Arlington dog day care center Wag More Dogs has spent two years battling the county over whether a large, colorful mural painted on one of its exterior walls violates the county's sign ordinance, and this week a federal appeals court ruled in the county's favor.

But the mural outside Wag More Dogs -- a 960-square-foot painting of cartoon dogs, bones and pawprints -- may not have to be removed, county officials said Wednesday.

The county suggested Wag More Dogs could make unspecified modifications to the sign. Other than that, though, the mural would have to be painted over or remain covered by a tarp, county spokeswoman Mary Curtius said.

The county's problems with the Wag More Dogs mural date back to 2010, when Arlington resident Kim Houghton opened the dog day care next to a dog park in Shirlington. The county contends that because Houghton's mural featured dogs, it also served as an implicit advertisement for her business and is subject to the county's sign rules. Houghton said she painted the mural to "beautify the area" and to "create goodwill with the people who frequented the dog park, many of whom were potential Wag More Dogs customers," according to court documents.

Officials said the mural violated county size restrictions and ordered Houghton to cover the mural or paint "Welcome to Shirlington Park's Community Canine Area" above the artwork.

Houghton declined, and the mural has been covered by a tarp for the past two years as the case worked its way to the U.S. Court of Appeals, which ruled this week that the county's sign ordinance does apply to the mural.

Houghton's lawyer, Robert Frommer, says he believes Arlington's sign ordinance is unconstitutional and allows the county to "pick and choose which murals are subjected to regulation as signs." Frommer said Houghton hasn't decided whether she wants to appeal the case further, but she could choose to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Kim's mural is at the center of this case, but it's about the free speech rights of all people in Arlington County," he said.

Arlington officials say Houghton must bring the mural into compliance but that they are willing to work with her to do so.

"We've always said from the beginning that the problem was not the mural -- it was that it was an advertisement," Curtius said.