays by Bob Christiansen, www.saveourstrays.com
  4. APPMA National Pet Owners Survey 1999-2000, APPMA, 255 Glenville Road, Greenwich, Connecticut 06831; (203) 532-0000. Derived from studies done by the organization, the formula estimates that 40 percent of American households have at least one dog. Hamilton County has about 348,0005 households or 139,200 households with at least one dog if county fits the formula. APPMA indicates that about 30 percent of dog-owning households have more than one dog, so the actual number of dogs in the county could be as high as 175,000.
  5. 1995 count by OKI Regional Council of Governments, http://shade.gaeanet.com/oki/upload_files/1990_2030_County_Household_Projections.PDF
  6. 1996 Ohio Survey of Animal Care and Control Agencies conducted by the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine in collaboration with the Ohio County Dog Wardens Association and the Ohio Federated Humane Societies.
  7. Document from Andy Mahlman, operations manager, Hamilton County SPCA, dated September 4, 2001.
  8. A citation for failure to license costs $118 - the fine plus double the license fee of $9; a citation for failure to confine is an additional $100; and the SPCA charges board for the number of days the dog is impounded. The cost of a failure to license citation will increase on January 1 to $126 - the fine plus double the new $13 license fee.
  9. "License failures: Here are the reasons why!" Save Our Strays by Bob Christiansen, www.saveourstrays.com

Dog Owner's Guide is a Cincinnati-area publication for pet and show dog owners. For information,editor@canismajor.com. To see more articles,www.canismajor.com/dog