Companion Animal Law Blog

Bringing together those whose lives and livelihoods revolve around companion animals


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Virginia Legislative Round Up for 2012 Session

It’s that time of year again! Several bills have already made it on this year’s slate, and a couple more may be added before the session is over. This year’s legislative session looks very promising for companion animals – with one glaring exception.

HB 95 (Bear Hound Training): We start with the one glaring exception. As things stand, hunters can train dogs to hunt bear from a half hour before sunrise until four and a half hours after sunset. This bill would allow this training to occur at night. Last year, the House passed this bill, but the Senate stopped the bill in its tracks.

HB 158 (Devocalization of Companion Animals): This bill makes devocalization a Class One Misdemeanor (punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a fine) unless the operation is necessary to relieve illness, disease, injury or pain. This is another carry over from last year, when this bill ended up getting stuck in the House Committee for Courts of Justice.

HB 363 (Companion Animals in Protective Orders): Once again, this bill ties into a bill from 2011. Last year’s bill would have granted courts explicit authority to include companion animals in domestic violence protective orders. It was resolved by adding language prohibiting acts of abuse or offenses that result in injury to person or “property.” Needless to say, confusion has arisen with this language, and this bill attempts to clarify that a protective order petitioner can be awarded control, custody and care of a companion animal.

For an overview of last year’s legislative session, take a look at this post.  And on to new topics for this year’s session:

HB 537/SB 305 (Dangerous Dog Registry): This bill proposes to place primary responsibility for registering dangerous dogs with animal control officers instead of the State Veterinarian’s office. It would also lengthen the amount of time to obtain the certificate of registration from ten days to 45 days. The certification fee would increase from $50 to $150, but the registration fee that went to the State Vet would be eliminated.

HB 650 (Notice of Euthanasia for Companion Animals): This bill requires city and county pounds to maintain a registry of organizations willing to accept healthy and non-vicious companion animals scheduled to be euthanized, and requires the pounds to give 24 hours’ notice to the organizations prior to euthanizing. This bill also requires pounds to make available annual statistics of impounded animals.

HB 695 (Prohibiting Fox and Coyote Penning): The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has taken this crucial issue head on this year. This bill would make fox and coyote penning a Class One Misdemeanor. If you don’t know about this cruel “sport,” think dog fighting, but using foxes and coyote as bait animals. Read more about it on HSUS’s website.  And, Virginians, you can send a message directly to your legislators on this HSUS site.

HB 888 (Anti-Tethering Ordinances): Virginia is a strong proponent of “Dillon’s Rule,” which dictates that counties, cities and other localities have only those powers that the state has explicitly granted them. This is reflected in Virginia Code Section 3.2-6543, which lays out for localities the types of ordinances they may enact that impact companion animals. Leash laws are explicitly included, but that section does not directly address tethering. Some Virginia localities, such as Alexandria, haven’t let that stop them. But this bill would wisely make it clear that localities can regulate tethering.

Watch for three more bills that are in the works for this year’s legislative session: (1) establishing February 28 as Spay Day; (2) addressing TNR (trap, neuter and return of feral cats); and (3) prohibiting ownership of exotic animals. I’ll post more information on these as they become available.

If you live in Virginia, please reach out to your local legislators on these bills.  And consider joining HSUS and the Virginia Federation of Humane Societies for Humane Lobby Day in Richmond on January 26, 2012!


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Alexandria Animals Score Big Today!

This morning, the City Council in Alexandria, Virginia faced a final vote on two crucial companion animal laws.

The first vote was politically very easy and straightforward — after all, who could possibly disagree that there should be a specific cruelty law to address leaving an animal in a car on a hot day?  The new City Code Section 5-7-58 will punish leaving an animal in a car that is not air-conditioned if the outside temperature is 70 degrees or hotter with a fine, and makes it a jailable offense to leave an animal in a car if the animal suffers heat stress.  The vote took no time, passing 6-0.  There was no debate against the law, and plenty of well-deserved kudos to the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria and its hard-working animal control officers for taking the initiative on this issue.

