Dogs and Cats: Some of the Laws Affecting Our Four-Legged Friends

Dogs are especially fortunate—at least that is how it must seem to the thousands of New Hampshire cats who, unlike their dog friends, do not get to experience the privilege of being licensed by their human owners. You see, while the law allows a municipality to require the licensing of cats it does not require licensing as it does for dogs. At just four months of age, a dog is eligible for an official license from the town or city it lives in and can proudly show off its shiny license tag to its less fortunate feline friends!

Q. So, a dog must be licensed but a cat doesn’t have to be?

A. Yes. RSA Chapter 466 was amended in 1994 to change the title to Dogs and Cats, and to allow municipalities the ability to license cats in a similar manner as it licenses dogs. In amending the law, the general court pointed to the need to protect the public from the spread of rabies, to protect ownership of cats and to seek to reduce the euthanasia of cats, which are owned but unidentified. The governing body may vote to license cats, but is not required to do so. RSA 466:13-a. If a municipality elects to license cats, it shall require cats to have a form of identification as approved by the commissioner of agriculture, markets and food. The same penalties shall apply for unlicensed cats as for unlicensed dogs. Since few, if any, municipalities actually license cats, for the sake of brevity, the remainder of this Q&A will refer only to dogs.

Q. How is the licensing process carried out?

A. The license, required annually for all dogs four months of age or older, is issued by the town or city clerk and is good from May 1 to April 30. RSA 466:1. Before the license can be issued, the dog must be properly vaccinated against rabies. RSA 466:1-a. The clerk provides the metal tag with the name of the town or city, the year of issue and the tag number. If a dog is new to town, the owner may transfer its New Hampshire license to the new town or city of residence. RSA 466:3. The clerk may charge $1.50 to cover the cost of the new tag.

Q. Can the clerk allow licenses to be issued by someone else?

A. Yes, the clerk may authorize the local police department or the dog officer of the town or city, or a humane society as may be designated by the local governing body, to issue licenses and collect license fees. RSA 466:1-c. If so authorized, the clerk shall determine the criteria for the receipt of funds and recordkeeping.

Q. Is there a penalty for not licensing a dog?

A. Yes. A $1.00 fee for each month or any part of a month that the license fee is not paid by June 1 of any year shall be charged in addition to the licensing fee. RSA 466:7. Between June 1 and June 20, the clerk submits a list of dog owners who have failed to license his or her dog to the governing body. RSA 466:14. Within 20 days of receiving this list, the local governing body issues a warrant to the local official authorized to issue a civil forfeiture for each unlicensed dog. The warrant may also authorize a local law enforcement officer to seize any unlicensed dog. A notice of civil forfeiture must be sent to the dog owner prior to assessment of the forfeiture. The cost of this notification cannot exceed $5.00 and is in addition to the civil forfeiture. The amount forfeited is $25.00. RSA 466:13. If not paid within 15 days of notice, the case may be disposed of in district court as a violation with a fine not to exceed $50.00. Any forfeitures collected under these provisions may be retained by the town or city for the administration and enforcement of the chapter. RSA 466:13. Payment of the civil forfeiture does not relieve the owner of paying the licensing fees required by RSA 466:4.

Each local law enforcement officer authorized to issue a civil forfeiture shall return the warrant, on or before August 31, to the local governing body issuing it, and shall state in the return the number of owners who received and paid the civil forfeiture, the number of dogs seized and held, and the number of owners who have received summons to a district court for failure to pay the civil forfeiture pursuant to RSA 466:13 or to license the dog pursuant to RSA 466:1.

Q. How does the municipality know which residents have dogs that must be licensed?

A. The assessors shall annually make a list of all dogs owned or kept in town on April 1, with the owners’ name and submit the list to the clerk on or before May 1. RSA 466:43. It is difficult to see how this list can be compiled accurately in municipalities that have discontinued the use of inventory forms under RSA 74:4-a. Inventory forms require property owners to list dogs that reside on the property as of April 1. However, another source of information on dog ownership available to the municipality comes in the form of rabies vaccination certificates. RSA 436:100 requires all dogs, cats and ferrets three months of age and older to be vaccinated against rabies. The veterinarian providing treatment must submit a certificate of rabies vaccination to the clerk where the animal is kept. If the dog named in the certificate is unlicensed, the clerk must send a notice to the dog owner informing him or her of the licensing requirements. RSA 466:1-a.

