Cities and counties frequently struggle with residents over pet ownership laws, particularly those that limit the number of pets allowed per household. The City Council in San Jose, Calif., recently tried to address the problem by raising the number of pets allowed from two to five per household, but raised fines for residents who fail to vaccinate and register their dogs and cats. The Village Board in Oak Park, Ill., also raised its 100-year-old, two-dog limit to three in single-family units after resident protests. And, in Currituck County, N.C., a new limit of four adult cats and dogs was created in April. Those types of moves indicate a delicate effort to balance animal welfare with residents' freedom to keep pets in their homes.

As director of Multnomah County, Ore., Animal Services Mike Oswald has seen it all, from residents who can manage 40 to 50 dogs on their property, to those who take in more than they can handle. “Most don't realize the amount of work it takes to properly train and keep an animal,” Oswald says.

He estimates Multnomah County has to keep track of about 142,000 dogs and about 195,000 cats. The county has a limit of four animals per household, a common limit in many communities. “You can have six or seven dogs, but if you do, you are [literally] a kennel,” Oswald says. And, in Multnomah County, you cannot legally operate a kennel in a residential zone.

In many cities and counties, zoning codes make up the backbone of legal pet limits. Pet owners are passionate about the right to have as many animals as they want, while zoning boards want to keep density levels of people and pets even.

Oswald says high-density locations are more likely to place such limits. “Owning animals is one of those things that need codes so that everyone can share a living space,” he says. “If you live in a high-density area, like New York, you've got to have codes to keep levels even — noise levels, waste levels, all kinds of levels.”

Some groups have been successful in quashing ordinances and rulings that affect the number of pets communities allow. According to Norma Woolf, editor at Canis Major Publications and president of the Ohio Valley Dog Owners group, most that issue pet limits are doing so under the basic misconception that more pets mean more troubles. “One dog that is irresponsibly owned can be a greater nuisance than five or six dogs who are properly cared for,” she says.

Dusty Rhodes, a county auditor in Hamilton County, Ohio, lives in a community where there are no pet limits. “With 840,000 people, there are bound to be some who are irresponsible pet owners,” Rhodes says. “If someone is going to pass a bill that says you cannot own more than three cats or dogs, what does that ruling do to folks in the community who are responsible?” When local governments cannot uphold the laws governing the quality of care for pets, they often use pet limits as a quick fix, but that is often not a real solution, he says.

Patti Strand, president of National Animal Interest Alliance (NAIA), says governments should focus on enforcing the negligence and nuisance laws rather than setting pet limits. “If one person's dog did something harmful or damaging in a community, such as barking or biting, the outcome can be drastic for all pets in that community,” she says. “Controlling nuisance pets is an understandable issue, but these same people who fight for legal pet limits in their communities must learn to understand the concept of the nuisance laws vs. the limit laws.”