The Case for Licensing, Straight from the Top Dog’s Mouth

Mark McCabe, director, with Cambridge Animal Commission officers
Mark McCabe, director, with Cambridge Animal Commission officers
Mark McCabe, director, with Cambridge Animal Commission officers (City of Cambridge photo)

In a prior post I raised the question of whether Cambridge has an “undocumented dog problem” – that is, whether the number of dogs licensed by the city (around 2,700 in 2010) accurately reflects the actual number of dogs living here?

To get some clarity on this question, I spoke with Mark McCabe, the longtime director of the Cambridge Animal Commission, the city agency that monitors compliance with the dog licensing laws and protects the welfare of all animals, both domesticated and wild, within Cambridge city limits. Mr. McCabe, just back in his office after rescuing a stray parrot, generously took a few minutes from his busy day to explain the ins and outs of the licensing process.

“The first question I always get asked is, ‘How’d you know I have a dog?’” he said, chuckling.

He says residents with a new dog shouldn’t be surprised when they receive the city’s license application in the mail, because whenever a dog receives a rabies vaccination the veterinarian is required to report it to the Animal Commission in the city where the owner lives; he cross-checks the address to see if the dog is already licensed, and, if not, he sends the owner an application.

Eddie at the vet
Eddie at the vet

Most puppies are vaccinated at around four months old (16 weeks) and owners have until they are six months old to license them, ideally at the same time they are spayed or neutered so they can qualify for the discounted fee ($8 versus $25). Since the licensing year runs from April 1 through March 31, an owner licensing a puppy in the fall will have renew the license, and pay again, the following spring. (Sorry, pro-rating an $8 fee isn’t cost-effective for the administrative headache it would entail.)

So, it turns out that it’s pretty hard to hide a dog in Cambridge, unless you adopt an older dog that doesn’t need to be vaccinated for a year or two. (Most adult dogs are on an every-three-year rabies vaccination schedule.) Mr. McCabe urges owners to make sure they re-vaccinate their dogs on schedule; if your dog’s vaccination expires, the state requires that the vet administer a one-year vaccine, and it ends up costing the owner more in vet fees.

Based on the information he gets from vets, Mr. McCabe believes licensing compliance is actually close to 90%. He says the number of licensed dogs has been rising by about 200 per year, and he believes it will top 3,000 this year. There is bound to be some slippage, since there is no mechanism for tracking when a dog owner moves out of town or a licensed dog dies.

To encourage dog owners to stay in compliance, the city holds a rabies vaccination clinic for residents every April, when dogs are vaccinated and licensed at the same time for a total cost of $18. Dr. Jane O’Donnell, of the Winter Hill Veterinary Clinic in Somerville, has volunteered her time to operate the clinic for the past several years. Mr. McCabe says about 100 dogs are vaccinated and licensed during the clinic each year; this year, the two-hour clinic was extended to three-and-one-half hours to meet demand.

Keep your paws clean (owners too!)
Keep your paws clean (owners too!)

So, say you are a “good” owner – one who is conscientious about keeping up with your dog’s vaccinations, respects the leash laws, always picks up poop, and keeps name and rabies tags on your dog’s collar – why should you have to bother to license him, too?

Well, it is a state law, after all, and while “opting out” of licensing your dog may feel like the canine equivalent of jaywalking, noncompliance could come back to bite you. Technically, the fine for noncompliance is $25 for every day the dog remains unlicensed after an official warning, but in practice owners are typically given a week’s grace period to get their paperwork in before incurring fines. If your dog is cited for being a public nuisance or is involved in a biting incident, then his being unlicensed will compound your problem.

But it’s not just about avoiding fines if you’re unlucky and get caught. Neglecting to license your dog undermine the city’s efforts to protect and enhance the rights of all dog owners. Granted, revenue from licensing fees is a drop in the bucket relative to the Animal Commission’s budget, but universal compliance signals that we dog owners are willing to hold up our end of the bargain and deserve respect in how decisions are made on policies, liked the shared use of parks, that affect dogs.

Fresh Pond
Fresh Pond

Dog owners are in the minority, after all, so we should respect the majority of non-dog-owning residents whose taxes help support the joint efforts of Animal Commission, the Department of Public Works, the Parks and Recreation Department and Community Development on our behalf. Public support for allowing dogs to enjoy our limited open spaces naturally increases with the licensed canine population, and I can imagine that it might be harder for the city to justify dedicating more open space to off-leash use if everyone simply “forgot” to license their dog. Since off-leash privileges at Fresh Pond Reservation are reserved exclusively for Cambridge-licensed dogs, why not consider the $8 fee your dog’s admission ticket to enjoy a (controlled) romp at one of the area’s most beautiful recreational resources?

Okay, I’m done preaching – mostly to the choir, I hope, if you’re reading this.

Here are a few other things I learned from talking with Mark McCabe:

  • If a dog gets lost and isn’t wearing any identification (like a license or a rabies tag), he will be taken to the MSPCA-Angell shelter in Boston and held for up to10 days (at a cost of $25/day to the city), while the MSPCA tries to locate the owner. If the owner is not found in a few days, the dog will be placed in the MSPCA’s adoption system. Fortunately this is rare. Less than a dozen stray dogs belonging to Cambridge owners went unclaimed last year; happily, most were returned the same day because they were wearing license tags.
  • The DPW refills the plastic “poop bag” dispensers in parks. The bags are provided in case you forget to bring your own – not to offer an unlimited supply of free bags for owners who can’t be bothered to think ahead and carry their own. As Mr. McCabe colorfully put it, “The city isn’t required to provide diapers for your children, so don’t complain if the dispensers are empty. They’re a luxury!”
  • A person may bring up to three dogs at a time to the city’s dog parks, and every dog must have a Cambridge license. This is partly to deter professional dog walkers from using the parks for large groups of dogs, and partly to ensure that the individual can control all the dogs in his care should a fight break out.
  • Finally, Mr. McCabe asks dog owners to exercise “common sense and respect for others” at all times. Always keep your dog under your command, especially if he’s off-leash, and stay off fields that are very wet so the grass doesn’t get torn up.

Contact info:

Cambridge Animal Commission website.

617 349-4376 (M-F, 7:30 a.m.-5:00 p.m. & Sat, 7:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m.)

617 349-3300 (24/7 emergency hot line)

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