Fayette County

Lexington considers giving vicious-dog ordinance more teeth

A police officer cornered one of two pit bulls that killed a child and injured another Tuesday in Atlanta. There have been no reports of people killed by dogs in recent years in Lexington.
A police officer cornered one of two pit bulls that killed a child and injured another Tuesday in Atlanta. There have been no reports of people killed by dogs in recent years in Lexington. Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

Lexington is considering giving its vicious-dog ordinance more teeth.

Under the proposed changes, animal control officers would be able to temporarily quarantine particularly vicious dogs after they bite. The other changes being weighed include requiring that vicious dogs be spayed or neutered, and the creation of a photo registry of all vicious dogs.

The changes were discussed Tuesday during the Urban County Council’s Planning and Public Safety Committee meeting. The ordinance will be discussed again at the Feb. 14 committee meeting, Councilwoman Peggy Henson said. It’s possible the committee will vote on the changes then.

Henson proposed the changes after a dog in her neighborhood injured people and animals on three occasions. First the dog attacked a woman and her dog, which required hospital care and stitches. The dog then attacked a cat. Later, the dog attacked a woman and her two small dogs. The woman had minor injuries, but the injuries to the two dogs were much more serious, Henson said.

Henson, who was at the scene of the last attack, said she was surprised there was no provision in the current ordinance that would allow animal control officers to seize particularly dangerous animals. It’s up to a citizen to pursue criminal or civil charges against the dog’s owner. Many people don’t do that, she said.

“I was surprised when animal control came and said they couldn’t take the dog unless someone pressed charges,” Henson said after Tuesday’s meeting. “I felt that dog was such a public safety issue he needed to be immediately quarantined. But that was not the way our ordinances were written.”

Henson cautioned that changes are still being made. Officials with the Fayette County attorney’s office are expected to attend the February committee meeting to weigh in on some of the changes.

“I really don’t think there are a lot of dogs like this. It really is just a few dogs,” she said.

There have been no deaths caused by dog attacks in Fayette County in recent years. In 2015, a Fayette County woman was seriously injured while trying to break up a dog fight.

OnTuesday, the same day the council began deliberations on changing its ordinance, two dogs identified as pit bull mixes killed a 6-year-old child and injured a second child in Atlanta. Police arrested the dogs’ owner.

Under the ordinance, a dog is defined as vicious if it is owned for the purpose of fighting, or if the dog has bitten a human or animal without cause, or if it has been declared by a court as a vicious dog.

Under the current ordinance, a dog declared vicious must be kept on the owner’s property either indoors or in a yard with a locked fence. If it leaves the owner’s property, it must be restrained by a leash and a muzzle. (The muzzle cannot cause harm to the dog or restrict its vision or breathing).

The changes would also require that a vicious dog be in a photo registry and have a microchip. The dog must be spayed or neutered. Owners who don’t comply could be fined between $200 and $500. The ordinance also would allow animal control officers to take temporary possession of any dog that the officer has probable cause to suspect has bitten a human without being provoked. The animal could be held for 10 days if no criminal or civil complaint is filed against the owner. If a complaint is filed, animal control can keep the animal until a court determines whether the dog is vicious.

Animal Care and Control chief Nathan Bowling said the local government receives 700 to 800 calls a year regarding vicious dogs. That doesn’t mean the dogs are vicious as defined by the ordinance. Those complaints are typically about aggressive dogs, he said.

Bowling said officers are seeing more dogs that meet the definition of vicious under the law.

“That’s why we are trying to get some clarification in the law,” Bowling said after Tuesday’s meeting. “We are seeing more vicious dogs. The more Lexington grows, the more the dog population grows.”

Bowling said after Tuesday’s meeting that he supports the update to the ordinance. Bowling said one of his concerns is how long animal control would have to house and care for a dog. Animal control has housed and cared for dogs that were involved in court cases for six months to a year. Under the proposed changes, the city could charge the owner $8 a day to house an animal.

“If you have a truly vicious dog, it has to be handled by people. It has to be cleaned, it has to be fed ... 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Bowling said.

Beth Musgrave: 859-231-3205, @HLCityhall