Columbia is littered with unlicensed cats, and the City Council is trying to determine whether to drop the licensing requirement.
Data from the past seven years estimates that only about 2 percent of cats and 11 percent of dogs in Columbia have been licensed, according to the city's Board of Health.
A city ordinance requires all owners who keep cats and dogs on their premises to license them once they are at least 3 months old. The Board of Health recommended in an April 27 letter to council members that cat licensing be discontinued but dog licensing remain.
The council discussed the recommendations at its May 15 meeting.
To support its recommendations, the board explained that cats are generally indoor pets. Dogs often interact with other animals and people when their owners walk them, so it is more important for dogs to be licensed in case of a bite that could potentially pass on a disease.
"Surveys indicate that around 74% of cat owners do not let their cats roam," the board noted. "As a pet, this is similar to ferrets, rabbits and guinea pigs which are not licensed."
In its letter, the Board of Health also addressed the current procedure for at-home impoundment requirements.
The current ordinance says pet owners must impound a cat or dog after it bites a person, and the animal is to be observed by a veterinarian for 10 days. This procedure must be followed even if the animal has a rabies vaccination since there is no guarantee the vaccine will be effective.
If animals are licensed, vaccinated and at low risk for escape, they may meet requirements for being impounded at home — otherwise they are taken to a veterinary clinic. Eliminating the licensing requirement would give more pet owners the option of at-home impoundment.
The low number of cats licensed may be tied to a lack of public awareness of licensing requirements. The public also may not understand the benefits of licensing pets or where revenue from the licenses go.
“I don’t know what the purpose of licensing is,” said Nina Johnson, a local cat owner.
The funds that come from the purchase of licenses go into the general fund for the city, which is mostly spent on resources for the fire or police departments, according to Second Ward Councilman Michael Trapp.
Trapp believes cats should continue to be licensed.
“Even though a small subset of cats get out, what they do when they’re out under their own supervision is far more likely to encounter rabies than dogs, who are mostly on leashes or going to parks,” Trapp said during the May 15 council meeting.
Trapp said he believes it would be more beneficial to promote pet licensing and use the revenue to help other animals in need. Then the city would not have to take money out of the general fund for animal welfare.
“I feel like that’s better than exempting cats from the licensing process,” Trapp said.
Johnson said she would be in favor of keeping cat licensing if the money were directed toward animal welfare. Otherwise, she said she hopes cat licensing will end.
It can be difficult to enforce the licensing of cats since many residents of Columbia feed “community cats” without claiming ownership of the animals.
“It makes it really slippery about who is responsible for the licensing of those cats,” said Amie Burling, an assistant teaching professor of shelter medicine at MU.
Burling said while she generally supports dog and cat licensing regulations, she hopes the city would continue to allow cats collected by animal control to be vaccinated, spayed or neutered, and marked with a clipped ear if they are eligible to be released back into the community to roam.
Trapp said the next step for the council is to make the licensing process "friendly and streamlined."
“It doesn’t seem like it’s a welcoming, inviting or easy process to engage in, so I think making it so would be a good first step and then seeing what we can do to expand it,” Trapp said.