Houston vaccination ordinance highlights sticky issue

The city of Houston is attempting to enforce a decades-old law regarding a veterinarian’s role in pet licensing, but the law is meeting with opposition from many of the city’s veterinarians.

The ordinance, passed in 1985, states that veterinarians who vaccinate dogs and cats against rabies must either provide owners’ information to the city’s Bureau of Animal regulation and Care (BARC), or issue the licenses themselves.

Houston veterinarians received a letter from the city’s Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department in late September. The letter reminded veterinarians that according to the city ordinance (Chapter 6 of the City of Houston Code of Ordinances), all dogs and cats must be licensed in Houston. The letter explains that according to the ordinance, veterinarians who vaccinate any dog or cat within Houston city limits must either:

  1. License the animal while acting as a deputy licensing authority at the time of the administration of the vaccine; or
  2. Provide a copy of the fully executed vaccination certificate to the Houston Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care with the following information:
    1. Description of the dog or cat
    2. If the animal has been spayed/neutered
    3. Number on the rabies vaccination tag issued
    4. Name and address of the owner
    5. Number of the Houston registration tag, if any

The letter threatens steep penalties for veterinarians who do not comply with the ordinance.

“Veterinarians in violation of any provision of Chapter 6, including the provision of the fully executed vaccination certificate, are subject to a fine of up to $500,” the letter says. “Each day that the violation continues shall constitute a separate offence.”

Jeff Chalkley, DVM, president elect of the Harris County Veterinary Medical Association (VMA), -- Houston is in Harris County – said that 87 percent of his membership that were polled thought that the VMA should publicly oppose the ordinance.

In the same survey, Chalkley asked members if they were planning to turn over client data as required in the ordinance. Of those surveyed, 9 percent said they already submit the information, 14 percent now plan on submitting the data, and 38 percent said they would submit the data only if they were fined. The remainder said their practices were not within Houston city limits, so they were exempt from the ordinance.

“We are opposed to the city law regarding us turning over clients’ information, or being deputized,” Chalkley said. “We’re not opposed to promoting registration.”

Chalkley also said he was worried that the ordinance might drive people to get rabies vaccinations outside of the city, or worse, not get the vaccinations at all. This concern was echoed by the Texas VMA.

“It is pretty clear that the city will use the rabies certificates to determine which animal owners have not registered their pets with the city – which includes the payment of an annual registration fee,” said Texas VMA Executive Director Chris Copeland, JD. “Residents of the city who wish to avoid this fee will realize pretty quickly that the key to doing so is to stop having their pets vaccinated against rabies,” he said.

“There is a very real concern that enforcing this ordinance will actually result in fewer pets being vaccinated against this deadly disease,” Copeland added.

The Texas VMA does not have an official position on the issue, but it expressed concern with Houston’s proposed enforcement of the ordinance.

“While TVMA and its member veterinarians want to do what they can to protect public health, we are having a difficult time determining how this proposal will further that objective,” Copeland said.

Confidentiality is also a major concern.

“Veterinarians take client confidentiality very seriously,” Copeland said. “The laws in Texas require that veterinarians maintain client confidentiality, with only a couple of exceptions. One of those exceptions relates to the protection of public health and safety. Unless the City of Houston can demonstrate that enforcing this ordinance will protect public health and safety, veterinarians will have a difficult time understanding the need to do so.”

Similar situations, different responses

Other states have faced similar issues, and some say that the issue was resolved without much of a problem, while others remain strongly opposed.

“Our members didn’t like the similar Maine law that was passed about three years ago, but they didn’t go ballistic, either, and the consequences have been minimal,” said William Bell, executive director of the Maine VMA.

Maine veterinarians are required by law to report information on rabies vaccination certificates to the state. Bell said the money from licenses goes to fund the state’s animal welfare program, which has suffered from lack of funding in the past.

The Maine VMA has been opposed to other proposed measures that were designed to increase funding for the program, Bell said. Those proposals have included putting a tax on rabies vaccinations and having veterinarians deputized to issue licenses. But reporting the vaccination information has not been much of an issue, he said.

“The requirement that veterinarians once a month send the State of Maine a copy of every canine rabies vaccination certificate issued that month (which can be done easily via computer) is annoying, but not backbreaking,” he said.

Bell said that since they are complying with state law, most veterinarians in Maine do not view this as a breach of veterinarian-client confidentiality.

“The willingness of the Director of Animal Welfare to defend veterinarians on this issue, the belief that dog owners should be licensing their dogs, and the perception that the Maine Animal Welfare program is doing valuable work have no doubt contributed to our members’ acceptance of the new law.”

In Oregon, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners approved a similar ordinance about two years ago, according to Oregon Veterinary Medical Association Executive Director Glenn Kolb. Multnomah was the second county in the state to adopt this ordinance, and he said that the result in both counties has been increased pet license compliance and revenue.

However, Kolb said the Oregon VMA and the Portland VMA both spoke out against the ordinance when it was proposed.

“Veterinarians had offered to work with the county to expand the voluntary commitment of the veterinary community to educate their clients about the value and importance of pet licensure,” he said. “However, the county discounted the offer and instead moved to compel practices to turn over the rabies information to animal control.”

Their concerns were similar to the Texas VMA’s: namely that veterinarians did not want to act as deputies for the government, that clients might go outside the county to get their vaccinations, and that the ordinance seemed to violate client-veterinarian confidentiality.

“Because of Oregon’s ‘public records’ laws, we are concerned that this private information sent to the animal control agencies would be provided by the counties to anyone that requests the information,” Kolb said. “We believe that the names and addresses of a veterinarian’s clients is privileged information and should not be accessible to anyone who happens to want the information.”

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has a policy on rabies vaccinations, which includes a model ordinance. The ordinance requires certain identifying information to be included on the certificate, such as the name and address of the owner, vaccine information, description of the dog, and microchip number. The model ordinance also says that a copy of the certificate should be made available “to the Rabies Control Authority or Public Health Official as needed."

For veterinarians who are opposed to a piece of legislation like the one in Houston, the AVMA suggested the following action:

“We would suggest either (1) pushing for state legislation that would make rabies vaccination disclosure requirements uniform across the state (whether that is through modifying the existing confidentiality requirements for veterinary records, or proposing new legislation specific to rabies vaccinations); or (2) having veterinarians opposed to the ordinance write letters to the City Council, more of a grassroots approach.”

NEWStat Legislation & regulation