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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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Who owns the dogs - my ex or me?
Q:

My ex-boyfriend and I acquired 2 purebred dogs while together. I paid for the dogs and the vet bills. We are no longer together. Both names are on the AKC registration. I have paid for the license which is in his name. Who owns them??

A:

In pet custody/ownership cases, courts will consider several factors to determine who gets to keep an animal, including, for example, who purchased/adopted an animal, under whose name an animal is registered, licensed, and/or microchipped, who paid for the animal’s care, and who is the primary caretaker of the animal. Sometimes a court will consider the best interests of the animal. Courts that consider animals as mere property (and many courts do) may simply award one dog to each person, and not consider that separating the dogs may not be in the dogs’ best interests. I hope you and your ex work out an arrangement which is best for the dogs.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Which state law covers my transaction in regards to consumer protection and puppy health?
Q:

If I bought a dog in a state that does not have a consumer protection law with regard to puppy health, and the breeder shipped a very sick animal to me, but I live in a state with consumer protection laws. With no mention in any contract as to controlling law, which state law covers the transaction and do I have any legal recourse for the vet bills?

A:

State pet sale laws typically regulate in-state pet dealers. There are additional requirements governing the importation of animals from one state to another. For example, dogs and cats imported into New York are supposed to be accompanied by a health certificate signed by a veterinarian, legally qualified to practice in the state or country of origin, which indicates, among other things, that the animal has been examined and that such examination revealed no clinical evidence of an infectious or communicable disease (except parasites and fungi).

Even in the absence of a specific state pet sale law, consumers can have protection under more general consumer protection laws, such as the Uniform Commercial Code which pertains to the sale of goods generally (goods include animals) by merchants (persons who in the ordinary course of business sell the goods). Courts have awarded consumers reimbursement for veterinary expenses in cases involving the sale by a merchant of a sick animal on the grounds that the seller breached a warranty of merchantability (the animal was not fit for sale). Attorneys General may also get involved, particularly if they believe there has been fraud or deception or if a pet dealer has a history of selling sick animals. I suggest you have an attorney review your sales contract as well.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
What are my rights to dogs I rescued from an online site?
Q:

I rescued two chihuahuas from the FL Chi Rescue site. They had been abandoned after the dogs were found inside the home of a man who had been dead for more than 2 weeks. The police surrendered the dogs to his neighbors and told them it was legal for them to find homes for them. The brother of the man spoke to the neighbors telling them his brother had overdosed on illegal drugs. He also gave the name of the dogs but did not want them. Now, an ex-girlfriend of the deceased got out of jail on drug and domestic violence charges. She got my cell number from the neighbors and is calling with threats. What are my rights?

A:

An ex-girlfriend/boyfriend of a deceased person usually does not have rights to a deceased person’s animals unless the animals were bequeathed to such person in a Will or other legal document. Sometimes a person might claim that he/she is the real ‘owner’ of the animal or ‘co-owner’ and that presents legal issues that courts may consider if a case is commenced.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Do I have any grounds to sue a pet sitter who didn't show up?
Q:

I booked the services of a pet sitter that we have used a few times. She told us verbally that she would come 3 days to care for cats, dogs, chickens and horse. She never came and will not answer phone or return calls from us. She gave us no reason and these animals went without food and water for 3 days. I feel she should have let us know (she had plenty of contact information) if she was not going to take care of our pets. Would this be grounds for a suit or some kind?

A:

I hope your animals survived and are doing well after their terrible ordeal. Courts have awarded pet ‘owners’ monetary compensation for the injury to or death of their animals caused by the negligence or intentional act of others. It is possible a court could reduce monetary damages if the court determines that the pet ‘owner’ was partially at fault. The police and humane societies with law enforcement authority can also be contacted. Cruelty to animals is illegal in every state.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
How can we get our dog back from a NY rescue?
Q:

Going back to work left our highly active & destructive dog in a crate too long. 2 weeks ago we gave him to a NY rescue, asking to be kept informed & that we'd take him back if a better home wasn't found. 10 days later we couldn't take it any longer and said we wanted him back. They refused saying he had just been adopted. We've been in touch every day since and they refuse. My dog is registered to us in CT.

A:

Once one signs a surrender agreement, it is usually difficult to get an animal returned. Shelters and rescue groups are concerned that the individual who surrendered the animal did not have the requisite commitment to the animal and that whatever caused the individual to surrender the animal could very well happen again.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Can I call the police and have them enforce the return of my dog since I have papers still?
Q:

I rescued my dog from the pound 3 years ago. Last year I had to move into a home that would not let me have any animals. My friend agreed to keep her for me until I could get something bigger with a yard. Now I have my yard and a home for her to come home to along with her adoption papers. He will not give her back to me. Can I call the police and have them enforce it since I have papers still?

