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Legal Q&As

Great tips and advice from the Animal League Experts.

Below are Q&As on legal that relate to cats or dogs. Not what you're looking for? Use the form below to change your criteria, or submit your question to one of our experts.

Pet Legal Disclaimer
Please note that responses to legal inquiries are not meant to replace seeking legal advice from an attorney in your state. The materials in this website and any responses to questions are for informational purposes only and are not intended, nor should they be construed, as legal advice. This website, the information contained herein, and any responses to questions directed to this column are not intended to create and do not establish an attorney-client relationship. You should not rely or act upon any information provided on this website or in any response to your inquiry without seeking the advice of an attorney in your state regarding the facts of your specific situation.

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Do I have to return a dog?
Q:

My husband and I are living at an Extended Stay for a few weeks. 4 weeks ago, we observed a stray dog rummaging through the garbage and drinking from puddles, etc. We observed that dog for over a week, then one day, the dog came up to us. We decided to try to find its owner so we took it to the vet to see if it was microchipped (not chipped) and started checking all the local websites where people list lost pets. We also informed the management so they could send anyone asking to us. After a week, nothing happened, so we decided to adopt the dog and had it checked and vaccinated. 

After we had the dog for 3.5 weeks, someone in the complex recognized the dog when my husband was walking it, stating that they were watching it for another person and that person would return home the next day. However, they made no move to get the dog from us. My husband gave them our information--room number, etc.--and no one has come to us to get the dog.

At what point can we call this dog our dog? Now we are attached to the dog, and even though those folks are still in their room, they have not contacted us in any way.

A:

Who “owns” an animal is not clear in many situations involving a lost and found animal, unless the animal is held at a shelter and the “owner” does not redeem the animal in the time provided for in the law. In other words, there is not necessarily any one particular time where the finder of an animal can know for sure that a court would decide that he/she is the animal’s “owner.” Each case has its own facts and circumstances. Fortunately, most lost and found animal situations don’t end up in court. In circumstances where a dog’s “owner” can be identified (including where one has been informed that a dog was lost and the dog’s “owner” lives in the apartment complex), the finder of such dog may have a difficult case for “ownership” without first making proactive efforts to locate the “owner.” That could include, for example, contacting the dog sitter who lost the dog to get direct contact information for the “owner” and placing “found dog” signs in the complex. It could be that the people don’t want the dog anymore in which case a written transfer of “ownership” would be advisable to help avoid future pet custody conflicts


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
What can I do about an abandoned cat?
Q:

I had an old lady give me a 5 week old kitten that was left in a box on her door step. We met at my work and she gave me the kitten. No paperwork or legal adoption paperwork was signed. This was a private adoption in my eyes. I've had the kitten for over a week now and the lady keeps calling my work(not calling me or asking for me) and she is demanding her kitten back. I'm not up for giving her the kitten back. What can I do?

A:

Usually when a person gives away his/her animal, such person has no further rights to that animal. Thus, the recipient of the animal would generally not be under any obligation to return the animal.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Is the dog mine?
Q:

My sister gave me a dog for my birthday 6 years ago, however now she is trying to sell said dog or put it down. She has not taken care of it nor paid any of its vet bills besides the first few for shots and nuder. Will I be able to take her to small claims and win? The dog is healthy, in a good home, loved and has been mine for as long as it's lived. The adoption papers say it's in her name though. She does live in the same household but she is on disability and food stamps. She can't take my dog away from me can she? It's my best friend.

A:

Generally the recipient of a gift (including an animal) becomes the “owner” of the gift and the person who gave the gift typically cannot take the gift back (unless there were conditions attached to the gift allowing for the gift to be reclaimed under certain circumstances). A person who is not the animal’s “owner” typically would not have the right to sell or give the animal away or have the animal euthanized without the “owner’s” consent. However, it is important to recognize that an animal may be in jeopardy (regardless of who “owns” the animal) when a person who lives in the same household as the animal is threatening to sell the animal or have the animal euthanized. The safest resolution would be to move with the animal. In determining whether the person who gave away or sold an animal or had an animal euthanized was the animal’s “owner,” courts would likely consider not only who purchased/adopted the animal but who has been paying for the animal’s care, who has been the animal’s primary caretaker, and under whose name, if anyone, the animal is registered, licensed, and/or microchipped. 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Negligent Dogsitter
Q:

I had someone stay in my home to watch my 2 little teacup yorkies.  Against specific instructions she took them to her home and while there her father took one of them out without harness or leash and let her go resulting in her getting killed by passing car. what are my legal options?

