How Many Dogs Can You Keep?

Find out how to research your city's limits (if any) on dogs and how to avoid trouble if you keep that many dogs or more.

By , J.D., University of Washington School of Law

In rural areas, how many dogs you keep on your property is pretty much your own business, as long as the dogs aren't a nuisance to the neighbors. But many cities restrict the number of dogs per household. Below, we'll discuss:

  • typical dog limits in U.S. cities
  • the reasoning behind limiting dogs per household
  • the usual penalties for keeping more dogs than allowed
  • whether court challenges to these laws are likely to succeed, and
  • how to avoid running into problems due to limits on dog ownership.

What's the Maximum Number of Dogs in Average U.S. Cities?

Many cities limit dog ownership to just two, three, or four. Examples include the city of Roeland Park, Kansas, which limits ownership to no more than two dogs of six months of age or older, or more than one litter of pups, without a permit; and the city of Oakland, California, which prohibits keeping more than three adult dogs (more than four months old) on any one premises. St. Louis, Missouri has set the limit at four domestic animals within one parcel of property in a residential-zoned district; but note that cats in the house would then count toward your limit. .

You'll want to look closely at what counts as a "dog." As alluded to in the above examples, the typical rules apply to adult dogs and don't count puppies that are younger than a certain age, usually eight weeks to four months or so.

In less geographically dense areas, you might see restrictions that are based not on household but on acreage. Thus if you live on a large plot of land, you might be permitted to keep a greater number of dogs.

Also check your city's regulations for any exemptions, such as for people operating a kennel.

Rationale Behind Restrictions on the Number of Dogs Someone Can Have

The goal of cities that limit the number of dogs in one household is to cut down on the problems that dogs can cause in urban areas. Unless owners are vigilant, dogs can create nuisances with their droppings and barking, or cause property damage, or in the worst case, exhibit aggressive behavior.

As one court upholding such an ordinance put it, "too many dogs in too small a space may produce noise, odor and other conditions adverse to the best interests of the community as a whole." (Zagaris v. City of Whitehall, 594 N.E.2d 129 (Ohio App. 1991).)

Consequences of Violating Local Dog Ordinances

Violating the law by keeping too many dogs without a permit will probably earn you a fine.

Even a jail sentence is possible. A judge in Holland, Michigan—which has a two-adult-dog-per-household maximum—sentenced a man to 90 days in jail for refusing to give up any of his three dogs. The dog owner spent a few days in jail before agreeing to part with one of his animals. (An effort to change the law in Holland, to allow three dogs per household, failed in late 2011.)

If you are, for example, planning to run a kennel or do something else that would qualify you for an exemption, you might have to get a special license from your city or local government. That means extra fees, rules and, often, inspections by officials.

Wondering how these rules are enforced? Animal control officials certainly don't go door to door taking a dog census. They rely, for the most part, on complaints or chance observation. So as a practical matter, someone who has more dogs than is allowed under the law is likely to get into trouble only if the dogs cause problems and a neighbor complains.

Dog Owners' Lawsuits Regarding Such Ordinances Usually Fail

Court challenges to ordinances limiting the number of dogs one can keep almost always fail. This is due to longstanding legal precedent recognizing the power of state and local governments to regulate residents' health, safety, and general welfare.

There are a few exceptions, however. The Georgia Supreme Court found a county ordinance unconstitutional because it didn't include the criteria that a dog owner had to satisfy in order to get a permit for keeping more than four dogs. (Foster v. State, No. S00A2054 (Sup. Ct. Ga., March 19, 2001).)

Avoiding Trouble With Dog Ordinances

The moral: First, find out your city's rules. Going to its website and searching for "dogs" will usually turn up the information you need, or if not, you could call an actual person.

Then, no matter how many dogs you have, don't let them become a neighborhood nuisance. If there are problems, work them out before the neighbors decide to go to the authorities.

Even if a city doesn't have a set limit on the number of animals, neighbors bothered by too many animals might sue in small claims court. If a court decides that the animals are a nuisance—that is, that they interfere with neighbors' enjoyment of their property—the owner can be ordered to compensate the neighbors or even to get rid of some animals.

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