A dog may be man's best friend, but to the chagrin of some canine lovers here, the reverse is not always true.

For six months, starting last December, 18 families who live at a Howard County public housing project were threatened with eviction for keeping dogs and cats in their apartments in violation of their leases. Television crews and reporters flocked to the Hilltop Apartments, focusing public attention on both the issue and the county officials who oversee the 94-unit development for low-income families near the county office complex here. The families were told recently they may keep their pets, but the controversy lives on.

Tonight, two members of the Howard County Council, hoping to end the dogs-and-cats debate, proposed legislation to clarify the issue once and for all. Pet ownership would be restricted to a third of the county's public housing units and those tenants with pets could have only one dog, cat, or other small animal, weighing no more than 20 pounds.

"This controversy has caused a lot of trauma and anxiety for the people of Hilltop," said council member C. Vernon Gray, the legislation's chief sponsor.

But other council members said the weight limit was unreasonable, and his proposal was rejected on a 3-to-2 vote.

Rochell Brown, the county community development coordinator who oversees the Hilltop apartments, said the ban on pets was intended to reduce the number of strays and was a precaution against the spread of rabies.

The 18 families with pets may keep them because of a recent vote by the county Housing and Community Development Board. But the anti-pet rule still applies to other tenants. Gray said he was uncertain whether he would file new legislation easing the pet rule.