The political temperature on the next vote was unknown — whether City Council would pass a law that would say definitively that electronic collars don’t cut it under Alexandria’s leash laws.  (Sound familiar?  Who’s said that before…?)  Plenty of speakers came out in support of proposed amendment to the leash law, and no one spoke against it.

After the testimony, Vice Mayor Kerry Donley started the discussion with the comment that this law — like the previous one — was a “no brainer.”  Donley’s first question to the staff was about the penalty for violating the leash ordinance, which is currently a $100 civil fine.  He then asked if that was the most the City could do under state law, and invited the staff to make a recommendation at a later date to stiffen the penalty.  And a discussion of possible harsher penalties for recidivists followed.  Nicely done, Mr. Vice Mayor!

Councilmember Del Pepper praised the ordinance for giving clear guidance to animal control officers and one more welcome tool for the officers.  Councilmember Rob Kupricka commented that electronic collars pose safety issues for the public and not just the animals, and he hoped the new law would aid the officers in confronting off leash dogs.

A crucial question raised by Pepper was how to get the word out to the citizens of Alexandria that electronic collars would no longer suffice as a “leash.”  Joy Wilson, the Director of Animal Control, responded that she plans to focus on educating the public about why the law changed.  Councilmember Frank Fannon had an excellent suggestion about reaching out through Alexandria’s robust pet care industry to spread the news.

After discussion, the City Council voted — once again, unanimously — in support of the change.  With that vote, the City of Alexandria has made it clear that electronic collars pose a sufficient safety threat to the dogs and the public that they will no longer count as “leashes” or “physical restraint” under the leash laws.

Major kudos to Alexandria’s Animal Control Officers and the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria!  As a resident of Alexandria since 1997, I can’t be more proud!  Thanks for all you do and congratulations on this huge victory for the animals!


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Alexandria, Virginia Steps Up Safety For Companion Animals

Tomorrow morning at 9:30 AM, the Alexandria City Council is poised to pass two ordinances aimed at companion animal safety.

The first ordinance is not a new topic for this blog –whether electronic collars qualify as “leashes” under Alexandria’s leash laws. The City Council is addressing this issue head on, and if this ordinance passes, will say unequivocally that a shock collar does not qualify as a leash. This law is a welcome step in the path of countries like Wales, which recently banned electronic collars.

Here is the gist of proposed amendment to Alexandria’s ordinance from the definitions section in Section 5-7-31 (j), with new language in bold and italics:

(j) Run or running at large. Roaming or running off the premises of its owner not under the control of its owner or a responsible person capable of physical restraining the dog and not secured by a leash, lead or other means of physical restraint, which leash, lead or other means of physical restraint is not harmful or injurious to the dog and which is held by a responsible person capable of physically restraining the dog. An electronic collar or other similar electronic device does not qualify as a leash, lead or other means of physical restraint.

Similar changes prohibiting electronic collars will carry through to Section 5-7-33.1, addressing dogs running at large, and Section 5-7-35, Alexandria’s leash law. You can see all of the proposed changes and further discussion on the proposed ordinance on the City of Alexandria’s website.

The second ordinance addresses locking animals in hot cars. The proposed law would make it a misdemeanor punishable by a fine for confining an animal in a car if the outside temperature is 70 degrees or hotter and the car is not properly air conditioned. The law would also make it a crime punishable by a fine and up to twelve months in jail for leaving an animal unattended if the animal suffers heat stress.

Here is the full language of proposed Section 5-7-58:

Sec. 5-7-58 Confinement of animals in vehicles prohibited.
(a) Any person who confines an animal in an unattended, enclosed vehicle where the outside temperature is 70 degrees Fahrenheit or greater, and the interior of the vehicle is not provided with conditioned air to maintain an internal temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit or less, shall be guilty of a Class 3 misdemeanor.
(b) Any person who confines an animal in an unattended, enclosed vehicle so as to cause the animal to suffer from heat stress as diagnosed by a licensed veterinarian, shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor. The Animal Control Officer or other officer shall have the authority to remove any animal found in an enclosed vehicle that appears to be suffering from heat stress. The animal shall be provided immediate veterinary care. The animal owner or custodian shall be responsible for all expenses incurred during the removal of the animal or its subsequent treatment and impoundment.
(c) In the event that the person responsible for the violation cannot be ascertained, the registered owner of the vehicle, as required by Chapter 6 of Title 46.2 of the Code of Virginia (1950), as amended, shall constitute in evidence a prima facie presumption that such registered owner was the person who committed the violation.
Section 2. That this ordinance shall become effective upon the date and at the time of its final passage.

