NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — After being left untouched for more than two decades, a bill amending Metro Nashville and Davidson County’s animal ordinance has passed with a unanimous vote.

The legislation amends two chapters of the ordinance to tighten and clarify provisions regarding rabies vaccinations, licenses for cats and dogs and animals running at large, which has long been a concern among many Davidson County residents.

In a previous interview regarding the legislation, Music City Animal Advocates co-founder Denice Heatherly explained that she knows at least two people who have been bitten by dogs off leash, and that the previous ordinance allowed too much leeway for dog owners.

A dog runs in a park. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

It was also a dog attack that inspired one of the council members who sponsored the legislation, Russ Bradford, to begin looking into issues with the ordinance in 2020. Bradford said he was “bothered” with the way the law defined a “vicious dog” and other outdated language.

Councilmembers Tonya Hancock and Joy Styles also sponsored the legislation, with Styles leading a committee to start the process of updating the ordinance. Several more public meetings were held along the way to get input from people like Heatherly.

Changes to penalties, rules for dogs running at large

Bradford said that input was considered in many changes to the ordinance. Of topmost concern was the section dealing with dogs running at large. The amended ordinance expands application of the section to all animals, but most of the regulations would only apply to dogs and cats.

Language in the section was also updated to specify that owners must have “physical control” of an animal when off their property, eliminating concerns over previous language in the ordinance that allowed owners leeway to have their animals off leash if they were under “voice control.”

Dog cooling down
Dog cooling down at water station at dog park.

Another amendment added provisions making it a violation for an animal to damage public or private property while running at large, in addition to a substitute added at a May 2 council meeting that modified escalating penalties for animals running at large.

Any violation of the section is considered a civil infraction punishable by a fine of $50 per animal. After a third violation, the owner will be required to put up a fence at their property, and a fifth violation will result in the animal being impounded by the Metro Public Health Department.

Other changes to animal ordinance

Also of note are updates to the existing definitions of a “vicious dog” and a “guard dog,” with a “vicious dog” now defined as one that “seriously injures or kills a person or animal without provocation.”

Dogs at Centennial Dog Park_52082
Dogs at Centennial Dog Park (WKRN photo)

A “guard dog” means any dog trained to protect persons or property by attacking or threatening to attack anyone found within the area patrolled by the dog. Owners are now required to keep records of training completed by guard dogs.

In addition, the amended ordinance clarifies provisions on secure enclosures, including those for dogs declared “vicious” in court, with owners being required to put a “Dangerous Vicious Dog” sign on their property and ensure the dog cannot dig its way out or attack anyone.

Sights turn to increased funding for animal control

By tightening the provisions in the animal ordinance, Bradford said he hopes it will now be easier for Metro Animal Care and Control (MACC) and the Metro Public Health Department to enforce laws. However, he acknowledged that there are other issues at play.

MACC Metro Animal Care and Control generic
MACC Metro Animal Care and Control (Photo: WKRN)

Based on size and population, the Metro Nashville area has about half the animal control officers that most cities have. Bradford said the agency has been “chronically understaffed,” with only one officer for the entire county on weekends in the past.

In an email following the bill’s passage, Bradford said he hopes his colleagues will now “support increased funding for MACC.” Bradford has also pushed for a second shelter location to expand access to spay and neuter services and prevent animals from being abandoned on the streets.

With the passage of the bill, Heatherly said she would also like to see the Metro Government and Metro Public Health Department turn their attention to low-cost spay and neuter programs — something which she noted Chattanooga and Knoxville already offer through their shelters.

“We cannot warehouse our way out of this problem,” Heatherly said. “Besides spay and neuter, the Metro gov and MPHD need to take the staffing issues seriously as well and fund MACC so they have the manpower and resources to do their jobs.”

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To view the amended animal ordinance, click here.