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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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What can I do to get my cat back from my ex-girlfriend?
Q:

My girlfriend and I broke up. We went our separate ways, and she offered to take care of my cat while I got an apartment, so I could then get my cat. But after I was settled in my new apartment, my ex changed her number and would not respond to my emails. I adopted that cat myself from the ASPCA...and I want her back...What can I do? What rights do I have? Please help.

A:

You can sue for the return of the cat. Generally if an individual purchases/adopts an animal, that person is the ‘owner’ of the animal. There may be exceptions for animals acquired during a marriage. Also if a court believes that an animal was subsequently given away or abandoned the court might decide that the animal now belongs to another person. In making such a determination, courts may consider who paid for the animal’s care, who was the primary caretaker (who fed the animal, who took the animal to the vet, etc.), under whose name an animal is registered/licensed and when such licensing/registration took place. Sometimes courts also consider the best interests of the animal. For example, in one appellate cat custody case in New York, the court stated, “Cognizant of the cherished status accorded to pets in our society, the strong emotions engendered by disputes of this nature, and the limited ability of the courts to resolve them satisfactorily, on the record presented, we think it best for all concerned that, given his limited life expectancy, Lovey, who is now almost ten years old, remain where he has lived, prospered, loved and been loved for the past four years.” Another case in New York involved the following fact pattern: Man acquired dog from his parents. At the time he received the dog, he was living with his girlfriend and they both cared for the dog. When the couple split, the ex-girlfriend cared for the dog while the ex-boyfriend looked for an apartment. The ex-boyfriend subsequently took the dog but then returned the dog to his ex-girlfriend while he traveled. After the trip, the ex-girlfriend refused to return the dog. The ex-boyfriend filed a replevin action (basically an action for the return of property wrongfully withheld). The court held that the ex-boyfriend had a “superior possessory right” and ordered the return of the dog to him. As you can see, it is not always clear how a court will decide pet custody cases. If at all possible, the disputing parties should try to reach an agreement that considers the best interests of the animal. The courts might not.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
How can I make my neighbor pay the vet bills?
Q:

My neighbor's dog attacked my dog in my yard. My dog was on her leash. His was not. He told me he would pay the vet bills, but has not done so and now he is avoiding me. How can I make him pay the vet bills?

A:

When disputes are not resolved amicably, sometimes people choose to sue. Small Claims Court is a fairly simple and inexpensive way to have disputes adjudicated if the amount sought is within the court’s jurisdiction.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Am I liable for anything in this dog walking incident?
Q:

I was returning from walking my 2 beagles. We were walking up an alley that leads to our back gate, when we encountered a woman walking her 2 dogs. One of her dogs is a chow mix (70 lbs) and the other a border collie mix. Her male chow has exhibited aggression in the past. Our dogs saw each other at about the same time. She pulled her dogs to the left, and I to the other side of the alley. My dogs were pulling and barking. Hers not barking, but pulling also. Her dogs pulled her down. I asked her if she was OK. She said yes. I returned home. Am I liable for anything here?

A:

I think it would be difficult in most situations where a dog pulls and knocks his/her “owner” down after seeing another dog yanking on a leash to attribute liability to the other dog’s “owner.” However, people sue for all sorts of things even when liability of the other party is not that apparent. Homeowners insurance may cover this kind of incident.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
What can I do to protect my dog from my ex boyfriend?
Q:

My ex husband then ex boyfriend rescued a dog off of the street last February 2013. Because he lives in a building that does not allow pets, I took him to my place which does allow pets. I recently broke up with him. He is now demanding that it is his dog even though he has not contributed to the care of the dog. He is doing this to hurt me because he knows how attached to him I am. He claims he has some legal paperwork and is demanding to pick up the dog on this coming Friday. This dog is terrified of men and is completely adjusted to living here with me. There was never an agreement, verbal or otherwise that he would take the dog in the future. He plans on placing the dog with someone I don't know and is just a game to hurt me. Does he have any legal rights to my dog? What can I do to protect my dog from further mental damage? Thank you for your response.

A:

While the police sometimes get involved in pet theft cases, they usually do not get involved in pet custody disputes between people who know each other and have different versions of who is entitled to keep an animal. While one may have a dog license, vet records, or similar forms of ‘ownership’ documentation, animals are given away/sold frequently so the police and courts should and usually would consider much more evidence in determining custody of an animal. I suggest you consult with an attorney in your area to discuss a plan of action in the event the police get involved or a lawsuit is commenced.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
What constitutes abandonment?
Q:

I know the legal definition of abandonment of a pet (relinquishing all responsibility to or for a pet), but I've heard it's hard to prove in court. Even my attorney says so, at least in this situation: Person #1 has had several dogs for years, but shared one dog with a family member (Person #2) for six years. If Person #1 leaves town with her other dogs, but leaves that dog with the family member and contributes nothing to its care for over a year, isn't that abandonment? Especially if during the year Person #1 stops calling, and even accepting or returning numerous calls from Person #2. The dog was unlicensed, had an unregistered microchip, and the dog's normal vet wouldn't see the dog during that year because the account was in violation and sent to collection due to unpaid bill from Person #1's other dog months earlier. By the way, I am Person #2 in this situation. Person #1 came back into town after a year and demanded the dog (who had been licensed and chipped to me months earlier). We are currently in a legal battle and she puts on the "sweet, kind, generous, older lady who's been stabbed in the back" act.

