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Pet Legal Advisor Elinor Molbegott

Elinor D. Molbegott is an attorney who maintains a law practice devoted to animal law.  Elinor answers questions related to animal law for the Animal League that help our supporters learn more about pet law.

If you're a Member, here's your chance to ask Elinor a legal question related to a pet.

Elinor will field and answer as many animal law questions as she can. Responses to questions are posted on this site and not e-mailed directly to the person who submitted the question. Due to the volume of questions received, not all questions are answered. However, many individuals have similar questions. You may find helpful information here even if your specific question is not posted.

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.

 

Browse the latest Pet Legal Q&As:

How can I keep family dog in the family?
Q:

Hi, I have about a dozen questions involving the same thing. You see, there's a household issue. My brother and I live with our dad at home, and his girlfriend is threatening to move out. Our dog, Gizmo, is the family dog. To my brother, dad and I he's like family not a pet. Anyways, if she leaves I'm worried over the custody. I would be torn to pieces if we lose him. See, she pays for his vet expenses usually, but, I pay for his grooming expenses, taking him to the groomers for special bath treatment and nail trimming. What I am worried over is that, despite her saying in front of others and online, that he is my dog that he might be taken away. How do I legally make to where he is, in fact, my dog so he stays with the family?


A:

There is no one foolproof way of proving ownership but a combination of ‘evidence’ can be particularly helpful in the event there is a dispute that cannot be resolved out of court. For example, licensing a dog in one’s name is one indication of ‘ownership’ although alone it does not prove ‘ownership’ since generally all one needs to do is fill out a form and pay a license fee to get a license. Courts consider who purchased/adopted an animal, who is the animal’s primary caretaker, and who pays for the animal’s needs. Sometimes a court will consider the animal’s best interests as well. Often when one purchases, adopts or otherwise acquires an animal prior to a relationship, such person would get to keep the animal when the relationship ends. However, there are many exceptions to this general rule. For example, sometimes people acquire an animal and then sell the animal or give the animal to another person as a gift. You should speak with your father and make sure he understands how important your dog is to you.  If possible, people should enter into a written agreement stating who gets the animal in the event the people go their separate ways. Even this can get tricky since sometimes subsequent to the agreement the situation changes and the ‘non-custodial pet parent’ ends up becoming the animal’s primary caretaker.


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

I had to temporarily give up my puppy while I was in the process of getting another home. I posted an ad about temporary foster. A woman replied asking to keep him permanently when the ad clearly said temporary foster. I was in a desperate situation at the time and wanted my dog safe. I feel as though she did take advantage of my situation. Before I left my dog her husband mentioned me getting him back which was the whole idea. I have all his papers everything in my name still making payments on him. I want him back, but the woman refuses to give him to me.

A:

If an individual believes that his/her animal is being wrongfully withheld, he/she can sue to try to get the animal returned. The court will consider the evidence and determine who ‘owns’ the dog. Sometimes these matters can be resolved through respectful communication between the parties.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Can I get a police escort to get my dog?
Q:

I brought my puppy over to my old friends house and we got into an arguement, and she now refuses to give me my puppy back and says its no longer mine now. Can I get a police escort to take me to get it back?

A:

One can ask for a police escort if one believes that his/her dog is being wrongfully withheld. However, quite often when the disputing parties know each other the police are reluctant to intervene and instead suggest that the matter be handled through a civil action. This means that the person who does not have possession of the animal sues to try to get the court to order that the animal be returned.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Veterinarian injected my dog with wrong medication.
Q:

I took my dog to the vet clinic, his usual clinic, and the veterinarian that saw my dog gave him an injection for diabetic dogs and my dog is NOT diabetic, he just got neutered and was in huge pain. So that same vet injected him and he became very abnormal. His blood dropped super low and she told me to take him to the ER so I did and he has to stay there 24 hrs :'( and he is hurting they have him in tubes ..wat legal options do i have if he gets better or not..please HELP!


A:

I hope that your dog makes a very speedy recovery. If a pet ‘parent’ suspects veterinary malpractice or negligence, he/she can sue. If one proves his/her case, a court may award veterinary and other expenses incurred as a result of the malpractice/negligence, including, for example, the veterinary bills stemming from the malpractice and what was already paid in veterinary fees for the negligent treatment. If an animal dies, one may also be able to recover for the value of the dog. While some courts will consider ‘replacement’ value or market value (how much the dog could have sold for in the ‘open market’), other courts will also consider the intrinsic value of the companion animal to his/her ‘owner.’ Courts in determining intrinsic value have taken into consideration sentimental value, special training, and/or services the animal provided. At times, a court will consider loss of companionship but that is not common.

In a California case, the “owner” of a dog who died alleged that the veterinarian  misdiagnosed the dog and gave the dog unnecessary treatments that resulted in the dog’s death. While the jury found that the market value of the dog was $10, it awarded the dog’s ‘owner’ $30,000 for the special value of the dog to his ‘owner’ and another $9,000 for overpayment to the veterinarian.

One can also make a complaint with the state veterinary licensing board. For information on filing a complaint, contact the California Veterinary Medical Board, www.vmb.ca.gov. Every state has a veterinary licensing board that reviews complaints against veterinarians.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Dog given away without permission
Q:

Hi, my dog has no papers and was given away without my permission when I was not home. I want to know how can I get my dog back when there's no papers for him. Please, oh please, be able to help me!

