The idea of government forcing veterinarians to rat out unlicensed dogs is stirring debate throughout Stanislaus County.
More licensing means more money for animal control and could lead to more sterilizing and fewer unwanted pets, the theory goes.
On the other hand, some people could be reluctant to seek medical help for pets, including rabies vaccinations, if they know Big Brother is watching. And doctors are notoriously protective of client information, whether human or animal.
"We're law-abiding private business owners. We're going to do what we have to to stay under the rules," said Frankie Bonifacio, president of the Northern San Joaquin Veterinary Medical Association. "But it's pretty clear no one's going to be the first to volunteer to hand this over."
That's partly because cross-referencing would be based on vaccination records for rabies, a disease that is almost unheard of in domestic pets these days.
A Bee review of public health numbers for the past 5½ years showed no reported cases of rabies in cats or dogs in the Northern San Joaquin Valley; in that time, two cats and three dogs were found to be rabid in all of California.
"If rabies as a disease is the concern, then animal services should target those animals that are not vaccinated, not those that are," Bonifacio said. "It's clearly a strategy to increase revenue."
Animal control officials brought up the subject last week at an annual meeting with veterinarians.
"We're not prepared to make it mandatory yet," said Annette Patton, executive director of the Stanislaus Animal Services Agency. "It might be something we definitely explore in the future."
Kwane Stewart, the agency's veterinarian, said: "Ideally, we would like to get our vets on board; we want people comfortable with it. We want their suggestions."
Veterinarians are not in the habit of divulging names and contact information of pet owners. State law prohibits it except when it comes to rabies, a rare but usually fatal brain disease, and especially where rabies is a problem.
Last year, California officials declared the entire state to be a "rabies area." Stanislaus County attorneys say local elected officials would have to pass an ordinance requiring veterinarians to give up client information, Patton and Stewart said.
"I would be reluctant to turn over records," said Matthew Bettencourt of Ceres Veterinary Clinic. "Animals already suffer tremendously. If there is one more reason that people are afraid to bring them in, that's a big problem."
Almost half not registered
Patton said her office never would sell patient information to marketers.
But animal control officers could seek out owners of unlicensed pets and inform them that dogs must be registered. Counties requiring that veterinarians share information have much better compliance than those without, Stewart said.
About 51 percent of dogs in areas served by the Stanislaus Animal Services Agency are licensed meaning 49 percent are not.
The agency, which covers Modesto, Ceres, Patterson, Hughson, Waterford and unincorporated areas of the county, receives about $410,000 per year in license fees. Owners of altered dogs pay $12 per year, compared to $150 for dogs that aren't fixed. Saving money could motivate more owners to sterilize pets as licensing pressure builds, Stewart reasons.
A licensed dog is far more likely to be loved and cared for. In the year before July 1, only 7 percent of unlicensed dogs ending up at the local shelter were claimed by owners, compared with 78 percent of those that were licensed.
Of 818 dog bites reported throughout the county in 2010, nearly 26 percent (211) involved unlicensed dogs, according to a Bee review of California Department of Public Health reports. The statewide average was less than 16 percent that year, the latest for which numbers are available.
In 2010, 35 percent of the 168 reported cat bites in this county were by unvaccinated cats, which are not required to be licensed here.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.