Dog law panel tackles license fees, stray dogs, kennel enforcement

The state's stray dog crisis, dog license fees and enforcement of illegal kennels topped the agenda at the first state Dog Law Advisory Board meeting of 2013.

There was general agreement among board members at the meeting Friday that dog license fees - which have not been increased since the mid-1990s- are too low to support 21st century operations of the dog law office, the sheltering situation is at crisis level, as more shelters turn away stray animals and enforcement - while vastly improved over the first year of the Corbett administration - could be stronger.

Here are some of the meeting highlights:

Dog law finances. Reductions in spending ($1.3m) and a bump in license sales has helped stave off bankruptcy for the cash-strapped state office whose purpose it is to make sure the state's 2,200 licensed kennels are operating legally, stray dogs are picked up and dog owners are up to date on license and rabies vaccines.

The standard annual dog license fee for spayed/neutered dog currently at $6.45 - about the price of a Starbucks venti frappucino with a shot of syrup -(though there are further discounts for senior dog owners and the disabled) of which $3.47 makes it to dog law. after postage and fees to county treasurers. Revenue is up, said acting dog law office director Michael Pechart, in large part because of a statewide campaign in March to raise awareness about license requirements and door-to-door canvassing by dog wardens.

The number of commercial kennels is up to 53 from a low of around 30 last year (before the new dog law and canine health regulations took effect there were more than 300). The increase comes as the dog law office has stepped up efforts to uncover illegally operating kennels by tracking their puppy sales on the internet. That means both kennels that have no license and those that claim they sell too few dogs to be forced to comply with the more stringent commercial license and are found to be selling more than the 60 dog-limit each year. Dog law says it has issued $10,000 in civil penalties in addition to citing kennels in criminal court for illegal operation.

(Civil penalties were levied against Warrior's Mark Kennel in Clearfield County for failing to comply with canine health regulations for commercial kennels. $500, Tait's Bassets in Centre County ($5,000) and Sporting Valley in Lancaster ($5,000) for failing to comply with canine health regulations for commercial kennels. Sporting Valley also was cited housing dogs in cages that were too small, housing adult dogs on wire flooring and for dangerous and dirty conditions. )

The dog law office has been hamstrung by a decades-old old law that stipulates all revenue from court cases above $70,000 must be directed to judiciary to support computer upgrades. At the time there were relatively few kennel cases brought to court, but now with hundreds of kennels being cited, the office loses several hundred thousand in revenue each year.

Two bills now pending in the General Assembly seek to address that issue. Rep. Kathy Watson's bill (HB 912) and Sen. Chuck McIlhinnry's bill (SB 718) would exempt dog law from that law. A court computer fee is already tacked on to the penalties in all cases.

Pechart said Gov. Corbett, in his 2012-2013 budget, proposed transferring $200,000 into dog law restricted account to help replace $4 million removed by Gov. Rendell and legislature in the budget crunch of 2010, when dog law was flush with cash and had $13 million in the bank.(The current balance in $2 million).

The agency is seeking a Petco grant to pay for new cages for wardens to cart dogs in. Last year wardens picked up 14,000 stray dogs - as many as 70 a day - and often drive hundreds of miles to place a dog.

It's part of a vicious cycle that has developed over the past few years across the state: county SPCAs seek financial help from townships, townships balk at paying any fee for animal control, shelters close doors to strays.

Vet exams. The Department of Agriculture's dedicated dog law veterinarian, whose fulltime position examining dogs in breeding kennels was eliminated last year as part of budget cuts - is now working two days a week focusing on non-commercial kennels that have downsized. Dr. Danielle Ward has visited 123 kennels, ordered 63 vet exams in the past five months and has referred cases to humane law officers - the referrals are made problematic by the fact there is no active small animal cruelty officer in Lancaster County - home to the highest number of breeding dogs.

Asked by board member Tom Hickey whether she thought the vet job should be restored to a fulltime position Ward said "I do." Pechart said there are discussions about restoring her to a fulltime job. Main Line Animal Rescue's Bill Smith later asked whether there was a stipulation about treatment as well as examination. For instance, breeding dogs typically endure horrible dental disease because of poor nutrition and lack of care. Ward said there was not. In other words, acceptable "treatment" for dental disease could be euthanizing the animal.

End of state shelter grants . Pechart said beginning July 1 the department would be eliminating the grant program to help some of the 1,300 shelters in the state. The program - once known as "keep the lights on" grants - last year distributed some $200,000 in $5,000 to $10,000 grants that go toward expenses like utilities at struggling shelters. Pechart said the agency will increase fee to shelters that take strays to $40 from 25 a dog (at that rate a shelter would need to take in 666 for make up for $10,000 grant)

Cindy Starke, director of the SPCA of Luzerne County asked that the decision to eliminate the grant program to help small shelters be reconsidered.

Anne Irwin president of the Pennsylvania Federated Humane Societies said the grants program was not operating effectively and shelters were dropping out because of the requirement that they take stray dogs brought in by wardens. The fact shelters in many counties including Delaware are no longer taking any strays in an effort to become "no kill" puts pressure on remaining open shelters.

With more stray dogs transported to more distant shelters they were found, some DLAB members suggested launching a statewide database of stray dogs help people that have lost dogs. Jen Muller, a veterinarian, said she was concerned that such a database might provide an avenue for so-called random source dealers who sell dogs to medical research, or we might add dog fighters looking for bait dogs. On the other hand, there are databases of lost and found animals on the web that no doubt have helped many pet owners reunite with their cats and dogs. In addition, shelters could require proof of ownership before relinquishing a dog.