How many dogs are too many? Newton to reconsider limits on pets

03/19/2014 6:46 PM

03/19/2014 6:46 PM

Lori Smith and her family loved living in Newton, but they loved their dogs Ty and Jones and fostering other animals more.

Faced with Newton’s two-dog limit, Smith and her family moved about four years ago. She wasn’t about to give up Ty, a rottweiler and Labrador retriever mix she jokes is her “Rott’N Lab,” or Jones, a three-legged Weimaraner, so she could help other dogs in need.

Smith, the kennel manager and animal behavior training consultant at Caring Hands Humane Society in Newton, now lives in Halstead, which allows people to have up to three dogs. That gives her flexibility to take in stray animals, which is how Ty and Jones came to her initially. Smith has fostered more than 50 animals in the past five years, giving them a temporary home until they have a permanent one.

Newton now is considering relaxing its longtime rule on how many dogs residents can have. The city recently sponsored an open house about pets, and city commissioners are working on a draft ordinance that would allow people to have more dogs.

It’s a question many communities grapple with: How many is too many dogs?

For Smith, the answer isn’t black and white.

“I think it depends upon each family or individual,” she said.

One household may only be able to afford to properly care for one dog. But another family may have the time and resources to care for many more, she said.

“I don’t think there’s a standard that fits everybody’s individual needs,” Smith said.

Most area cities do have some limits on the number of dogs people can have. Wichita allows people to have up to two dogs without a special permit and up to four with an animal maintenance permit. All dogs in Wichita must be licensed.

Many cities, including Wichita, also have breed restrictions of some sort. Although you can have up to four dogs with an animal maintenance permit in Wichita, no more than two of those dogs can be pit bulls.

Erin McDaniel, a spokeswoman for Newton, said the city north of Wichita began reconsidering its rules a few months ago when a family member approached the city commission about his sister, who wanted to move to Newton but had four dogs.

“We’ve had others before come to the city commission and say they had been cited for having more than two,” McDaniel said. “We’ve heard from a number of citizens who favor increasing the limit.”

‘Unscientific’ poll

Two city commissioners are working on a draft ordinance, McDaniel said. The city put up an online survey that asked people if they favored increasing the limit to three or four dogs. Attendees at the open house also were asked what the limit should be.

“It was a very unscientific polling,” McDaniel said, but “it gave commissioners a sense of different viewpoints on either side of the issue.”

The majority of survey respondents, 41 percent, supported increasing the limit to four, McDaniel said. Twenty-six percent wanted an increase to three, and 21 percent favored keeping the allowable number of dogs at two. Twelve percent advocated changing to a combination of four dogs and/or cats.

Newton already has some flexibility in its current two-dog limit. In 2011, it added an exception that allowed people with a foster home shelter license to have an additional dog. It also allows people to have a third dog if it is a certified public safety dog or a certified service animal.

Jennifer Burns, Newton’s animal control officer for 14 years, also has presented information to city commissioners. Asked Wednesday what she thought a reasonable limit was, Burns joked that she wasn’t sure she was allowed to have an opinion. McDaniel said Burns had recommended that if the city raised the number of dogs to four it require that a certain number of them “be spayed or neutered because of the higher correlation between dog bites and unaltered dogs.”

“I would like this to be as dog-friendly a community as we can be but at the same time keep people safe,” Burns said.

Standards of care

The Humane Society of the United States does not think ordinances limiting the number of pets address the causes of problems with pet ownership.

“Some families have the time, finances and energy to care for a large number and variety of pets, yet some people should not even have one pet in their care,” Kirsten Theisen, director of pet care issues for the national group, said in an e-mail. “Instead of imposing limits on the number of animals in a home, a community should be searching for ways to support pet-owning families with information and access to resources like affordable spay/neuter surgery while also mandating high standards of pet care for every household and investigating cases of suspected neglect or cruelty.”

People must be realistic about how many pets they can reasonably care for, she said.

“Every pet owner can ask themselves, ‘Am I giving great care to each and every animal in my home?’ This means ensuring that all residents of the house live in clean, sanitary conditions, have access to fresh water and wholesome, nutritious food and have the opportunity for social interactions with their human family and other animals.”

Pet owners should make sure every animal is spayed or neutered, she said, and current on vaccinations.

“If you can’t afford veterinary care, talk with your veterinarian, local animal shelter and social services about low-cost services and payment plans,” Theisen said. “Commit to bring no more pets home until you have control of the situation again and start looking for good homes to take some of your pets. Remember that even if no new pets enter the home, there are 10 to 20 years of great companionship ahead of you.”

Theisen said surveys from the American Pet Products Association reported that 47 percent of American households have at least one dog, and there is an average of 1.47 dogs per household.

A ‘certain threshold’

To get an animal maintenance permit for four dogs in Wichita, applicants must show that all animals will be kept in a safe and sanitary manner, that the animals’ living space will be ventilated and adequately lighted and that “the health and well-being of the animals will not in any way be endangered by the manner of keeping or confinement.”

Applicants also must show that having four dogs won’t disturb the neighborhood. The city may deny permits if an applicant fails to meet or show proof of requirements. Permits also will be denied if the applicant had a breeder’s license or animal maintenance permit revoked within 18 months or if the applicant has had a license issued by the state suspended or revoked.

People who have a history of allowing their animals to run loose or escape, or who have been neglectful in other ways, also won’t be able to get a permit, city ordinance says.

Dennis Graves, animal control supervisor for Wichita, said limit laws protect people and pets.

“The basic answer on that is there’s a certain threshold where you’re not properly able to care for animals,” he said.

Jennifer Campbell, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Humane Society in Wichita, said “limits are put in place to help animals and people. They allow the law to provide some guidelines and allow law enforcement to intervene.”

She said that the local society urges people to follow the ordinances of their communities, but she also noted that it is not an enforcement group.

Smith said she has made some sacrifices in moving from Newton to Halstead. She still works in Newton, so she has higher fuel costs to commute. Her children had to change schools. The majority of their lives, she said, are still in Newton.

But she describes her animals as her heart and soul and said, “it’s really important for me to foster.”

The earliest Newton will consider changes to its animal ordinance is next week. But as of Wednesday, the issue was not on the commission’s March 25 agenda.

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