Again, you can check the City’s website for more information on Section 5-7-58.

As a resident of Alexandria since 1997, it will make me very proud to see both of these ordinances pass tomorrow!  Check here for more information on the Saturday, November 12, 2011 9:30 AM docket.


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Wales Prosecutes its First Shock Collar Case

Back in November, I reported on legislation banning shock collars in Wales. This week, BBC reports that a Welsh prosecutor named David Prosser became the first to successfully prosecute under the new legislation.

When Welsh legislators were first considering the ban, animal welfare groups such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other organizations, including the Kennel Club, came out in support of the ban. These organizations called shock collars “cruel and unnecessary,” and pointed to shock collars’ potential to harm animals.

Others opposed the ban, claiming that the evidence and science did not demonstrate that shock collars harm animals, and arguing that shock collars are effective tools to protect and train animals.

In March 2010, the National Assembly for Wales unanimously passed legislation banning the use of any collar emitting an electronic shock for dogs and cats. A violation of the law is punishable by imprisonment and/or a fine.

After the law came into effect, Petsafe, Ltd, a pet product manufacturer, and the Electronic Collar Manufacturer Association challenged the law. But the High Court in Wales rejected their challenge and upheld the legislation in November 2010.

This week, a Welsh court convicted the first person of violating the shock collar ban. Phillip Pook owns a border collie who is a notorious fence climber and escape artist. Six months before the ban took effect, Pook bought a collar designed to emit an electronic shock if his dog approached a wall on his property. Pook claimed he did not know the law had changed, but the prosecution introduced evidence that Pook was warned about the new law. The court convicted Pook and sentenced him to a fine of £2000 (about $3200).

I’m glad to see a law that bans shock collars not only for training, but also for use with an electronic fence. And I am amazed and comforted to see that the Welsh legislators were unanimous in passing the ban. Currently, the UK and Scotland are considering similar legislation. The BBC reports that there are about 500,000 shock collars in the UK, with about 20,000 of those in Wales.  If you would like to know how local jurisdictions treat shock collars, take a look at this post.


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Justice For All — Including Our Four-Legged Friends!

Elizabeth on site

Elizabeth in her new home

As we finish out Be Kind To Animals Week, I am very pleased to announce that, just last week, Annette Thompson of Goochland County was convicted of six counts of failure to provide adequate care to dogs in her care, in violation of Virginia Code Section 3.2-6503.

Over a period of years, Ms. Thompson, along with her purported rescue, Pet Rescue Foundation, has had from 100 to 300 dogs on her property. When times were too tough for Ms. Thompson to care for the animals, she would call for help. Individuals and several local rescues – Homeward Trails, A Forever Home and HART – answered the call by donating food, taking in animals, and spending thousands of dollars on veterinary care.

But the do-gooders realized something was amiss when the number of dogs on Ms. Thompson’s property did not decrease, and the animals they pulled from the property continued to show serious medical conditions. Left with no options, they opted to present evidence to a Goochland County magistrate, who charged Ms. Thompson with failure to provide adequate care for the dogs.

The complainants successfully prosecuted the case in Goochland General District Court, and Ms. Thompson appealed. Last week, Commonwealth Attorney Claiborne Stokes presented evidence of six dogs in Ms. Thompson’s care to Goochland County Circuit Court Judge Cullen.

Sid on site and on the chain

The first dog Judge Cullen heard about was Sid, a gorgeous Akita mix who was left chained in Ms. Thompson’s driveway. Although Virginia law does not prohibit tethering a dog, it does require any tether to be at least three times the length of the animal, from the tip of the nose to the base of the tail. Sid is 45” long. The chain Sid was on was only about 1 ½ times his length – half of what was required by Virginia law.  (The beautiful black and white photo in this post is Sid — off of his chain and happy in his new home!)

