Local Government Impacts Veterinary Medicine

Posted 1 October 2007, Updated May 2009

In a 2002 census, the U.S. Census Bureau found that there were 87,576 units of local government in the U.S.i Included in that census number are all levels of local government including city, township and county. These layers of government are statutorily created by each state's legislature and address different community needs, e.g., school districts, sanitary districts, storm water districts, park districts, fire protection districts and boards of health. Illinois has the most units of government at 6,904 and the District of Columbia has the least, at two.

Local government powers
Local governments typically address health, safety and welfare issues at the local level and are free to create ordinances and regulations governing those issues as permitted by state statute. Where they exceed their given powers, they may be subject to legal action.

State legislatures have purview not only over local government powers, but also over the licensure of professionals, such as veterinarians. Licensure and regulation of professions are left to the legislature generally, excluding direct involvement of localities. However, local governments can have an impact on the practice of veterinary medicine in several ways.

Local ordinances
Local governments can regulate activities within their borders through ordinances. Typically, ordinances will address zoning, roads, health, animal control issues and the like. Zoning ordinances will affect where a veterinary practice may locate and animal control regulations can affect how veterinary medicine is practiced.

In May 2009, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue signed legislation prohibiting local governments from adopting any regulation regulating crop management or animal husbandry practices involved in the production of agricultural or farm products on private property. "Encroachment, both physical and political, is one of the most dangerous things affecting agriculture," said Rep. Tom McCall, the measure's sponsor.

Tennessee also adopted language in 2009 prohibiting local governments from restricting the authorized practice of veterinary medicine.

Guardianship
Animal control ordinances typically address dangerous or vicious dogs, animal licensing and the responsibilities of dog owners. There has been a movement since 1999 to alter local ordinances to refer to dog owners as guardians. While this change seems innocuous, it greatly alters the relationship that humans have with their pets. Guardianship is a legal term carrying with it fiduciary duties to a ward. That is, where animal guardianship is present, an animal is not owned in a legal sense, and may no longer be considered property. Legal protections that prohibit the government or other individuals from taking property without due process may be interpreted as not applicable to animals classified as wards in a guardianship context.

A ward has its own interests and a guardian must protect those interests. This opens the possibility for animals or their guardians to bring tort claims and for outside parties to remove an animal from its home absent abuse. More specifically, it muddies the waters in determining who is responsible for the cost of veterinary care; the level of care to be provided; when an animal is considered "abandoned" and how veterinary liens may be applied. This is a short list of the plethora of issues that surround the guardianship terminology.

As of September 2007, eighteen cities and the state of Rhode Island have adopted the guardianship terminology. In 2006, at the request of the San Diego Veterinary Medical Association and the California Veterinary Medical Association, and consistent with the AVMA's policy on guardianship terminology, the AVMA voiced its concerns about a proposed guardianship ordinance in a California municipality. Though the municipality ultimately adopted the ordinance, the coordination of veterinarians, veterinary medical associations and the AVMA to oppose this ordinance illustrated how the profession can unite to address local issues affecting the veterinary profession. It also serves as a model illustrating the importance of grassroots advocacy and the involvement of the profession at the local government level.

The guardianship of animals as the basis to bring suit for an injury to animals has already been, and will most likely continue to be, tested. As early as 1986, a group of plaintiffs sought to be declared guardians of medical research animals seized from an organization whose leader was convicted under state animal cruelty statutes. The request was denied because the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring suit; that is, they could not show an actual or threatened personal injury as a result of the animals' return. In brief, the animals, though they may have suffered harm, could not sue on their own and the plaintiffs could not bring suit because they had not directly suffered any harm.

Because a court case arising from the use of the guardianship term in a local ordinance has not yet occurred, it remains to be seen how a court would construe both local ordinances and state statutes to arrive at a determination of how the concept of animal guardianship would operate.

While the guardianship issues remains a concern, the best example of how a local government could affect the practice of veterinary medicine is the California Veterinary Medical Association's (CVMA) suit against the city of West Hollywood.

Scope of Practice
In March 2005, the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) filed a lawsuit against the city of West Hollywood seeking declaratory and injunctive relief from a ban on declawing. The city's municipal code banned "declawing or flexor tendonectomy procedure by any means on any animal within the city, except when necessary for a therapeutic purpose." After an initial trial court decision striking the ban, the California District Court of Appeals reversed that decision, finding the ban constitutional. While acknowledging that the state had preempted the field of veterinary regulation, the Court found that this was an "incidental regulation of veterinary medicine" pertaining to all citizens, not just veterinarians. In August 2007, the CVMA petitioned the California Supreme Court for review of the Appellate Court's decision. The AVMA submitted a letter in support of such review along with the California Dental Association and California Department of Consumer Affairs. However, in October 2007, the California Supreme Court denied the petition and allowed the municipal ordinance to stand.

These examples drive home the fact that local government can impact the veterinary profession and illustrate the importance of being alert to the agenda items of your local boards and councils.

How to get involved
Participating in local government and being active in your local community are good ways to remain aware of emerging issues. However, something as simple as reading your local newspaper can keep you informed as well. Most local agendas are printed in the newspaper; some are even posted on the web. In addition, local media will cover most controversial measures.

Keep connected to your fellow veterinarians locally and statewide in order to share information on what is occurring in your community. Other ways to be informed and involved in your community include the following:

  • Running for office
  • Contacting local officials
  • Being active in community groups
  • Suggesting changes to existing ordinances
  • Participating in your state and local veterinary medical associations

Remember, your local and state veterinary medical associations are also tracking veterinary issues and will most likely be able to assist you in finding a local activity that will keep you involved in local issues affecting veterinarians. In fact, we recommend that state veterinary medical associations assign members interested in public policy to specific local governments to track any measures that could impact the profession. Otherwise, veterinary medicine could miss out on providing much needed input and expertise on significant animal and health-related issues.

iThis census occurs every five years and surveys local governments across the 50 states; the 2007 census is currently underway. http://www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/gc021x1.pdf