A:

I am so sorry to hear this tragic story. A pet “parent” can sue a caretaker when the pet “parent’s” animal gets injured, sick, or dies while in the custody of the caretaker and the caretaker failed to provide reasonable care to the animal. Worth noting though is that courts in New York have tended not to award substantial sums of money when a companion animal is negligently harmed or killed. This is because the courts have generally not considered emotional distress or loss of companionship in these cases (although there have been a few noteworthy exceptions and perhaps there will be more). NY courts have typically considered the market value of the animal and have awarded money for veterinary expenses. Courts may also consider whether the animal had special training and special traits in determining the animal’s value.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Gave my dog to a friend
Q:

My boyfriend and I adopted a second dog-  took ---- home and our dog would attack her on and off all night long. I decided this wasn't going to work. I didn't want to take ---- back. Instead I told my friend about her. After a big talk and pictures shown, she took ---- home, I gave her all the paperwork and instructions on how to change contact info to her name etc. Months later I get a call from Animal Control. --- ran away. ----said she went to pick ----up and they refused to let her because of how ---was acting towards ---- husband. Months later I wanted to make sure --- was able to get back with -----, apparently ---- is with another family and happy. However, I got told recently that ---- never picked ----up from Animal Control. I don't have any of --- information because I gave it all to ----. I just want to make sure ---- is okay and that our names are no longer connected to her. What should I do? Can you help me? Thanks

A:

 I suggest you contact the animal shelter that you adopted the dog from, the dog licensing agency in your area, animal control, as well as the microchip registration company, if applicable, to inform them of your “ownership” status. While it is understandable that an individual would want to get information about the well-being of a dog he/she gave away, there is generally no legal obligation on anyone’s part to provide such information.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Legal Ownership
Q:

Hello,

My dogsitter has now decided that the dog belongs to him and refuses to return him to me. He stole the papers that I had. However, my name are on all of those papers, and my name and information is on the microchip in the dog's skin. Does that make me the legal owner? I am taking him to a small claims  court to argue the issue and I need to know exactly what makes me the legal owner.

Thank you!

A:

 Dog registration papers, microchip registration, a dog license, and veterinary records are indicia of “ownership” but they don’t necessarily prove “ownership” in all cases. Just because one’s name is still on an animal’s papers does not negate acts taken thereafter, including, for example, giving an animal away or selling an animal. The court will consider the totality of the evidence presented and make a determination. I suggest that people confirm with their local Small Claims Court that the court handles replevin actions (return of property, including animals) since in some states only lawsuits for money can be brought in Small Claims Court. 


Submitted by Katie
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
What can I do to keep the dog?
Q:

My ex and I recently split. I've been caring for his dog for over 8 months. Even when she was with him he could not afford to buy food for her as well as his child. I flipped the bill because i did not want to see the dog or his child starve.. I picked up the dog a few months a go and still have her. After further examining her skin I realized that she had not been properly bathed or cleaned in a very long time. He works out of town 14 days out of the month and has a week off. He sends the dog to whoever will take her and then spends a week with her.. When he leaves she does not eat, she suffers from awful separation anxiety. But since she's been in my care I've scheduled shots and to be spayed. She's been clean, eating healthy and happy.. He has no papers to prove that the dog is his. I don't want her to be neglected anymore. I love her with all my heart but there's more to caring for a dog than just being able to feed and have a home.. She seeks attention because she hasn't been getting enough. It's heartbreaking. What can I do to keep her? He left her in my possession and I do not want to give her back. I've finally estaished a healthy routine and trust that she will not be left alone anymore..

