About 170,000, or one third, of the estimated 500,000 dogs in the Washington area are licensed, despite strict laws in all jurisdictions requiring licensing. Only about 17,000 of the area's cats are licensed -- of which there are an estimated 500,000 to 1 million. Or more.

The region's canine population actually may be much greater than 500,000, some animal wardens say, since the vast majority of dogs are unlicensed and there is no dog census. In rural Charles County, for instance, of the last 2,000 dogs picked up by the animal warden, only 11, or fewer than one percent, were licensed.

The area's dog licensing laws are largely preventive measures to control the spread of rabies. Rabies shots are required before a dog can be licensed.

The disease caused widespread concern in the Washington region in 1982, when hundreds of cases of rabies were reported in raccoons, bats, foxes, beavers, skunks, squirrels, cows, groundhogs and a rat -- as well as several dogs and cats, according to Martha Lamborn of the Montgomery County Department of Animal Control.

There have been 742 rabies cases reported in Montgomery County alone since 1982. Four of the county's rabid animals were cats, and one was a dog. Most jurisdictions did not have figures on the total number of rabies cases.

Although all jurisdictions require cats to have rabies shots, the requirement is difficult to enforce since only three localities actually license cats -- Montgomery County, Prince Georges County and Gaithersburg.

Of the estimated 300,000 cats in those three jurisdictions only about 17,000, or about 5 percent, are licensed, officials say. Cats are not licensed in most counties because they are considered "free spirits," according to Carol Taylor of the Fairfax County Animal Shelter. There are so many cats that they would be about as easy to regulate "as rats and roaches," she said. Animal shelters in Fairfax, Calvert and Prince William counties and Manassas City are lobbying their local governments to require cat licensing.

Taylor attributes the failure of pet owners to get their animals licensed to laziness.

"It's too much trouble for owners to bring the animals in, so they just don't bother. I guess they don't realize how important it is, much less that it's required by law.

Dog and cat licenses range from $2 to $10, and may be half price for neutered pets and pets whose owners are senior citizens or handicapped.