Hill County Discusses Potential Changes to Animal Ordinances

HAVRE, Mont. (NMB) – Officials with Havre and Hill County convened on Tuesday morning to discuss potential tweaks to County Ordinances regarding animal control and animal bites.

This process remains in preliminary stages, but Sanitarian Clay Vincent said it is essential that something is done to improve the way the County handles animal bites, in particular.

Vincent said the County typically reports at least one bite a week, but his office often doesn’t hear about it until several weeks after the fact. This is problematic, Vincent says, because the animals must be quarantined for 10 days to ensure they don’t spread rabies. If they do test positive for rabies, they must be euthanized.

“I feel like an idiot when I call someone and it’s way past the rabies time period in which I’m supposed to call them, and it’s 20 days late,” said Vincent.

Sheriff Jamie Ross said that they are often also not notified of animal bites until several days afterwards, and reports sometimes come in from the ER.

“If people aren’t reporting the bites as they occur, and are waiting weeks to report their bites,” said Ross. “We can’t do anything about it unless we know about it. That’s the circumstance there.”

Ross urges people to report animal bites as soon as they happen. Bites within city limits should be reported to the Havre Police, while bites in the County should be reported to the Sheriff’s Office.

Currently, procedures outlined in County Ordinances regarding animal bites only deal with dogs, not cats and ferrets. However, state statute says that all three of these animals must be dealt with when bites occur in order to prevent the spread of rabies, so some sort of action must be taken, according to Health Officer Kim Berg.

Berg said it is their duty, as outlined in state law, to investigate all reported dog, cat and ferret bites. She said it is crucial they receive reports in a timely manner so they are able to serve the public.

How the actual process of reporting bites will change was not delved into in depth at the meeting.

Havre does have ordinances that deal with all these animals, but they also have an Animal Control Officer in Pete Federspiel and their own shelter. The City does impound cats and dogs that reportedly bite people.

“The only thing that has kind of fell through the cracks with the city has been rabbits,” said Federspiel. “Everything else has kind of been covered.”

Sheriff Jamie Ross says it is his department that is in charge of County Animal Control, but they simply don’t have the resources, people, or finances to deal with cats and ferrets.

“I don’t have a budget for animal control,” said Ross.

The County does not have its own pound, but does have an agreement with Bear Paw Vets to use their facility when necessary. Ross says his duties, as outlined in the law, doesn’t call for them to have to impound ferrets or cats that bite humans.

Although the Sheriff’s Office will not be able to take on the responsibility of dealing with impounding cats and ferrets that bite people, the Health Department needs to ensure they are receiving information as soon as possible.

“We need to know as soon as possible so that dog, cat or ferret has to be quarantined for 10 days,” said Berg. “They are watched for 10 days. If they show any signs or symptoms of possible rabies, then we can make a recommendation. You have those days to wait so you don’t instantly give them post-exposure prophylaxis.”

Vincent said in his 35 years working for the County, he estimates that one cat, one bat and a few dogs have bitten people and then tested positive for rabies.

The need for a proper formal procedure was discussed, and talks are expected to continue.

“If a human comes down with rabies after a dog bite that we don’t know about until 15 days after the bite, we’re not doing our job,” said Berg.

Commission Chair Diane McLean pushed back on this, saying impacts from dog bites on residents aren’t the fault of the Health Department.

“The bite causes the rabies. So you’re taking a cause and effect and you’re interjecting public health into that cause. And you’re not the cause at any point.”

But Berg reminded McLean that her Department has a legal duty.

“If we’re not following Montana Law, we’re not doing our job,” said Berg.

“Not going to argue that, but I’m just saying at no point are you the cause of the rabies,” responded McLean before changing the topic.

Another issue that was discussed was the possibility of changing registration regulations. Officials said that many people simply don’t register their dogs, or only do so after they receive a citation. The County currently charges a $5 registration fee for altered dogs and $10 for unaltered dogs for the first two dogs. Every dog after that is $10 for altered and $20 for unaltered. The City charges $10 for altered dogs and $25 for unaltered dogs.

At the meeting, officials discussed the possibility of lengthening the amount of time registration is good for before it needs to be renewed. Dogs must be licensed in order to get a rabies vaccine, according to Vincent.

For the city of Havre, Federspiel said about 150 dogs are registered, which he estimates is maybe 25 percent of all dogs in the city. Vincent said that percentage is likely lower for the County.

Any ordinance changes would need to be approved twice by the Hill County Commission in order to take effect.

“This is a really sticky wicket to get involved in,” said McLean. “Because the enforcement of it is so difficult.”

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