A:

When a person leaves his/her animal in another person’s care for months without paying for the animal’s care, a strong argument can be made that the animal has been abandoned. Also, sometimes in these situations the person who left the animal doesn’t want the animal and that resolves the issue. Occasionally, the original “owner” is willing to sell the animal to end a dispute. Ideally, there would be a written transfer of ownership agreement. At times, the original “owner” contacts the police and alleges theft so the caretaker who believes an animal has been abandoned or gifted should be prepared to present a cogent argument on these points and have an attorney ready to call. A dog license, veterinary records, and microchip can be helpful indicia of “ownership” but it is important to keep in mind that even if one gets a dog licensed and microchipped and brings the dog to a vet, that may not be dispositive regarding “ownership.” Courts will consider other evidence which may demonstrate that an animal was sold, given away, abandoned, or neglected.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
How can I get my dog back?
Q:

I left my parents home at october 2014. I left for reasons of abuse. I want to get my dog bs ck. I received her when I was a minor so she is under their name. She was a gift for my birthday. she isn't under my name but she is my baby. I just want her back .

A:

You will likely have a difficult case. I suggest you try to work this out with your parents. If that is not possible, consult with an attorney in your state.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Neighbors repeatedly report my pets
Q:

Last year owner of the next door empty house reported me to Baltimore city animal control and verbally harassed us. He even made up that he cannot sell the house because of alleged stench from my pets. Thanks to me being responsible owner, with all 5 cats (they're indoor) and a dog properly licensed and vaccinated I did not have problems when animal officers inspected my home. They concluded that animals are well taken care of, as well as that home is very clean and that they will enter their findings into the system. I am also thankful for the help from our neighborhood association as well as from the police where I reported his aggressive behavior. 

Today, almost a year after, I received again animal control letter stating that: I do not have licenses, or rabies vaccines, and that I do not clean dog's feces in my yard and when I walk. I will call officer within 48h as requested to discuss the issue. They do not have any legal base to charge me with anything. However, here is the question: For how long I do have to put up with this type of harassment? There must be a legal recourse for false accusations and for constant infliction of emotional pain. It is hard to find lawyer, not even mention pet lawyer. I do not have much money either. Where I can go for help? I need to know who has reported me this time, so I can handle this issue legally. I also want to advocate for the law change: animal control already knows me as a responsible owner who is possibly on a target because of discrimination (I am not born in USA). Responsible owners should have been excluded from repeated inspections just because vicious neighbors are calling 311 for almost anything. Please propose me some steps for the resolution. I am trying to not to take this personally, but it's hard. Thanks

A:

Just because an animal control or other law enforcement officer determines after an inspection that an animal’s “owner” or custodian is not violating an animal related law does not relieve these officers of their responsibility to investigate when another complaint is made in the future, particularly a year later. 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Found my missing dog in a rescue
Q:

My sister's pure blood basset hound has been missing for a few months. A friend on Facebook told me about her friend that had taken a basset hound; that she had found, to a rescue that looks exactly like her; spot for spot, and we have sent pictures, the registration papers, and vet records to the rescue and the rescue even took all her picture off of the Facebook website .  We have proven that the dog is ours thru pictures, and now they are changing their story about how they got her; they said that she was a stray, but now they are saying that her owner gave her up cause they could not afford her. The rescue will not allow us to come and confirm that she is our dog. They also have refused to give us a phone number, nor a location to where they are located at, and they will only respond thru email. Is it legal to not allow us to come and confirm visually that the dog they are portraying is our dog that went missing?

A:

An individual who believes his/her animal is being wrongfully withheld can sue. It is possible a court would order a rescue to produce an animal but that would likely depend on various factors, including, for example, evidence on how the rescue acquired the dog (owner surrender or as a found animal), how long the dog was held (there are laws requiring shelters to hold dogs for a specified amount of time to give “owners” of lost dogs an opportunity to redeem them), and evidence that the  person alleging to be the “owner” of the lost dog might really be the “owner” (many purebred dogs have similar features so unusual markings may be considered as well as the time when and place where the dog was lost and found). If the rescue no longer has the dog, that could greatly complicate the case. 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
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