Dog Law – Level 4
Hot Topics in Dog Law
By Lynn M. Hayner
They often start as conflicts that arise in our neighborhoods and eventually work their way up to our courts: The hot topics debated in animal law today include dog bite laws, breed-specific laws, mandatory spay-neuter laws, and compulsory vaccines. Such laws illustrate society’s struggle to balance the rights of dog owners with the public’s general safety.
Any dog may bite under certain circumstances, but a legal question is: To what extent the owners will be held liable?
“In some states, owners may be absolutely liable, but in other states the courts will consider factors such as whether the owner knew about any vicious tendencies,” says Adam Karp, Animal Law Offices of Adam P. Karp, Bellingham,Washington. Some jurisdictions hold owners absolutely liable, regardless of any fault or foreknowledge. “That being said, there are always defenses such as provocation,” Karp says. Did the person who was bitten antagonize the animal?
In states with “one free bite” laws such as Texas, owners may not be liable for injuries caused by a dog’s first bite unless they knew of his aggression, or the injury occurred because of negligent conduct or an ordinance violation. In almost all states, owners will likely be liable if the dog bite was a result of specific negligence, such as violating a leash ordinance. If a dog bites and a claim is made, the dog owner’s homeowner’s or renter’s insurance may cover the claim. Some insurance companies, however, may exclude certain breeds from coverage.
Laws also may allow for the classification of a dog as “dangerous,” thereby affecting the owner’s rights to the dog. In Florida for example, a dangerous dog is defined as any dog that has (by records of the appropriate authority) “aggressively bitten, attacked, or endangered or has inflicted severe injury on a human being.” In such jurisdictions, after an investigation and determination by an animal-control authority that a dog is deemed dangerous, the owners must then meet specific requirements for ownership, such as posting a warning, confining the dog, keeping him muzzled when off the property, or notifying authorities if the dog is sold. When a dog already declared dangerous then bites, he will likely be confiscated and destroyed.
Breed Specific Legislation: Bans
Can a law prohibit you from owning a particular breed? Governments, under their police power, have the authority to enact law to protect their citizens. In the last few decades some local governments have adopted a new approach to trying to curtail dog aggression: breed-specific legislation.
A breed-specific law is based on the breed of a dog rather than his individual conduct. The most controversial breed-specific laws involve breed bans, typically applied to “pit bull types.” Your American Staffordshire Terrier may be a sweetheart, but don’t move to Denver, which has a breed specific ban on pit bulls.
“[Such] dog bans may be challenged on the ground that there is no rational basis to presume certain breeds are inherently hazardous,” explains Karp. Another problem is that dog-bite statistics typically relied upon to justify breed bans may lack legitimate breed identification. “Bite data may be based on second-hand newspaper reports and assertions of breed by those not necessarily skilled at visual identification,” says Karp.
According to Karp, breed ban laws have been challenged, and continue to be challenged, as unconstitutional, but have generally been upheld by courts. Recently some movement toward the elimination of breed-specific legislation has been successful. In Toledo, Ohio, for example, the City Council repealed the breed-specific ordinance and passed a new ordinance focusing on a dog’s behavior rather than breed.
Some dog law experts cite recent data that indicates breed-specific legislation has failed to reduce the number of dog bites. Associations such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have opposed breed bans, preferring instead breed-neutral laws that hold reckless owners accountable for their dog’s aggressive behavior.
Breed-Specific Legislation: Regulations
Another type of breed-specific legislation regulates certain breeds. For example, in Lynn, Mass., an ordinance requires pit bull owners to muzzle their dogs when off their property. In Boston, owners of pit bulls and pit bull mixes must file for a pit bull license, and pay an additional fee.
But such legislation has started to wane. “In my practice, I do see a gentle retreat from breed-specific legislation, or at least a relaxation through conditions that lift restraints, such as Canine Good Citizenship programs,” says Karp. Owners of certain breeds who train their dogs to pass the CGC behavior test can earn a waiver from restrictions.
To curb pet overpopulation some states have proposed mandatory spay and neuter laws, but so far none has passed and currently only local governments have enacted such laws. In Los Angeles County, for example, dogs must be neutered or spayed before they are four months old. Owners who move to the area with older dogs must comply as well, or risk penalties such as fines and having to do community service. Some exemptions are allowed for those who get a permit to breed dogs, or for dogs being shown in competition, as well as for categories such as police or guide dogs.
Some big cities such as Las Vegas and Dallas have mandatory spay/neuter ordinances. Recently, Memphis passed a mandatory spay/neuter ordinance, in this instance exempting animals registered with the American Kennel Club, and allowing owners who wish to keep their dog intact to pay a one-time permit fee. Some local governments target only certain breeds for sterilization. In 2005 San Francisco adopted a mandatory spay-neuter law for pit bulls. Some cities and states may require more expensive licenses for intact animals, and mandatory sterilization for dogs that are declared dangerous.
Laws requiring the sterilization of shelter animals prior to adoption are relatively common and less controversial.
Currently state laws require rabies vaccinations for dogs. In the 1950s, programs and laws were established to address increased rabies outbreaks. Thirteen states now have medical exemption clauses in the rabies laws for
animals diagnosed by a veterinarian as too unhealthy for vaccination. The subject of mandatory vaccines stirs controversy. Researchers say vaccines for rabies and other diseases typically continue to protect far beyond the required period and over vaccinating can cause adverse reactions that include autoimmune diseases, behavior changes, seizures and other health problems.
“Opponents to mandatory vaccination point to the increased risk of injection-site sarcomas as well as the potential for weakening the animal’s immune system,” explains Karp.
Some cities may have stricter requirements (such as annual vaccines) than their state law (allowing for three year vaccines). The trend is toward a three year requirement. The city of Waco, Texas, for example, recently changed the local ordinance from a yearly vaccine to parallel the state’s three year rabies statute.
Lynn M. Hayner, a contributing editor and retired attorney, combines training her German Shepherd Dog with daily walks in the hill country of Austin, Texas