A:

Courts will consider many factors, including the verbal or written agreement between the parties, when deciding a pet custody dispute. A court might very well find that if an ‘owner’ made arrangements for another individual to care for his/her animal, there was no abandonment. However, if an animal is left for much longer than originally agreed upon, a court could decide that the ‘owner’ abandoned an animal. It may be more likely for a court to do so if the caretaker communicated to the ‘owner’ that if the animal is not retrieved within a certain amount of time the caretaker will presume the animal to be abandoned. That communication in and of itself does not mean a court will deem the animal to be abandoned but may be considered among the other evidence. There are laws in some states that specifically address abandonment when animals are left for boarding. These laws generally require notice to be given to 'owners' and an opportunity for 'owners' to redeem their animals prior to an animal being deemed abandoned. In a 'shared 'ownership' arrangement, courts might consider whether the animal was ultimately gifted to one party. The court might also consider the best interests of the animal.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
What recourse do we have against our vet who charged us more than the quoted price?
Q:

Our dog had rectal bleeding and we were told by vet the cost for surgery would be no more than $1500. The surgeon contacted my husband after surgery and told him the cost is $3500. We were never told of the higher price until after surgery. What recourse do we have?

A:

Fee disputes that cannot be resolved amicably sometimes end up in Small Claims Court (or in another court if the disputed amount exceeds the jurisdiction of Small Claims Court). Worth noting is that animal hospital admission forms occasionally include a provision indicating that the fee to be charged may be higher (or lower) than the estimated fee due to unforeseen conditions that may be detected or arise during surgery or other treatment.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
How can I get my dog back from a co-worker's friend?
Q:

I let a co-worker have my dog 2 weeks a go cause I was moving in a place that did not allow dogs. I called her a week after telling her that I wanted my dog back because I was not moving in that place; I found a place that allows dogs and she has given my dog to someone I do not know. What can I do to get my dog back?

A:

Usually when one gives a companion animal away, one loses all rights to that animal. Unless one can demonstrate to a court that there was an agreement allowing for the return of an animal within a particular time period or under other specified circumstances, one will likely have difficulty getting an animal returned (unless the person who has the animal wants to return the animal). I hope ‘your’ dog is happy in his/her new home and that his/her new ‘owner’ can provide the dog with a loving forever home.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
What legal recourse can I take to get a kitten back I gave away?
Q:

I gave a kitten away without doing a home visit to residence. New "owner" emailed me saying she wanted to give me the kitten back and now "owner" is saying she wants to keep kitten. I went to the new home of the kitten and the home is DEPLORABLE and now she does not want to give the kitten back. I now want the kitten back due to the environment it is in. What type of legal recourse do I have to get her back?

A:

Usually when one gives an animal away, one loses all rights to that animal, unless there is an agreement that provides for the return of the animal under certain circumstances. That is why it is so important for people to carefully consider this very important decision. Animals deserve a forever humane home. Sometimes a companion animal ‘owner’ who gave away or sold an animal and then has a change of heart tries to purchase the animal from the new ‘owner.’ If you believe the conditions under which the kitten is living could constitute cruelty or neglect, contact the police and society for the prevention of cruelty to animals in your area.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
How do we get a rescue dog back from an unfit adopter?
Q:

Our rescue adopted-out a dog to an owner that has proven to provide inadequate care. The adopter signed a contract which includes a clause stating that we have the right to reclaim the dog within 30 days if we find the animal is not cared for properly. How do we get the dog back? Can we go to the home and take the dog so long as it is within 30 days?

A:

Consider a civil lawsuit for the return of the animal based on a breach of contract. Unless accompanied by the police to remove the dog, there is the risk of being arrested for trespass and other crimes. I suggest you consult with an attorney who can review your adoption contract and advise you further about your rights. Also, I suggest that you contact your local society for the prevention of cruelty to animals (SPCA) and the police who are authorized to enforce the state’s animal cruelty laws and to seize neglected and abused animals.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Is the speeding car that killed my dog at fault?
Q:

The speed limit on our street is 25 mph. If a car traveling at approximately 50 mph on our street hit and killed my dog by my driveway, is he at fault?

A:

I am very sorry for your loss. Courts would likely consider whether an animal who was hit by a car was in the street or on private property in determining liability and damages. Courts may also consider speeding. State laws vary on when (and if) a plaintiff can recover monetary damages if the plaintiff was partially at fault. The amount awarded is often reduced by the percentage of liability the court attributes to the plaintiff. If you want to pursue a lawsuit, I suggest you consult with an attorney in your state who can assess the facts of your situation and advise you about the possible merits of a lawsuit.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
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