Sacramento has long been the center of a turf war between its human and furry residents.
“A Great Dane, Doberman Pinscher and a red short hair setter, all barking at once in unison, with the three police dogs across the street…it isn’t very conducive to restful sleep,” a Sacramento resident wrote in a 1973 letter to The Sacramento Bee urging City Council to pass an ordinance of no more than two dogs to each “city dweller.” The letter was critical of an article highlighting a woman’s efforts to end the pound’s “death chamber.” It was anonymous, signed “A real dog lover.”
Sacramento resident Michael Stuart recently asked Bee Curious, a community-driven series where answer reader-submitted questions about the Sacramento region:
“Where do our rules regarding the number of dogs and cats an owner is allowed to have come from? And why did we settle on such seemingly weird numbers, 3 dogs and 7(!!!) cats?”
The Bee researched newspaper archives and City Council minutes, and talked to city officials. Here’s what we found:
Some Sacramentans hated cats and dogs
Pet debates date back even further than 1973.
In 1937, The Bee printed a hateful reader tangent about how dogs should be muzzled and strays should be eliminated — hence why the Sacramento resident probably opted to sign the letter with initials only — NAW But somewhere deep in the argument they wrote “a vicious, barking, prowling animal is someone no one could like,” which echoed the frustration of many people before and after this time.
“It seems to me there is plenty of opportunity for our lawmakers to improve the dog situation in both Sacramento City and County,” the resident wrote.
Then in 1993, Sacramento’s animal overpopulation task force and city officials proposed an “animal control ordinance,” which would limit residents to seven cats per household and required adopted animals and stray dogs impounded twice to be spayed or neutered.
Before then, there was no limit on the number of cats a person could harbor in one home, but residents couldn’t have more than three dogs over four months old. The earliest records found in The Bee’s archive about a city dog limit is 1973.
The animal control ordinance Sacramento upheld today was adopted on June 8, 1993, in a 6-1 vote by City Council . Under the code, Sacramentans are limited to seven cats per household and a combined total of 10 cats, dogs or pigs per home — and the number of dogs and pigs cannot exceed three.
The archives revealed very little about how Sacramento’s pet limit was decided — though it was a product of overpopulation concerns — and city officials who spoke with The Bee were unfamiliar with the origin of the ordinance.
Archival minutes from a June 1, 1993, City Council meeting show the decision came after Sacramento’s overpopulation task force originally proposed a three cat limit. The minutes say there is not an apparent consensus throughout California, and after reevaluation the council decided on a limit of 10 animals — seven of them feline.
Pet owners versus Sacramento
When the ordinance was first passed, city officials assured pet owners that they would only be enforced based on complaints and they wouldn’t patrol neighborhoods for violators. But that wasn’t enough for some people, especially those harboring animals over the new limit.
“I will have to euthanize my pets,” said Sacramento resident Jane Anderson after learning the new animal control law in 1993. “It’s like putting guns to my temple.”
But nothing changed between the pets, humans and pet-lovers living in Sacramento.
In 2009, city officials and a SWAT team stormed a south Sacramento home and found 77 pet cats after receiving numerous complaints about the house for at least a year. Some cats were put up for adoption and others were taken by a rescue group — but most were put to death because of behavioral and medical problems.
The then 60-something Sacramento couple pleaded guilty to misdemeanor animal cruelty in 2010 and were allowed to keep seven cats, Sacramento’s household cat limit, after paying the city’s animal shelter thousands of dollars.
The case, which the “hardest investigators described as something they rarely saw or smelled” and among the worst of the city shelter has encountered, sparked community conversation surrounding animal hoarding and its link to psychological problems.
“It’s an interesting thing about people who hoard animals,” said Laura Warner, the city shelter veterinarian who was on the scene the day the south Sacramento home was raided. “They really love their animals. Things just get out of control.”
Animal advocates questioned the way Sacramento handled the case, noting that if the city allowed volunteers to work with officials on the case, the outcome would’ve been different.
Other residents showed little sympathy.
“The owners are to blame,” said a Sacramento resident and former humane officer who had rescued cats in similar conditions. “This is a form of torture. But to some people, simply being alive is ok.”
70 cats found in Citrus Heights
As the city of Sacramento’s high-profile animal regulation case came to a close in 2010, Sacramento County was hit with one similar just a couple of months later involving the discovery of approximately 70 cats in a Citrus Heights duplex.
Sacramento County residents are limited to four dogs and four cats, unless they have a “special” permit, according to Sacramento County’s animal care and regulation page. If a resident is reported with animals over the county limit, they could land in court.
Cats of all ages and conditions were found throughout the home including in garbage, outside and inside the framework of a sofa — and one room was used as a litter box. Even though the county received numerous complaints about the home, animal control officers weren’t allowed to enter without evidence that animals were “injured or ill,” said Ruben Hernandez, supervising animal control officer for Sacramento County at the time.
“There are a lot of cats in the neighborhood — way too many cats,” said Sacramento County resident Samantha Whittermore, a neighbor.
Will the ordinance last?
Nearly 30 years later and Sacramento’s animal control ordinance, Sacramento City Code 9.44.370, sparks similar controversy — stirring conversation among residents like Stuart and his friends often.
Since the pet limit was adopted on a Tuesday in summer 1993, it’s since changed to look like this: No more than three dogs over the age of four months, seven cats over two-months-old and three potbelly pigs. A resident cannot have more than a combination of three dogs and potbelly pigs, according to Sacramento’s animal care services.
“I was curious and I can’t remember where I came across the regulation but it was bizarre to me,” Stuart said. “None of it made sense to me.”
Within the last decade, Sacramento has written 243 “too many” citations under the animal control ordinance — 53 tickets being the most in a single year between 2012 and 2022, according to Sacramento’s animal care services. The number of citations has been on a steady decline since 2016, which has mirrored officials want for a rule change.
“We’ve been talking about getting it changed probably since the prior shelter manager was here…we started the discussion of really focusing on the welfare of the animals,” said Jace Huggins, chief animal services officer for Sacramento’s animal care services.
Sacramento usually uses the ordinance on homes where there are other “extenuating circumstances” and they’re struggling to get compliance for a “multitude of different issues.” Fines for animal codes range from $100 to $500.
“The reality is that some people can’t take care of one animal and some people are absolutely capable of taking care of 10,” Huggins said.
Huggins said he’s not sure when the city ordinance will be updated and what it will look like, but in the meantime, his team is focused on the “welfare of the animals.”
“It would be a success if the focus was really on how the animals were cared for and how the number of animals intersected with the well being on the neighborhood and communities surrounding it,” he said.
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This story was originally published June 14, 2022 5:00 AM.