The remaining five dogs suffered from a variety of untreated ailments, with the common denominator being heartworm.

The most egregious of the five was Elizabeth, a sweet Chow mix who could barely get around due to arthritis, a neurological condition and age. Elizabeth’s ears were torn up by fly strike, and she had open wounds on her back where insects had attacked her. Elizabeth was rescued in October 2009, and taken to the veterinarian the next day. Elizabeth was underweight, starved for human interaction and filthy with flea dirt. She tested positive for heartworm and hookworm. Elizabeth was successfully treated, and currently lives with a foster.

Two other dogs, Gingersnap and Birdy, were rescued by Homeward Trails in December 2009. Both tested positive for heartworm. Birdy also tested positive for whipworm. They were both successfully treated.

Gingersnap on the property

Birdy resting in her new home

The last two dogs, Jack-O and Aunt May, were rescued in April 2009. Both tested positive for heartworm. Jack-O also suffered from kidney disease which made it unsafe to treat the heartworm, and he ultimately had to be euthanized. Aunt May also suffered from other ailments along with the heartworm, and was euthanized.

Ms. Thompson’s defense was a claim that she was treating the dogs on her property with ivermectin for heartworm prevention. However, her heartworm protocol did not involve veterinary care or testing for heartworm before administering the preventative. She presented no records whatsoever for the dogs in her care – no veterinary records, no heartworm tests, and no information that she was weighing the dogs to ensure proper dosage, giving the proper amount of ivermectin or keeping a consistent schedule.

Judge Cullen saw through Ms. Thompson’s alleged defenses, understood the duties imposed by the law, and convicted on all counts. For a variety of reasons, many, many more counts could have been presented for the numerous other animals who suffered on Ms. Thompson’s property. Nonetheless, these six convictions represent a great victory – against the notions that it’s OK to tether animals and self-medicate without consulting a veterinarian. Additionally, these convictions will bar Ms. Thompson from being able to operate a rescue or serve as a foster for a rescue.

Jack-O

I’m grateful for the role I played in counseling the complainants and earning some justice for these dogs.  Hearty congratulations to all involved with this trial!

DISCLAIMER:  CASE RESULTS DEPEND UPON A VARIETY OF FACTORS UNIQUE TO EACH CASE.  CASE RESULTS DO NOT GUARANTEE OR PREDICT A SIMILAR RESULT IN ANY FUTURE CASE UNDERTAKEN BY A LAWYER.

Aunt May


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Missing the Mark: Saginaw’s Misguided Dangerous Dog Ordinance

Officials in Saginaw, Michigan have been working on ordinances purportedly aimed at dog owner responsibility.  This could be a welcome change.  The current version of Saginaw’s “Animals, Birds and Bees” ordinance, Section 94.04, falls within Saginaw’s “public nuisance” laws, and fails to address even the most basic issues, such as a leash law.  One proposed ordinance is squarely aimed at owner responsibility, adding long overdue measures to Section 94.04.

First, Saginaw will add a leash law and prohibit tethering in most circumstances.  Owners would be required to keep dogs on leash.  Dogs could not be chained or tethered outside of the dogs’ “kennel, pen or fenced yard,” unless someone has physical control of a leash.  An inanimate object such as a tree, post or building will not cut it.  The requirement of physical control indicates that shock collars will not count in Saginaw.  This is a great step – with the caveat that the law should be clarified to state that a dog cannot be chained or tethered even if the dog is on the owner’s property.

Second, all dogs would need to be securely confined indoors or in adequately lighted and ventilated kennels.  If a dog is confined indoors, the dog would not be able to exit on the dog’s own volition.  Presumably, that means no more doggie doors in Saginaw.  And, thankfully, no more dogs left outside unattended.

Third, Saginaw residents would be limited to three dogs per household.  This three-dog limit would not apply to animal care and control organizations, rescues, registered foster homes, and certain service dog and hunting dog breeders.  Commercial breeders and brokers would be required to register with the City Clerk and obtain a business license.

