The information presented below will help you understand how existing local laws in your area affect community cats, and how to identify whether changes or additions to these laws are needed to improve their impact.
There are three levels of U.S. law: federal, state, and local. Federal laws apply to everyone in the country and are enacted by the US Congress and enforced by federal agencies; state laws are enacted by the 50 state legislatures and are enforced by in-state law enforcement agencies; and local ordinances are enacted by counties, townships, cities and other entities with only local enforcement. Ordinances apply only to the jurisdiction that enacted them. Federal law has little impact on cats, state anti-cruelty laws provide basic care and criminalize abusive behavior and sometimes contain health requirements and/or a definition of cats that includes feral cats. Local laws are the most likely to have a direct impact on cats.
All laws are public information. You can find animal cruelty laws for all 50 states through the ASPCA’s main website. Most local laws are posted on the internet by the government entity that enacted it. A particular code that you need should be available on the website of the town, city, township, or county no matter how long ago it was enacted. Ordinances and laws pertaining to cats are usually found under the heading of Health or Animal Control. Lexis service can also provide the information for a fee. If you cannot find it online, visit your local library to look at municipal code books or request the help of a librarian. As a last resort, ask an elected official to provide you with the information. This is a common constituent service.
As our laws have evolved, cats were often grouped with dog control efforts in the law. So even if cats are not specifically mentioned, they could be included in a law under the definition of a companion animal or domesticated animals. Laws and ordinances that specifically apply to cats are less common but may address issues such as spay/neuter, health/vaccinations, identification and licensing, nuisance animals, Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR), feeding bans, and pet limits. How cats are treated in the sheltering system is another area of interest. Are shelters instructed to pick up or accept stray or lost cats? How long are they required to hold them? Do shelters have to accept owner relinquishments?
Yes, several animal protection groups such as Alley Cat Allies and Best Friends have extensive information on helpful animal ordinances and laws. Local groups may provide similar information. In addition, groups like the American Bird Conservancy and the National Audubon Society publish controversial information in favor of killing cats in order to protect birds.
Laws include the following information:
Definitions – Key points need to be defined to avoid ambiguities. For instance, what is meant by owner, humane care, adequate shelter, cat, feral cat, torture, etc.? This section is extremely important to a bill’s effectiveness and is often the most important part of any law. “Ownership” usually means having possession, but for community cat programs, “owner” must be defined very differently to fit the situation and accomplish the goal.
Reference to Other Law – Often language in one law references another. For example, a community cat program could be allowed to operate in a new ordinance only if it is in compliance with Section X, of Ordinance Y on zoning. You must understand the impact of that reference. Your new ordinance might allow for TNR programs, but if the zoning requirements that do not allow more than three cats to be in one location, this is a serious conflict. Your program may not be able to operate in locations covered by that language.
Exemptions – Many laws have exemptions and they can be a plus or a minus. Does the community cat program authorize TNR but not in any area near wildlife? Can getting an exemption into an existing law allow TNR in an area where it is currently not allowed?
Regulatory Authority – If the law is accompanied by regulations to spell out the fine points, a state or local agency (i.e., Health Department) is directed to promulgate (write rules). There should be a timetable for this work. For example, if pet stores must provide documentation on where they obtain the kittens they sell, the state consumer agency would be given regulatory authority to establish rules on how the paperwork and inspections will be conducted. But if the regulations are slow, or never written, the law is virtually worthless.
Authorization/Appropriations/Fiscal Notes – Budget concerns almost always exist. Usually, you must provide information on how much a bill will cost to implement before it is even considered for passage. If the government will be required to spend funds, a level of spending must be authorized, i.e., permission to spend is given. Once spending is authorized, a separate step occurs to actually appropriate, or provide, the funds. And even though, e.g., $5,000 is authorized to be spent, the legislature could choose to actually appropriate only $2,500. Often, legislation that looks good on its face may be useless in reality unless funds have been authorized and appropriated for enforcement! TNR financial issues could involve how much it costs a community to allow “nuisance” animals to exist, how much it would cost to enforce any policy, etc. Comparisons can be made, such as how much more cost-effective a good community cat program is versus the cost of having the shelter handle so many cats.
Grandfather Clause – Sometimes a practice is banned but a certain group must be exempt from the new law. For example, if feeding feral cats were banned and yet some good TNR programs already existed, legislators could exempt them from the new law.
Penalties – If no penalty is included, a law operates more as a guideline than a law. You may not need to include a penalty if your language was added to existing law that includes a penalty. The same level penalty can apply, or the penalties may increase upon a second or third violation. Also, laws can state that a separate violation occurs to each animal involved. I.e., if someone abuses a colony of cats, each cat harmed counts as a separate offense. So if the penalty is a $100 fine, the perpetrator pays $100 for each cat harmed.
Effective Dates – Once passed, when does the law go into effect? This may be X days after enactment, a specific date, or immediately. It may help a bill to get passed if the effective date gives time for compliance by those impacted. Sometimes a sunset provision that repeals the law may help to get it passed. For example, a bill requiring cats to be sterilized could have a sunset provision that repeals it in five years when the population goal is achieved.
Alley Cat Allies has in-depth information on how to advocate for local ordinances and what a model ordinance entails.