Philly cracks down on unlicensed dogs

Owner Wendy Schnaars at Rittenhouse Pet Supply has heard good reactions. Vets worry about ethics conflicts.
Owner Wendy Schnaars at Rittenhouse Pet Supply has heard good reactions. Vets worry about ethics conflicts. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 08, 2012

Philadelphia is cracking down on its problem with unlicensed dogs, giving owners more opportunities to register their animals - along with higher penalties if they don't.

The changes affect both owners and providers of services for dogs, including veterinarians, who are bristling at requirements they say conflict with their medical ethics.

The city's newly amended animal code went into effect in mid-February. It expanded the outlets for registering dogs to include veterinarians, groomers, pet shops, even dog walkers in an effort to get more dogs licensed.

The amended code requires those dog-services providers and others to become registered agents for licensing. Previously, owners could register their dogs only with the city.

Those operations now also must report people who decline to license their dog. Offenders face a minimum fine of $500, up from $150 to $300.

Brian Abernathy, chief of staff to the city managing director, said, "The primary purpose for dog licensing is public health," with rabies control the chief concern. Dogs must have proof of rabies shots to be licensed.

Abernathy said the idea for a stricter law came about two years ago, when it was reported that only 5 percent of dogs in the city were licensed.

In the fiscal year ended June 30, about 24,700 dogs had either annual or permanent licenses. Estimates put the number of dogs in the city between 350,000 and 400,000, Abernathy said, and the overwhelming number of unlicensed dogs made it difficult to curb the stray-animal population.

Shops that sell dogs now must have them spayed or neutered unless a dog, with limited exceptions, is specially licensed for breeding. Owners of dogs that are not spayed or neutered must pay an annual licensing fee $24 higher than that for sterilized dogs, which is $16.

The changes have gotten mixed reactions from residents and business owners.

Patrick Wadlanger, walking his two dogs recently in Rittenhouse Square, said he did not know the law had changed. He said he relicenses his dogs each year. The law brings positive change, he said, because it improves minimum standards of care for animals and targets dog fighting.

"If it's going to help stop puppy mills and help people be more responsible," he said, "it's all good."

Wendy Schnaars, owner of Rittenhouse Pet Supply near the square, said plenty of stray animals need adopting. She said had heard only good reactions from her employees and customers to the new law.

To help the law work effectively, pet-shop owners, shelters, kennels, and veterinarians must keep records. Abernathy said he has gotten feedback from veterinarians. "The veterinary community is concerned," he said.

Howard Wellens, veterinarian at Queen Village Animal Hospital, said there are negative repercussions. He thinks the city is putting vets in a difficult situation because under the law they cannot treat a sick animal unless it is registered or the owner registers the dog at the time of service.

"To refuse service to someone without a dog license, I think that's probably unethical," said Wellens. "The threatening part of this, where we have to refuse service, is not a good path."

Abernathy said the city would not come between veterinarians and their canine patients. "Under no circumstances do we expect a vet to turn away a sick animal," he said. "That is not the expectation of the law and not the intent."

Wellens, also president of the Burket-Plack Foundation, a nonprofit that donates money to animal-welfare groups, said the idea looked good but would not work and could end up in court. He said another problem was the cost vets and dog groomers would incur to process registration forms.

"They are dumping it on everybody else because they weren't able to do it," Wellens said of the city. "I am not happy with being the policeman for someone without dog tags."

Abernathy said that stores, shelters, and hospitals can charge a $2 fee for each dog license.

"My goal isn't to hammer small businesses," he said.

Noe Bunnell, owner of Bonejour Pet Supply in Old City, said the law had its pluses and minuses.

"It's a double-edged sword," she said. "I think it has a good idea, but there are people that don't want to pay that extra fee."

Still, Bunnell said, she has dealt with a lot of lost dogs that people bring into her store. If more were licensed and had tags, she said, it would be easier for her to find the owners.

Contact Dan Moberger at

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