Animal Welfare in California: State Lags in Pet-Friendliness, New Laws Aim To Make it Better

California isn’t the most pet-friendly state but a set of new laws aim to change that.

PUBLISHED SEP 29, 2022 12:00 A.M.
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Dogs and cats will no longer be subject to cruel toxicity testing in California, under a new law.

Dogs and cats will no longer be subject to cruel toxicity testing in California, under a new law.   Blende12 / Pixabay   Pixabay License

Walk out your front door in any California city or town and it often seems that the first sight you’ll see is one of your neighbors walking a dog. Does everyone in this state keep a pet? Maybe it looks that way, but the reality is that Californians are the least likely pet owners in the country. According to stats compiled by the American Veterinary Medical Association, as of 2022 only 40 percent of California households own a pet. That’s dead last among the 48 contiguous states. (The AVMA survey doesn’t include Alaska and Hawaii.)

Just because a small number of Calfornians, compared to residents of other states, own pets does not necessarily mean that the state is unfriendly to domestic animals. In fact, California scores a respectable 13th place in a statistical analysis of the most (and least) pet-friendly states by the security firm SafeWise.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sept. 26 took steps that could improve that ranking, and make California an overall friendlier place for our furry friends when he signed a package of animal welfare bills—headlined by a new ban on using dogs and cats as test subjects for most toxic substances, a bill authored by San Francisco state Senator Scott Wiener. 

California’s Goal to Become ‘No Kill’ State

Pets became more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, with an American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) survey showing that about 20 percent of American households—about 23 million—acquired a cat or dog during the pandemic. And the vast majority of those households have stuck with their new animal companions.

Despite alarming media reports of animals suddenly filling shelters as pandemic health restrictions eased—presumably because fickle pet owners dumped them there as soon as it was safe to go back to real life—only about 10 percent of dogs acquired during that period, and 15 percent of cats, have not remained in the homes that adopted them, according to the ASPCA survey.

California ranks second in the country, according to SafeWise data, in the percentage of animals killed in animal shelters—about 20 percent. In the 2020 and 2021 state budgets, Newsom included a $50 million allocation for animal shelter assistance, with the stated goal of making California a “no-kill” state.

Pets and the Housing Crisis

Newsom’s latest approvals of animal welfare bills came about three weeks after he green-lighted a bill by Fullerton Senator Josh Newman that addresses both the well-being of family pets and the state’s ongoing housing shortage.

According to the SafeWise research, California ranked near the bottom in percentage of rental units that allow pets. The March 2022 study found that only 12 percent of rental units in the state were “pet friendly.” Only Rhode Island (8 percent) and Connecticut (9 percent) offered fewer pet-friendly rentals. The 12 percent figure tied California with Louisiana and Massachusetts.

The Newman bill, SB 971, restricts subsidized affordable housing—that is, units that receive financing from the California Tax Credit Allocation Committee and the California Department of Housing and Community Development—from banning tenants who own common household pets, as well as from imposing restrictions based on the breed or weight on any particular pet. 

An earlier survey, from 2014, found that at that time, 70 percent of apartment renters in California owned pets, mostly cats or dogs, but almost two-thirds of those reported trouble finding a rental that would accept pets, according to a Los Angeles Times report.

No More ‘Pet Rent’ in Subsidized Housing

The bill also prohibits landlords of units receiving those subsidies and credits from charging “pet rent” or other non-refundable fees related to having a pet. Under California law, landlords may charge a non-refundable “pet fee,” typically between $100 and $400 depending on the size and breed of the pet in question, to cover expected damage caused by the animal. They may also charge a deposit, which would be refundable. 

The fee or deposit comes on top of any other fees or security deposits required to move into a rental property.  Pet rent and non-refundable pet fees are now prohibited in low-income, subsidized housing under SB 971.

The combination of high pet ownership among apartment renters and the low availability of pet-friendly rental housing hits low-income renters especially hard, often facing them with the choice between finding a place to live and abandoning beloved pets. SB 971 “will ensure that more California families will be able to move into safe and affordable housing with their canine, feline or other animal members of the family,” according to Newman.

Don’t We Need to Test Chemicals on Animals?

Wiener’s aptly-named PET (Prohibiting Extraneous Testing) Act prohibits using dogs and cats as subjects for toxicology testing involving such poisonous substances as drugs,  pesticides, food additives, dyes, cleaning fluids, and so on. While there is no definitive data on how many animals are used for such tests, Humane Society estimates put the total at around 50 million annually, including dogs and cats, as well as other animals such as monkeys and rabbits.

Usually, these tests involve forcing an animal to ingest a potentially hazardous, often deadly substance, by injection or sometimes by forcing the substance down the animal’s throat, then collecting data on the animals’ reactions—a process which can cause tremendous pain, grotesque illness, and suffering to the animal subjects, who of course are incapable of offering their consent to be used in the tests. Generally, at the end of a testing cycle, the animal test subjects are simply killed.

That sounds horrible—but don’t we need to test those potentially dangerous subjects on animals to protect human beings? Doesn’t subjecting animals to the horrific tests save human lives?

The answer, according to recent research, is no. According to a 2019 study published in the journal JACC: Basic to Translational Science, animal tests are “poor predictors” of toxicity in humans. 

“A 2006 review of 76 animal studies, for example, found that approximately 20 percent were contradicted in humans and only 37 percent were ever replicated in humans,” the paper’s author, Gail A. Van Norman, reported. “A review of 221 animal experiments found agreement in human studies just 50 percent of the time—essentially randomly.”

In other words, animal testing has largely proven useless—yet millions of animals every year continue to endure terrible, fatal ordeals imposed on them by scientists.

The bill, SB 879, signed by Newsom Sept. 26 ends most of those tests in California, at least for cats and dogs. The bill has no effect on testing that is required by the federal government, and includes exemptions for tests of medications and other products designed for use exclusively on cats or dogs.

More New Laws to Protect Animals

Along with the law making low-income housing more pet-friendly signed earlier in September, and the PET Act, Newsom signed several other bills on Sept. 26 aimed at making California a nicer place for pets and their human companions, including:

  • Assembly Bill 1290 clarifying an existing law that makes it a property crime to steal a dog or a cat. 
  • A bill, AB 1648, that requires facilities that are licensed as “kennels” to have an emergency evacuation plan in place for animals housed there.
  • A new law making it easier for homeless individuals to own and keep emotional support animals. The bill, SB 774, exempts the homeless from the state requirement to have a 30-day relationship with a doctor before receiving certification for a support animal.
  • And AB 2723, which aims to increase the chance that lost pets will be reunited with their original owners. The new law prevents any public or private animal shelter or rescue agency from transferring a cat or dog to a new owner without microchipping it, and registering the microchip—and also requires shelters to document all efforts to track down the person who originally registered a pet’s microchip, or any other documented owner.

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