Officials in Saginaw did not stop at overhauling Section 94.04.  They are proposing a second ordinance targeting “dangerous dogs.”  Unfortunately, this ordinance completely misses the mark and has virtually nothing to do with owner responsibility.

This ordinance will require the owners of “dangerous dogs” to register the dogs, and adhere to leash and confinement standards.  The owners will also have to pay a $20 registration fee and obtain and display signs indicating the presence of a dangerous dog on their property.  Failure to comply with the ordinance would result in civil fines.

The heart of problem is the proposed definition of a “dangerous dog” as any dog:

  1. with a propensity, tendency, or disposition to attack, to cause injury or to otherwise endanger the safety of” people or companion animals; or
  2. that attacks, attempts to attack or that, by its actions, gives indication that it is liable to attack a human being or other domestic animal one or more times without provocation; or
  3. of a breed that appears consistently in the top five (5) of the breeds on credible, analytical listings of “Most Dangerous Dogs” as verified and supplemented by local data and records for Saginaw County, including mixes.

Saginaw has inexplicably chosen to focus on breeds and dogs it believes may attack, rather than on individual dogs with demonstrably aggressive behavior.  The current list of “most dangerous dog” breeds in Saginaw include:  pit bull, Rottweiler, German Shepherd, Bull Mastiff (Presna Canario) and Alaskan Malamute.  Saginaw will purportedly look to “credible,
analytical listings” to update their list annually.  Saginaw apparently forgot to look at statistics in the UK showing the three most aggressive dog breeds as Dachshunds, Chihuahuas and Jack Russell Terriers!

The simple truth is that focusing on breed will not decrease the number of dog bites.  According to a comprehensive 2009 study by the National Canine Research Council, the three predominant factors with dog bites are whether the dog:

  1. is a resident dog (kept primarily outdoors, used for guarding, protection, fighting or breeding, rather than a pet/family dog);
  2. is intact; and
  3. has a reckless, irresponsible owner.

Notice that breed is not one of these factors.  With its recent overhaul of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Department of Justice (DOJ) agrees that the focus should be on the individual dog and not breed.  The ADA already condones the refusal to provide access to a service dog if an individual dog shows specific signs of aggression.  But the DOJ unequivocally refuses to bow to jurisdictions with breed bans.  This is leading to a nasty battle in Denver, where officials are refusing to exempt service dogs in Denver’s breed ban.  At least Saginaw was not so stubborn, exempting service dogs from its dangerous dog ordinance.

Although Virginia’s dangerous dog statute isn’t perfect, it does focus on individual dogs and specific aggressive behavior.  To be classified as a dangerous dog, Virginia requires an actual bite.  Last year, the General Assembly considered expanding the dangerous dog designation to dogs who “attempt to bite.”  Fortunately this bill died quickly in committee.  Additionally, Virginia refuses to bow to breed stereotypes, with the following language right in the dangerous dog statute:

No canine or canine crossbreed shall be found to be a dangerous dog or vicious dog solely because it is a particular breed, nor is the ownership of a particular breed of canine or canine crossbreed prohibited.

With Saginaw’s proposed leash, confinement and supervision requirements and a limit on the number of dogs a household can have, Saginaw will accomplish a great deal to increase owner responsibility and decrease the number of resident dogs.  If Saginaw wants more effective laws, research shows that focus on the spay/neuter issue rather than breed will go further to reduce the number of dog bites.

Laws requiring leashes and spay/neuter programs are not the only way to get at owner responsibility.  Education is also necessary.  The more we learn about animal behavior, the better.  At last Friday’s Mid-Atlantic Animal Law Symposium in Baltimore, Maryland, one participate raised the issue of humane education in schools.  If we could emphasize just three areas, we could do a great deal to better the bond between dogs and owners, and thereby decrease the number of dog bites:

  1. Learn how to read dogs’ body language.  The ASPCA’s website page on canine body language has a quick reference guide for starters.
  2. Never leave dogs unsupervised with children.  So many dog bites are to children.  Simple supervision, teaching a child not to approach a dog unless the child asks the owner for permission, and showing the child how to pet the dog appropriate would go far to decrease the number of dog bites.  Dogs & Storks has wonderful information about how to prepare the family dog for a new baby, and lots of other helpful information regarding dogs and children.
  3. Socialize, socialize, socialize.  Dr. Ian Dunbar has championed the importance of puppy socialization, and how socialization allows a puppy to become a well-adjusted adult dog.  Here’s a great video with Dr. Dunbar on the topic of dog bites and the tie to fear and lack of socialization.

