The voices of Tax Policy Center's researchers and staff
Our dog Maddock has been a member of our family for more than eight years. We license him regularly with our county and pay $20 a year to do so. This turns out to be a trick not all dog owners have mastered. Some don’t bother. Others refuse.
Should dogs be licensed and taxed?
A few weeks ago, a North Carolina woman made news when she expressed shock online at having to pay a pet registration fee or, as she put it, “an annual tax.” And she asked whether the law was ever enforced. That’s a fair question. What good is a tax without compliance?
North Carolina law authorizes local governments to “levy an annual license tax on the privilege of keeping any domestic animal.” Maddock’s home state of Michigan has a similar law, as does nearly every other state.
Why and how are dogs taxed? (Hint: It’s about vaccination.)
States say local authorities are best equipped to manage their dog populations. And there are a lot of dogs in the US. In 2021, the American Veterinary Medical Association estimated 45 percent of households are home to dogs, and each has an average of nearly 1.5 canines. Ignore that image of a half-a-dog, that‘s about 88 million dogs.
As much as we think of our pets as family members, the legal system treats them as property. When humans fail to care for their dogs, the animals can harm people or property. Many pets end up in public shelters. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that about 3.3 million dogs enter shelters annually. And rabies is a rare but deadly virus that dogs can pick up from other animals and unwittingly pass on to humans.
Enter that “annual tax.” Dog licenses usually are issued with proof of rabies vaccination and a payment. But counties make it complicated. Senior citizens or people with disabilities sometimes pay less. And rates may differ based on a dog’s age, whether it is a service animal, or its reproductive status.
For example, local governments prefer spayed or neutered pets to avoid overpopulation. Because Maddock is not sterilized, we pay twice as much. (Our county needn’t worry about Maddock. Technically a show dog, our Scottish Deerhound spends most of his time walking on a leash or zooming around our fenced backyard.)
The fees support local services such as animal shelters, pet adoption, spaying and neutering, and sometimes public dog parks. Compared to what owners spend on their dogs, the charges are trivial—about $10 a year on average. Rover, an online dog care platform, estimates the average dog owner spends between $480 and $3,470 annually for their canine’s food, toys, medical care, and the like.
A user fee or government overreach?
It isn’t easy to enforce licensing laws. Some localities make door-to-door checks, mail reminders, or check licenses when people bring dogs to public parks or beaches. Others rely only on the honor system. But because dog licensing is local, compliance data are hard to come by.
In my county, only about 65,000 of 438,000 dogs, or 15 percent, were licensed in 2018. Last June, the county offered free rabies vaccines (which must be provided or supervised by licensed veterinarians) with the purchase of a dog license. That offer lasted a month, indicating relatively few owners took advantage of the opportunity. Is it because vaccinating and licensing dogs has become political?
One state lawmaker called the system an example of government overreach and wanted to abolish Michigan’s licensing requirements entirely. GOP Rep. Beau LeFave said, “If you want to get a dog in the state of Michigan, you have to ask permission from the government…. I don’t think it’s the government’s business.”
Of course, you don’t need to ask permission. And LeFave’s bill got buried, in part because county officials need both tax revenue and information on dogs in their communities to maintain public health and safety.
But he may not be alone. I conducted an unscientific poll of 33 friends, asking how they felt about dog licensing. Just over half believe dogs should be licensed. Eight of them do not own a dog.
Of the 24 dog-owning friends I surveyed, 13 do not hold a license. That’s much higher than the Michigan average but still not a lot. Maybe they forgot or didn’t know they had to apply. Maybe it was too complicated, or maybe they figured they’re responsible and don't need to. But they must take their dogs to the veterinarian for rabies vaccinations. Right? Maybe.
There is a vaccine controversy.
A doctor active in the state’s veterinary medical association reminded me that few dogs get regular visits to the vet. And many owners are reluctant to get their dogs rabies shots for reasons comparable to that of other vaccine reluctance. Often, dogs get vaccinated only when they are professionally groomed or stay at a boarding kennel, where jabs are required.
So allow your trusty Tax Hound to explain the sad truth: Absent proof of vaccination, the only way to determine whether a dog has rabies is to euthanize it and examine its brain. That means if an unidentifiable dog gets loose and nips somebody trying to help it, the bite victim has to endure up to four rabies vaccinations. If caught, the dog could be quarantined for ten days or, far worse, put down if its owner can’t be found.
So if you own a dog, license it and pay the tax or fee. Keep your dog up to date on its rabies vaccinations, and have it proudly wear its tag. You’ll help your neighbors avoid rabies shots, and you'll support public services that help animals.
But mostly, you’ll help your dog. Speaking from personal experience, I know you’ll do anything for a member of your family. Even learn a new trick.
The Tax Hound, publishing once a month, helps make sense of tax policy for those outside the tax world by connecting tax issues to everyday concerns. Have a question or an idea? Send Renu an email.
Posts and comments are solely the opinion of the author and not that of the Tax Policy Center, Urban Institute, or Brookings Institution.