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Puget Sound veterinarians challenging county proposal on vaccination reporting

Veterinarians are fighting a King County proposal to mandate the release of rabies vaccination records they see as an invasion of privacy and a shortcut to penalizing owners of unlicensed pets. The county says it wants greater compliance with the law, and hopes to reach an agreeable approach with vets.

King County Animal Services canvassers began door-to-door checks of Bellevue residences in April, educating pet owners about a requirement to license all cats and dogs eight weeks or older and making licenses available for purchase.

Animal Services formed in 2010, and contracts with 25 of King County's 39 cities. Cities that provide their own animal control include Seattle, Auburn and Renton. Pet licensing fees fund about 50 percent of the agency's operations, but the compliance rate remains low at about 21 percent, said Cameron Satterfield, a spokesman with the King County Department of Executive Services.

"What we're looking into is a proposal to have veterinarians report their rabies vaccination information to King County," he said. "We've been working with the veterinary associations, the Puget Sound Veterinary Medical Association is one of them in particular, to try a voluntary program to have them educate their pet owners who come into their offices about the importance of pet licensing."

Pet licensing allows owners to be reunited with lost animals, earns lost pets a free ride home when found and funds shelter care, dangerous and nuisance animal responses and investigating cases of reported animal cruelty or neglect. The fine for not licensing pets is $125, and $250 for pets that have not been spayed or neutered.

King County wants to apply a mandate for releasing rabies vaccination information under its board of health rather than its animal control code, which would force all 39 cities to comply and avoid a "patchwork quilt" of reporting, Satterfield said. Another benefit would be finding out what the rate of rabies vaccinations is in the county, which is not currently known, he said.

While veterinarians support pet licensing, many oppose releasing the information because they say it violates doctor-patient confidentiality and may discourage pet owners from vaccinating their animals, said Kent Thomazin, president of the Puget Sound Veterinary Medical Association and local vet at the Animal Hospital of Newport Hills.

"We've met with King County initially and they had a general meeting for a lot of general owners and practitioners in the fall to introduce the idea, and it was certainly met with a certain amount of resistance," Thomazin said.

Thomazin said vets object to King County being provided with vaccination records to compare them to their licensing database to find those not complying with the law.

"They should stay out of the records, as far as licensing goes," said Thomas Hodges, a veterinarian with the Cat Care Clinic in Bellevue. "I think that's incredibly invasive."

"We as veterinarians don't feel like it's our job to provide those databases so they can enforce licensing," Thomazin said, adding provision of those records will put a strain on practitioners' resources and result in many pet owners skipping out on rabies vaccinations. "Decreasing compliance for rabies vaccinations isn't a good thing for public health."

Satterfield said the county is looking at educating pet owners about pet licensing and providing them with resources to come into compliance with the law, but would not immediately begin issuing fines to those who are not.

He said notices would be sent to those who have not licensed their pets, and there would eventually have to be an enforcement component if owners do not comply with the law. King County has heard the concerns of veterinarians, he said, and is working to alleviate them.

King County hopes to come to terms with veterinarians on rolling out a law that all can agree to, but Bruce Singbeil, a veterinarian with Crossroads Vet, said he's not very optimistic their side will prevail.

"In this case they're really not interested in listening to us. They just want to do what they're going to do," he said, adding the county should do more to educate pet owners rather than adding another law. "People come to us because they trust us, that's the bottom line. If we lose the trust of clients, we lose the clients, and the pets will suffer because of it."

Satterfield said the proposal remains under study, and will be discussed again by the county's board of health in June, though no agreements are expected to be reached by then. King County is also looking at the successes of such programs in Oregon counties, and the states of Illinois, Alabama and West Virginia, as part of its study.

The Puget Sound Veterinary Medical Association is working with the Washington State Veterinary Medical Association to monitor this potential legislation as it works its way to a vote. Thomazin said the PSVMA has been contacting its members to encourage them to express their concerns to their district councilmembers.

Licenses may be purchased at Bellevue City Hall, the Crossroads mini-City Hall, Aerowood Animal Hospital and all QFC stores. Licenses can be purchased online at kingcounty.gov/pets.

 

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