The Saginaw City Council will introduce its proposed ordinances on April 18, and the ordinances are slated to be enacted May 9 and become effective May 19.  If Saginaw’s real purpose is to increase owner responsibility and decrease the number of dog bites, I encourage the Council to adopt the ordinance expanding Section 94.04, but ditch its dangerous dog ordinance.


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What Happens If My Dog Gets Picked Up As A Stray?

You let Fido out in your fenced-in back yard while you go grocery shopping one day.  Little do you know, the gate latch is coming undone, and a gust of wind blows the gate open.  Fido gets out and has a fun romp through the neighborhood.   A friendly animal control officer captures Fido, fortunately without incident.  The officer leaves you a voicemail message that Fido is fine, but that she’s taking him to the pound because Fido is not licensed and registered. 

You don’t understand why Fido had to go to the pound.  He was wearing his tags with your contact information and proof of his rabies vaccination.  On the way to the pound, you ask yourself whether the animal control officer had the right to impound Fido.

In fact, the animal control officer had no choice but to impound Fido.  Of course you can reclaim Fido, but the pound can and will require you to license and register your dog and pay any connected license and impoundment fees before you can take Fido home.

Virginia Code Section 3.2-6562 requires officers to capture and confine “any companion animal of unknown ownership running at large on which the license fee has not been paid.”  The pound must comply with the holding period required by Section 3.2-6546.  That holding period requires the pound to hold an animal for five days while it attempts to locate the owner.  If the pound can ascertain who the rightful owner is, it must hold the animal an additional five days to give the owner time to claim the animal.  The law gives the pound the right to require the owner to pay the license fee and all impoundment costs before returning the animal to its owner.

If the rightful owner doesn’t step up, the animal is deemed “abandoned” and becomes the property of the pound.  The pound may arrange for adoption or release to a rescue or shelter, or may euthanize if it follows specific procedures in the statutes.  The law also gives the animal control officer the ability to euthanize if the animal is injured, disabled or diseased “past recovery” or to the point that a reasonable owner would euthanize.

If your dog is picked up as a stray, there are several things you can do to get your dog back as safely and quickly as possible:

  1. NEVER LEAVE YOUR DOG OUTSIDE UNATTENDED!  Even if you have a fully fenced yard, you should let your dogs out only when you are home and able to supervise them.
  2. Make an identification tag for your dog, and keep all contact information on the tag current.
  3. Keep your dog’s rabies vaccination up to date.  Make sure you have a tag and several copies of a certificate indicating accurate information for your dog’s most recent rabies vaccination.
  4. Register your dog in the locality in which you live.  Keep your dog’s license and corresponding tags up to date, and keep several copies of a certificate showing that your dog is properly licensed and registered. 
  5. Securely fasten the identification, rabies, and license and registration tags to your dog’s collar.  Make sure your dog is wearing her collar and tags any time you go out with her.
  6. Don’t count on tags alone.  Have your dog microchipped, and have several backup contacts linked to the microchip, including your dog’s veterinarian information and other emergency contacts.  Get a tag that says your dog is microchipped, along with the contact information of the microchip company, just in case the microchip malfunctions.
  7. If your dog has any special medical needs or allergies, make sure to have a very visible separate tag to alert people to these needs.  Include this information on the microchip and in your dog’s registration.
  8. Don’t hesitate to create other tags and add other microchip information if appropriate.  For instance, good rescues (like A Forever Home where I got Sophie) will give you a tag to put on your rescue’s collar, will ask you to include them in the information you provide to the microchip company, and won’t hesitate to step in and claim your dog if you are unable to do so for some reason.