Whether you live in the city or the country, you have to get a license for your dog. And it's important to remember that almost all laws require not only that you buy a license every year, but also that you keep the license tag on your dog at all times. There is, of course, a practical reason: the tag is often the only way animal control officials have of identifying a dog they pick up or that someone turns over to the animal shelter.

License Fees

In most places, basic annual license fees are about $10 to $20. Almost everywhere, fees are higher for animals that have not been spayed or neutered. Some places have raised fees for unaltered animals substantially to encourage people to get their pets spayed or neutered. In King County, Washington, for example, licenses for unaltered animals cost $60-but owners also get a $25 voucher, accepted by most local veterinarians, toward the cost of spaying or neutering.

Several factors may reduce the fee you pay:

  • Licenses for specially trained guide, signal, or service dogs that help their disabled owners are usually free.
  • Disabled or older people are sometimes given free dog licenses. Free licenses may be limited to dogs that have been spayed or neutered. Some cities also require that household income be below a certain amount.
  • You may be able to buy a "lifetime license"-valid for the dog's lifetime, not yours. Pennsylvania makes such licenses available if the dog has some kind of permanent identification such as a tattoo or microchip.1
  • If you have a lot of dogs, you may be able to (or be required to) get a kennel license that covers all the dogs-a sort of volume discount.

Where to Get a License

City governments regulate animals within their borders; in unincorporated areas, the county takes responsibility. No matter where you live, you can probably get your license by mail. Some places now make licenses available online. Check the phone book under city or county offices for a licensing department, or just call a general city hall or animal control number.

To get a license in most places, you must produce a current rabies vaccination certificate. This explains why puppies are usually exempt from the license requirement until they get their adult rabies vaccination, at about four months old. Vaccination records, by the way, are sometimes how a local government keeps dog owners honest; the veterinarian administering the shot must send a record to the county, stating whether or not the dog is licensed.

If your town offers reduced license fees, you'll need proof of whatever makes you eligible: for example, a veterinarian's certificate stating that the animal has been spayed or neutered, or a document from a training institute that says your dog is a trained guide dog.

If you move from the city or county that issued the license, you may have to get a new one from your new town. However, in some states (New Jersey, for one), a license is good anywhere in the state. If you move out of state, you almost certainly will need to get a new license, within about 30 days after you arrive in the new state.

If You Don't License Your Dog

What happens if you don't buy a license for your dog? Well, it's sort of like driving a car without bothering to get a driver's license. If you're never stopped by the police or hit by another car, no one will be the wiser. And if your dog never bothers the neighbors, is never lost, stolen, or nabbed by animal control, and never bites anyone, you may get away with not having a dog license. But if any of these things happens, the penalty for not having a dog license is bigger than the price of buying one in the first place.

When a licensed dog is picked up and impounded by animal control personnel, they can check the city's license records to identify - and notify - the owner. Unlicensed dogs are often euthanized (put to sleep) sooner than dogs with license tags. (See “Impounding and Destroying Dogs,” below.) If you go away for the weekend, and your dog escapes from the back yard, the two or three extra days a licensed dog is given at the shelter could mean the difference between getting it back and losing it for good.

It's also still fairly common to find legislation that makes stealing only licensed dogs a crime - implying that stealing an unlicensed dog is legal.2

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