The Mobile County Commission has adopted a state law requiring pet owners to keep their dogs confined on and off their property and vowed to look at further regulations in the future.

Commissioners unanimously voted to adopt Alabama Code 3-1-5, which will give animal control officers the authority to issue citations to pet owners when their animals are found roaming at large or spotted without proper confinement measures on the owner’s property.

Fines can range anywhere from $2 to $50 but will require the offender to appear in court and pay court costs officials say would be a minimum of $200. Doug Hathcock of the county’s public services department said the ordinance was adopted in response to rising reports of dogs in the rural parts of the county injuring residents and damaging property.

Hathcock said animal control officers previously had few options to address those problems.

“Dogs are dogs. They’re going to do what they want to do, but pet owners are the ones who have to be accountable for their pets,” Hathcock said. “If they want to make sure their pets are well kept and not in harm’s way, they’ll keep them safely on their own property.”

According to animal control, there has been an average of 235 biting incidents, 1,129 reports of aggressive behavior by loose dogs and 1,018 reports of property damage every year since 2013.

In addition to costing taxpayers money, when owned dogs are captured and brought to the Mobile County Animal Shelter, Hathcock said it causes problems with overcrowding, sometimes resulting in preventable euthanizations. He said on average 60 percent of dogs taken into the county shelter are owned by someone but only 15 percent of those owners ever reclaim their pets.

The new ordinance went into effect immediately. According to Hathcock, though, it won’t likely be enforced for a few months as the county works to train and deputize animal control officers to issue citations.

“This is becoming a public safety issue, and it’s increasing every year,” Mobile County Humane Officer Carmelo Miranda said. “We have had laws to deal with the aftermath of people being injured or their property being damaged, but those laws only addressed the issue after the fact.”

Miranda said there have previously been instances of people believed to be the owner of a dog involved in an incident denying their ownership. However, when a repeat offender is brought to court for violating the new ordinance, it will create a paper trail. Miranda said judges can even order owners to have their dog microchipped so it can be more easily identified in the future.

“I’m a citizen, and I’m a dog owner. I don’t like to have the government tell me what I need to do with my dogs, but the fact is, the current laws on the books protect those who don’t wish to abide by the law or who don’t care about the neighbors’ safety and property,” he said.

By adopting the state law, the county expects to save between $57,000 to $74,000 per year and increase the productivity of animal control officers by allowing them to address the issue before a problem, such as a dog bite, is reported. Several residents in attendance supported the decision.

One, Susan Todd, said she’s spent years on a civil lawsuit against a neighbor whose dog attacked and killed several of her chickens. She said the neighbor had been warned several times by animal control before the incident to keep her dogs confined but never complied.

“I was the fifth person on my road that lost livestock to her two dogs,” Todd said. “They were in a pen. It’s not like they were in the yard or loose in the street. These dogs came to my house, into my yard and destroyed my cage to get to these chickens and killed them.”

Amy Cotton, who works with a local animal rescue group, said one of the driving factors behind dogs roaming unrestrained is the unregulated, for-profit sale of dogs (and cats) that aren’t spayed or neutered — something she said often occurs at local flea markets.

She encouraged commissioners to start a dialog with local legislators about adopting a state law banning the sale of “unaltered” animals or even the “for profit” sale of dogs and cats altogether. Cotton noted the city of Atlanta adopted such an ordinance earlier in November.

Commission President Connie Hudson said “The state of Alabama does not grant us the legislative authority to do something like that,” but said she’d be open to starting a dialog with Mobile County’s legislative delegation about what changes could be explored at the state level.

Bruce Looper, who leads a community action group in Tillman’s Corner, told commissioners loose dogs — often packs of them — have been a big problem there, too. He was glad to see the ordinance adopted, but shared the commission’s sentiments that more needs to be done.

“Right now, this is the only tool we really have available to us now, but given what we’re hearing, we probably need to be talking about another piece of legislation that includes some of the others issues raised here today,” Commissioner Merceria Ludgood said. “I would support this just to give us a tool with the understanding that it’s still wholly inadequate.”

Commissioner Jerry Carl had similar concerns about the ordinance and almost seemed poised to vote against it because he believed it lacked the “teeth” needed to make any significant impact and could potentially “clog up” the county’s already strained judicial system with new citation cases.

However, Carl — who says he’s been bitten by a loose dog in his own neighborhood — ultimately voted in support of adopting the ordinance with the understanding the county would “take it to the next step” and continue discussing future changes with legislators.