Calculating the number of unlicensed dogs in San Francisco is a bit like estimating how many fish there are in a lake based on an afternoon of fishing. It’s a tricky business, said Virginia Donohue, executive director of San Francisco’s Animal Care and Control (ACC).
“Nobody really knows how many there are; there’s not an animal census like there is a people census,” Donohue said. “It would be kind of nice if they asked on the Census.”
There were 17,611 licensed dogs in San Francisco in 2019. Based on the City’s human population, ACC estimates there were around 197,474 dogs that year, implying just under nine percent were licensed, according to John Skeel, ACC deputy director.
“Even though we are wonderful animal lovers, dog lovers, we are not great licensers,” Skeel said.
Local ordinances require dogs over four months old to be licensed, enforceable by warnings, and fines. ACC is responsible for implementing permit laws. It also cares for stray and abandoned animals and handles calls about errant or injured wild animals, such as skunks, raccoons, coyotes and falcons.
“We are everything. If it’s an animal, we manage it, we take care of it,” Skeel said. “I think that’s why the City is okay with us having such a low compliance rate; we do so much else.”
“We do prioritize education over enforcement,” Donohue said. If an officer sees a calm, off-leash dog walking next to a person, and “if we can tell that the dog and the person go together…we’re not going to take an enforcement action,” she added.
“We want to keep the community safe, we want to keep animals safe, but it’s never been, ‘we want to get everybody’s money,’” Skeel said.
A one-year license for a dog that’s been spayed or neutered is $27; $67 for an unaltered animal. Two- and three-year certificates are offered for $40 and $53; seniors are charged half as much.
In 2019, roughly $530,000 of ACC’s budget came from dog license fees. The rest, between $5 and $7 million – for staff salaries, building maintenance, vehicles, wild animal calls, and a new shelter opening this spring – is paid for through the City’s general fund.
“I’m always surprised at the number of people who don’t know that they’re supposed to license their dog in San Francisco,” Sally Stephens, chair of the San Francisco Dog Owners Group, which connects dog owners and advocates, wrote in an email. “Or they think you only register once, not realizing that licenses have to be renewed. Or they move and never get the renewal notice. Nationally, a minority of dogs are licensed, and San Francisco’s dog owners mirror the national trend.”
ACC used to send thousands of letters annually to inform residents about dog licensing requirements. It pivoted to emails since the pandemic began, allowing certificates to be purchased or renewed online. Emails and web permitting cut associated staff labor in half and eliminated the need for envelopes or postage. Compliance also improved. In the first few months of 2021, the licensing rate has hovered around 14 percent. Higher permitting revenues could help address potential budget cuts to ACC; the City likely faces a more than $500 million deficit over the next two years.
“The more compliance we have, the more revenue we’re bringing in, then perhaps the City would allow us to bring on additional staff,” Skeel said.
ACC is collaborating with the San Francisco Port Authority to add signage about leash and licensing laws on Port properties. Agency staff have floated the idea of a lifetime license, a policy that’d have to be approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Skeel pointed out that licensing helps dog owners as much as the City. “It’s about if your animal gets lost and it has a license and a microchip, we can quickly get it home,” Skeel explained. “It’s a much better service that we can provide.”