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County’s pet license proposal raises veterinarians’ concerns

Vashon Island veterinarians are opposing a King County proposal that would require vets around the county to turn over client contact information when dogs and cats are vaccinated against rabies.

King County would use the information to keep track of how many pets have received the rabies vaccine and to contact pet owners who have not licensed their cat or dog.

Licensing pets is a requirement on Vashon and throughout much of King County, but one that is frequently not complied with, said Cameron Satterfield, a King County spokesman. Having this information would enable the county to know the rabies vaccination rate and provide immediate access to records if someone is bitten by an unknown cat or dog.

“We are really focused on public health and safety and that we are tracking the things we need to track,” Satterfield said.

However, on Vashon, Dana Ness, a veterinarian who owns Fair Isle Animal Clinic, said she and many other vets and their professional organizations, the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association and the Puget Sound Veterinary Medical Association, oppose the measure for a variety of reasons. Among them, she said, is that while the county is couching the proposal as a concern about health and safety, the paramount issue is that King County’s Regional Animal Services needs the funding that comes from license fees and is turning to veterinarians to enforce the laws and increase revenue.

“We are totally opposed,” Ness said. “It is a breach of trust. … It is so outside the realm of our interaction with our clients. It is really upsetting to me that we would be turned into an arm of law enforcement.”

Should the proposal be enacted, she said, she fears patients would feel betrayed, potentially bringing their pets to the vet less often and ultimately decreasing the rabies vaccination rate. Additionally, she said, complying with a monthly reporting requirement would take staff time and come with a cost.

“If you want to make a vet angry, just mention this proposal,” she added.

Currently, at the front desk at Fair Isle, a petition objecting to this proposal is available to clients who would like to sign. So far 56 clients have signed it, Ness said on Monday, adding that she feels that is a high number of people, considering  it was set out just last week.

At King County, Satterfield said officials are aware of veterinarians’ reactions and are working with representatives from the professional organizations as they move ahead. A status update on the proposal will be given to Seattle-King County Public Health next month,  but he said he doubts there will be a definitive conclusions at that time.

County officials are not the first to propose these reporting measures, Satterfield noted, as several states and smaller jurisdictions rely on such programs, including Illinois, Alabama and Sacramento, California. Miami-Dade County tripled its pet licensing when it implemented this requirement, he said.

In King County, a license costs $30 for pets who have been neutered or spayed, $60 for those who have not and $15 for pet owners who are seniors or disabled. There is no fee for service animals.

Those funds help support the work of the county’s Regional Animal Services program, Satterfield said, including the county’s pet adoption center and investigations into animal neglect and cruelty.

Only one in five King County pet owners licenses their pet, according to a KIRO news report on this issue, and if that number would double, the county’s animal services would be a self-sustaining program, Satterfield said.

Should the current proposal be enacted, Satterfield said that initially pet owners who have not licensed their pets would receive a reminder in the mail to do so.

“We want to make it educational and not take a punitive approach,” he said.

Eventually, though, an enforcement component would be likely if owners still did not comply.

The proposal first surfaced last winter, Ness said, but was met with resistance, though clinics agreed to put educational materials about the benefits of licensing in their clinics. The two professional associations say this plan was not given enough time to work on its own, and now the proposal has resurfaced, to the frustration of many.

Ness stressed that she understands the need for additional funds for animal services, and she has licensed her own pets, wanting to do the right thing. But she believes this plan is wrong and that the county should work harder on educating the public about the benefits of pet licensure instead of turning to veterinarians in the proposed manner. She has been in touch with county representatives about her position and will forward the petition’s signatures to them as well, she said.

Ness also said that she wondered just how the county would enforce compliance among vet clinics, when so many are so strongly opposed.

“I have no plans to comply,” she added.

She encouraged pet owners who are opposed to sign the petition or contact their county representatives.

“We are going to fight this as much as we can,” she said. “I do not want (a client’s) confidence shaken that way.”

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