Q. Does the municipality keep all of the money received in licensing fees?

A. No. Currently the total licensing fee for a neutered or spayed dog, and dogs under seven months old, is $6.50, while the fee for an unneutered or unsprayed dog seven months of age and older is $9.00. RSA 466:4, :5. From these fees, $2.50 of each license must be remitted by the clerk to the state for two programs: (1) $2.00 represents the companion animal population control fee which is remitted to the state treasurer for deposit into the companion animal neutering fund and (2) $.50 from each license is sent to the department of agriculture, markets and food for the operation of the veterinary diagnostic laboratory established under RSA 436:92. RSA 466:9, II. The clerk retains $1.00 for each license. RSA 466:9, I. All moneys arising from the licensing of dogs and cats remaining after the payments to the state described above, and any orders for loss or damages to domestic animals by dogs, shall be for the use of the town or city. RSA 466:5.

Q. Is it true that the municipality must pay orders for loss or damage done by dogs?

A. Possibly. Any person whose sheep, lambs, fowls or other domestic animals are killed, driven away, wounded or worried by dogs may recover from the town or city if it is established that dogs were responsible and that no adequate recovery is possible from the dog owner or through insurance. RSA 466:21, :22. As we reported in the case of Cui v. Chief, Barrington Police Dept., 155 N.H. 447 (2007), “Dog Bites Porch – Town Not Liable For Damages," the municipality may be liable for damages caused by dogs to other animals, but is not liable for damages to property. The municipality does not assume the duty to protect property from stray dogs even when it adopts the provisions of the Dog Control Law.

Q. Are there any exemptions from licensing fees?

A. Yes. Dog owners 65 years and older may license one dog at a license fee of $2.00 and shall not be required to pay the $2.00 companion animal population control fee. Additional dogs are subject to the regular licensing fees. No fee is required to license a dog which has served with the armed forces of the United States and which has received an honorable discharge, or to license a guide dog to aid a blind person, a dog that is used by a deaf person or a service dog that is used by a mobility-impaired person. RSA 466:8.

Q. Are all dogs subject to “leash laws?"

A. Only if the municipality has adopted the Dog Control Law pursuant to RSA 466:30-b, or some other ordinance pertaining to dogs running at large. However, even if a municipality has not adopted the Dog Control Law or some other ordinance, all dogs are subject to laws regarding menacing, nuisance or vicious behavior under RSA 466:31.

Q. What sort of behaviors are considered menacing, nuisance or vicious?

A. A dog is considered to be a nuisance, a menace, or vicious to persons or to property when certain conditions exist. Not surprisingly, these conditions include aggressive behaviors such growling, biting and chasing cars and bicyclists. Also included are nuisance behaviors like digging and messing on neighboring property, and excessive barking that disturbs the peace. See RSA 466:31. Penalties for dog owners who violate this provision include both monetary penalties and the possibility that the dog will be removed from its owner.

Q. Lists of dog owners are exempt from disclosure to the public, does that mean animal control officers can’t get the list?

A. Although the law is not as clear as it might be on this point, it is reasonable to conclude that the clerk may provide a list of all dog owners to the animal control officer for use in his or her official capacity. RSA 466:1-d provides that no registration records, information or lists shall be sold, rented, transferred or otherwise made available to another person. There are four exceptions to this prohibition. The exception applicable to the release of dog owner lists to animal control officers is contained in paragraph II, which allows the release upon request from “the state, a political subdivision of the state, the federal government or a law enforcement agency solely for use of official business. The request shall be on a case-by-case basis." It is not entirely clear what “case-by-case basis" means with regard to a request from a animal control officer—does it mean each time a dog is picked up or does it mean the request for the entire list can be considered as a case-by-case basis? Given that dogs are often picked up on weekends or at night when the clerk’s office is closed, it is reasonable to suggest that the animal control officer may have the list in advance of actually picking up a dog. If the list is not already available, the owner of the dog will not be known, and the dog not returned, until the clerk can be contacted for the information. This will result in transporting the dog to a holding facility, possibly exposing it to illness if it has not been immunized against kennel cough. Licensed dog owners would likely be quite upset at this prospect, having taken the steps to provide his or her name and address to the town or city. If the animal control officer is provided with the list, the information received must remain confidential and cannot be made available to any other person except as provided in RSA 466:13.

Conclusion

While dogs may rule as man’s best friend, estimates suggest that cats, according to the Humane Society of the United States, now outnumber dogs as the most popular household pet in the United States. This summary of dog and cat law illustrates that dogs continue to be the favored animals in the area of licensing and rules of behavior. However, having owned several cats in my life (and, in the interest of full disclosure, now a dog owner), this author is prepared to bet that the cats of New Hampshire couldn’t care less that they are not on par with dogs in this regard. After all, being on par would mean lowering themselves to the level of a dog, and no self-respecting cat would ever even consider doing that!