Town clerks in Massachusetts have many responsibilities, from running elections to recording marriages to conducting the local census. In Belmont, the clerk also registers cats every year.
Belmont’s cat owners must register their animals with the town clerk’s office by the end of today, with information including the animal’s name, color, and breed, the date of its rabies shot, and information about the owner, who must be 21 or older.
Starting tomorrow, the town will begin issuing $25 fines for unregistered cats.
Only a handful of cities and towns in Massachusetts have cat-licensing bylaws, and the registration fees for keeping a feline typically don’t exceed $10.
Not so in Belmont, where the fees were raised to as much as $37 per animal, to the dismay of many local cat owners.
“It seems kind of odd that I would have to pay a fee for an indoor cat,” said Patricia Curley, a couple days after shelling out $48 to the town clerk for this year’s kitty tags – $12 per tag for her four neutered cats, up $4 each over last year. “I have friends in other towns who aren’t required to do this.”
Some of her fellow cat owners in Belmont are paying more: The fee for a nonneutered or unspayed cat also went up by $4 apiece this year, to $37.
The registration fees are an important source of revenue, said Town Clerk Delores A. Keefe, whose office issues about 1,000 cat licenses every year.
But Virginia Fuller, a senior who has two cats and two dogs, calls the local bylaw requiring cat licenses “a useless expenditure of people’s money.”
“It raises money for the town – otherwise, it’s totally useless,” she said. “There are people who can’t afford cat food now.”
It might now be more expensive to own a cat in Belmont than in any other municipality in the state.
To begin with, cat licenses are so rare that when the Massachusetts Town Clerks’ Association conducted a survey on pet licenses in 2006, only information on dog license fees was collected, said Amy Warfield, Burlington’s town clerk and the association’s webmaster.
The few other communities that require residents to register cats include Chatham, Oxford, Sandwich, and Watertown, but all of these charge less than Belmont. In Sandwich, for instance, a cat license for one year costs $1.
Belmont officials say cat licenses are needed for rabies prevention, but the bylaw dates back to the early 1990s, when there was a house full of cats in town. Health Department director Donna Moultrup said a resident kept at least 100 cats, perhaps as many as 200. At the time, licenses were introduced as an indirect way to discourage people from hoarding cats, she said.
The rabies scare in the mid-’90s cemented the regulations, and Moultrup said it is important to continue licensing indoor cats to ensure that they are vaccinated.
A rabid bat could fly into the house and bite a cat, and endanger others, she said.
“There is no reason in my mind that dog owners have to do it and cat owners don’t,” Moultrup said.
But Fuller compared the likelihood of an indoor cat catching rabies to a rabid raccoon falling down the chimney, biting a cat, and then climbing back up the chimney without anyone noticing. As for outdoor cats, licensing makes little sense, she said, because cats usually do not wear their tags and collars outside.
She also said enforcing the bylaw is nearly impossible unless Belmont were to become a police state where officials could barge into people’s homes to count their cats.
Former cat owner Karen Sapolsky, whose animal died a couple years ago, is also against tags for felines. She said it’s dangerous for a cat to go out with a collar because cats can get caught – one animal that belonged to a neighbor was hung on a chain-link fence, she said.
Moultrup said the town raised the cat-licensing fee to cover the rising cost of its animal control program, which takes care of everything from noise complaints and removing pets from roadways, to returning lost cats and dogs to their owners. Last year, she said, town officials had to take a case to court because of a dog they felt was “too vicious to be in town,” but the department also spends a substantial amount of money on issues involving cats.
“This morning we had a call about a cat that was running in the center of a road,” she said. “We have a number of lost cat calls – probably more lost cats than dogs, [and] we have trouble finding owners.”
John Maguranis, Belmont’s animal control officer, said he thinks the local bylaw does not go far enough.
“If I had it my way, I’d make it against the law to own a cat that is not neutered, unless you’re a certified breeder,” he said.