Local veterinarians worry that a new Multnomah County ordinance taking effect Aug. 1 will discourage pet owners from getting their animals vaccinated for rabies.
That's because Ordinance 1093 passed unanimously by Multnomah County commissioners on May 31 now requires veterinarians to report all rabies vaccinations to the county's Animal Services division.
The county board passed the ordinance to raise money after a $130,000 cut in county funds to Animal Services, says county Animal Services director Mike Oswald.
Current law requires pet owners seeking a county license for their dog or cat to give their animal a $15-$25 rabies vaccination (rates vary with clinics), but not to report those vaccinations. One-year licensing fees range from $18 for neutered dogs to $30 for fertile dogs; and $8 for neutered cats to $30 for fertile cats. (Elderly people who own pets get a 50 percent discount on all fees.)
While many of the county's estimated 470,000-plus pets get rabies vaccinations, "a lot of conscientious owners don't license," says Dr. Paul Tulacz, 70, of Portland Animal Clinic. According to Oswald, only 30 percent of county dog owners and 10 to 15 percent of cat owners license.
The new ordinance requires vets to turn over vaccination records that will be cross-checked with the county's database of animal licenses. That creates a concern that people may not vaccinate their pets when they could run the risk of fines. Failure to license is a Class C misdemeanor, with fines of $50 for a first offense, $100 for a second, and $150 for a third.
"People who cannot afford licensing may forgo the protective rabies vaccination altogether, placing animals and people at greater risk for the rabies virus," Dr. Chris Holenstein of Gresham Animal Hospital told the county board at a May 31 hearing.
In 2004, Lane County passed a similar ordinance. The number of licensed pets there has nearly doubled since. But Lane County vet Brian Reister estimates about 10 percent of his clients have chosen not to vaccinate or to vaccinate elsewhere.
Oswald expects the Multnomah County ordinance to raise $170,000 in revenue from licensing fees to pay for housing of homeless animals and investigations of animal neglect and abuse. That cash-driven motivation ticks off vets like Dr. Matt Dahlquist of Gateway Veterinary Hospital in Portland.
"Commissioners are not concerned about public safety," Dahlquist says. "They are much more concerned with revenue."
County law requires pet owners to license all dogs and cats over six months of age, but many say they choose not to license because it offers few benefits. Owners get only a tag with their address on it and the assurance that if the animal is picked up by Multnomah County Animal Services with the tag, the owner will be notified.
Oregon Veterinary Medical Association president Glenn Kolb says the ordinance will "put vets in an awkward position between county and clients." Many vets, however, plan to follow the ordinance to avoid getting a rabid bite taken out of their pocketbooks.
Failure to report the administration of a rabies vaccine draws the same fines as failure to license a pet. Dr. Andrea Frost of Pacific Veterinary Hospital plans to comply with the reporting requirements to avoid fines but holds that "this ordinance puts us in the roles of enforcer and breaches confidentiality."