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Professional Version

Animal Control in Shelter Medicine


Martha Smith-Blackmore

, DVM, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University

Reviewed/Revised Oct 2021 | Modified Nov 2022

An animal control department is a municipal or contracted private entity charged with protecting human safety and animal welfare in the community. The range of rights and responsibilities vary in different jurisdictions; however, most animal control departments perform dog licensing, reunite lost pets with their owners, participate in hearings about dangerous or nuisance dogs, and enforce compliance to regulations by responding in situations such as noise complaints, damage to property, and nuisances caused by too many pets at a single address.

Depending on the city or town management structure, animal control officers may be civilian employees who report to the police department or other town officials. Animal control officers may also be police officers, or both animal control officers and police officers may enforce animal control laws. Animal control departments may carry out certain public health duties, such as rabies prevention, vaccinations, and animal bite investigations, in addition to standard animal control services.

Some communities partner with other local governments to create a regional animal control agency. Many—but not all—animal control departments investigate reports of suspected animal cruelty and respond to reports of domestic animals and wildlife in distress. An animal control department may operate an animal shelter to care for stray, impounded, or unwanted animals, or this responsibility may be contracted out. Some states require municipal and/or private animal shelters to report to the state data such as number of intakes, length of stay, and outcomes.

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