A:

Usually the police will not get involved in pet custody cases. While pet theft is illegal, oftentimes the police consider pet custody disputes between friends (or ex-friends or ex-cohabiters) to be civil matters, best left to civil litigation, not criminal prosecution. If one believes an animal is being wrongfully withheld, one can sue for the return of the animal. If there is no written agreement specifying the intent of the parties (was the ‘ownership’ of the animal being transferred or was the animal being cared for temporarily), the courts will make a determination based on the other evidence presented. While adoption papers may be considered by the courts, such papers do not definitively prove ownership since an original adopter could subsequently give an animal away and simply fail to give the original adoption papers to the new adopter.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
How can I custody of my dog back from this couple?
Q:

I recently placed my dog with a couple who agreed to care for him while I was away in treatment for 4 months. It has now been 4 months and I am no longer in treatment or in need for a caregiver for him. Unfortunately they are now claiming that they never agreed to only taking him temporarily, but if that were true then I wouldn't have done it at all. I've had him literally since he was born, my ex's dog had puppies and my dog was part of her litter. My ex never had papers for her. My dog does have shot records that my family and I paid for but as far as I know I do now have anything in writing stating that I am his legal owner. He will be 2 in December and I have been his main provider all but 4 months of that time. Can this couple legally keep him from me? What is the step that I should do in order to obtain his custody back?

A:

If one believes an animal is being wrongfully withheld, one can sue for the return of the animal. It will be up to the court to determine who ‘owns’ the animal. Courts on occasion consider the best interests of the animal. Courts may consider, among the other evidence presented, who paid for the animal’s care during the four month period to determine what the actual arrangement was—temporary boarding or a sale/adoption of the animal.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
How can I get custody of my kitten from my ex?
Q:

I found a kitten and raised it in an apartment I rented with my ex. When we parted ways she agreed to hold on to my cat until my new accommodation was ready, approximately a month but I was also staying at her place with my cat.

She refused to give up my cat when it came time to and she has barred me from her apartment because of this.

How can I get custody of my kitten? She is now one year old.

A:

If one believes an animal is being wrongfully withheld, one can sue for the return of the animal. A court will determine who ‘owns’ the cat now. This can be a difficult task for a court when there is no written custody agreement. For example, one party might say the animal was a gift or abandoned while the other might say that he or she is the ‘owner’ of the animal and the other person was merely caring for the animal on a temporary basis. Sometimes courts will consider the best interests of the animal but one should not count on that happening. I hope you and your ex do what is best for the cat.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
The foster parent won't relinquish the dog to be adopted - who has rights?
Q:

I recently adopted a dog from a rescue league & when it came time to get the dog, the foster refused to relinquish it. The rescue is working on my behalf to get the dog, but a month later and no dog. I'm wondering what rights I have or the foster has in this matter.

A:

The rights of the parties are dependent on the various agreements. These situations get complicated when there are no written agreements, conflicting agreements, or when the rescue group does not have actual possession of the animal who it wants to place for adoption. If a settlement cannot be reached among the parties and the matter is litigated, the court will review the documents and other evidence and render a decision. These cases can be time consuming. I hope you all consider what is best for this dog.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Can I get my money back from a pet store who fails to produce paperwork?
Q:

I bought an English bulldog puppy in January of 2013 and now 6 months later the store has still not been able to produce the dog's paper work. Countless visits and phone calls and constantly turned away saying "I have to pull it out". Can I demand my $2800 back??

A:

A New Jersey regulation on this subject states that: “If the pet dealer has promised to register your animal or to provide the necessary papers and fails to do so within the 120 days following the date of sale, you are entitled to return the animal and receive a full refund of the purchase price plus sales tax or to keep the animal and receive a refund of 75 percent of the purchase price plus sales tax. In the event you elect to keep the animal and the dealer provides the 75 percent refund, the dealer is no longer obligated to register the animal or to provide the necessary papers to do so.” For more information, contact the NJ Division of Consumer Affairs, 973-504-6200 or e-mail the division at askconsumeraffairs@lps.state.nj.us. If neither of these options is satisfactory to you (for example, if you want to keep the animal and get the papers), I suggest you speak with an attorney in your area regarding a lawsuit to require the pet dealer to give you the papers (if the papers even exist). Under the NJ regulations, the pet dealer who agreed to provide the registration papers can also be charged with deceptive practices for failing to provide the papers. Keep in mind that many puppies from pet stores start their lives at puppy mills, large commercial breeding facilities where animals live in squalor.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
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