Skip to content Skip to navigation

Is that law really necessary?

Cory Smith, director of pet protection & policy for The HSUS, examines whether the solution to pet issues lies in advocating for new laws or outside the bounds of the legal system.

In these first few months of 2016, many state legislatures will be tackling serious issues regarding animal management and welfare. At The HSUS, our priorities for state-level companion animal-related legislation include the elimination of gas chambers for euthanasia; increasing access to spay/neuter, veterinary care, and housing that welcomes pets; and addressing issues like animal fighting, puppy mills, pets in hot cars, standards of care for outdoor dogs, and cost of animal care in large-scale seizures. We are busy!
Laws can address the most egregious issues (like animal fighting), build infrastructure for needs like spay/neuter funding, and set practical animal management and safety standards, such as restrictions on tethering.

But while our public policy teams plug away, we’re also focused on the equally if not more important work to expand programs and services designed to prevent animal homelessness and cruelty and create long-term social change.
In some cases, laws can help to change human behavior over time. Think seatbelt and speed limit laws, for example, which establish norms of conduct. But does the same strategy work for getting people to behave a certain way toward pets?
Some of the laws created to address pet issues have been premised on the notion that people have the tools and resources necessary to make the best decisions for their pets, but choose not to do so. However, we know that’s not always the case. For many people, practical impediments and sometimes entire systems stand in the way.

23 million pets live in poverty, the majority of whom are beloved—yet unsterilized, unvaccinated and unseen by veterinarians. They’re off the radar of most animal welfare groups. Even more powerful social norms vary from community to community and are largely correlated with socio-economic conditions. Along with unemployment, homelessness and domestic violence, a lack of affordable, Pets Are Welcome housing is one of the most serious threats to companion animal welfare. People’s pets are impacted by the very same issues that affect people. Because of this reality, the solutions to pet problems cannot be found solely in legislative work. It must be addressed through holistic, community-based strategies.
Passing a law can sometimes lay a portion of the foundation for social change. But rarely is it the solution.

Cities and counties with “mandatory spay/neuter” laws on the books are discovering this: After sinking resources into the passage of laws requiring sterilization, they find the problem has arguably been made worse. Requiring the sterilization of owned pets of any breed or species and penalizing those who do not comply can put many pet owners between a rock and a hard place, resulting in unnecessary relinquishment and missed opportunities for meaningful community engagement.

Pet limit laws, which are arbitrary and selectively enforced, are an example of the fallacy of laws based on the exception rather than the rule. To prevent the suffering caused by animal hoarding (the exception), pet limit laws posit an arbitrary number of animals that is “too much,” often inadvertently sweeping up multiple-pet owners who are doing just fine and subjecting them to fines and scrutiny.

Pet-keeping laws like these are usually enacted with the best of intentions, but miss the mark. They tend to be ineffective and counterproductive, especially when failure to comply means a pet is taken from his loving home and forced into the shelter system.

What types of legislation are good for companion animals? Effective animal welfare laws are designed to keep pets in their homes, allow animal care and control agencies to function efficiently, and strengthen communities. With almost 3 million cats and dogs still being euthanized each year in U.S. shelters, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that none of those deaths are the result of a choice we have made to punish people, rather than enable them to do what’s best for their pets.

Before advocating for new laws, we must critically examine whether there is truly a need for new laws, or whether a solution outside the bounds of the legal system would be more effective. It is essential for us to reach out to our communities with positive pet care messages and to offer accessible, safe services for pet owners. Without that kind of presence in our communities, it is unlikely for any legislation to have meaningful effect.

We need to identify the cases where the time and energy and money spent trying to pass a law may be better spent providing resources and assistance directly to the people who need them.

Can you think of any good examples?



About the Author

Cory Smith is the former Director of Companion Animal Public Policy at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), leading programs and policy work designed to prevent pet homelessness and strengthen communities. Cory was with The HSUS for ten years and her previous background is in animal control/humane law enforcement, and shelter operations and management.