A:

It is unclear who gave your animal away and why. More specifically, it is unclear if the person who gave your animal away considered himself or herself the dog’s ‘owner.’ There are many ways to prove ‘ownership.’ Many people get their companion animals from sources that do not generate paperwork (from a friend, found stray, etc.) but still have veterinary records, photos, license, microchip---something to show that they have shared their lives with an animal. Of course, these indicia of ‘ownership’ do not definitively prove ownership but are factors that a court would consider if the case is litigated. Courts will also consider whether the animal’s ‘owner’ subsequently gave the animal away or sold or abandoned the animal. Sometimes in deciding who should get an animal the court will consider the animal’s best interests but one should not count on that.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Neighbors want my dog out of building.
Q:

Help? My neighbors are trying to have animal control take my son's dog away. He is a rescue dog, boxer hound mix who loves everyone, even other dogs. They have a personal grudge against me & have made a complaint to the building that they are afraid of my dog & want him removed. They are two old men who drink & harass me in the hall when I have my son in my arms. I won't get involved in a hallway dispute while I carry a baby. What can I do? Can animal control just take my dog? Can a building that allows dogs kick mine out without cause?

A:

Tenants who live in pet friendly apartments cannot generally be evicted for having a pet or ordered to remove their pet unless the pet is of a species/breed/weight, etc. that is prohibited under the lease or by a law or if the animal is creating a nuisance. It is up to the landlord to prove to the court that the alleged nuisance is significant enough to justify an order of eviction or removal of the animal. Often in nuisance cases, the tenant is ordered to ‘cure’ the nuisance by correcting an undesirable situation (noise, odor, etc.).  I suggest you consult with a landlord/tenant attorney in your state who can review your lease and advise you further. Depending on the type of housing, lease renewal rights can be an issue as well. Animal control officers usually will not seize a dog unless the dog is running at large, has bitten someone, or presents some other public health concern. I suggest that you take extra precautions to ensure that your animals are leashed on public property and in common areas of your apartment building and that they are properly supervised. If your pets are seized, carefully review any documents the animal control officers or shelter personnel ask you to sign. All too often when animals are seized, people mistakenly sign away their rights when there is no legal requirement for them to do so.
 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Can they take back our dog?
Q:

Hello, my girlfriend's family was recently given a dog by the family of her brothers friend, about 3-4 days ago. My girlfriend says that they gave her the puppy because their original family dog just had a lot of babies and there was no way they would be able to take care of so many. Now they are trying to ask for her back but my mom, my girlfriends mom, her pets, my dog, we've all formed a bond with the little one already. Do we have to give her back?



A:

Generally when one gives a dog away as a gift, such person loses all rights to the animal and has no further claim to the animal. However, sometimes people have a different understanding of the ‘deal.’ While one person may say the animal was given to him/her as a gift, another person may say possession was transferred just for temporary boarding. If litigated, courts will consider the evidence and determine who should get the animal.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
What rights do I have to get dog out of possible abuse situation?
Q:

I recently came across a very sweet pit bull, she looked like she recently had puppies and had been dropped off. After a day or two I decided since no one had come to get the dog ( I walked her around the neighborhood to see if anyone would recognize her) I decided I was going to keep her. I took her to the vet, got all of her shots, got heart worm guard, and made plans to get her spayed. I bring her to my boyfriends house (where I first found her) and people that were outside claimed that this dog was theirs. There was some verbal communication, and misunderstandings. We willingly gave the dog back as long as they would pay the expenses that I had payed for taking her to the vet. I have reason to believe that they are not treating her right. As I said earlier she looked like she had puppies recently and I have reason to believe that they are trying to breed her again. What their motives are I have no clue, but I have no solid proof. Is there anything I can do to reassure that the dog is being taken care of and if she is not, what legal steps can I take to get the dog away from them?

A:

Animal abuse and neglect are against the law, as is animal fighting. If you suspect this animal is abused, neglected, or used for fighting, contact your local society for the prevention of cruelty to animals (SPCA), humane society, and police and ask that an investigation be conducted. However, unless there is evidence that a law has been violated, law enforcement entities are not likely to be of much assistance. Sometimes, offering to purchase an animal can get an animal out of undesirable circumstances.
 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Violating Pet Custody Agreement
Q:

After my mother died when we were teenagers, my sister and I signed an agreement within the court to split time, cost and care for our family dog (after she witheld him from me for a year and a half during court proceedings). We normally pick up/drop off every Sunday and Max spends 2 weeks at each of our homes each month. She refuses to drop him off to me and will not respond to my requests to sit down and talk about things.
What options do I have? I'm finishing college and don't have the income to hire a lawyer. I tried to meet with the judge from our agreement and the court said that wouldn't be possible. Could I bring our agreement to the police with their help to reinforce?
I don't know what to do....

A:

One can ask, but it is unlikely the police will intervene to enforce a pet custody contract. While not an ideal situation, sometimes when people cannot afford to hire an attorney, they handle a case on their own (pro se). Court clerks can be very helpful to pro se litigants.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Who has legal rights to the dog?
Q:

Hello, my sister brought a Maltese 3  years ago. When the Maltese was 3 weeks old she asked me to watch the dog for a week. 9 months later she wanted the dog back. I returned the dog. After a month she told me come get 'your dog' I went and got the dog. When the dog made 2 yrs my sister wanted the dog back again. With tears and heartbreak I gave her the Maltese again. 2 months later she begged me to take the dog, of course I did. Now a year has past and she wants the Maltese. I had the Maltese 3 years now since she was 3 weeks. The dog loves us. My sister is threatening to call the police me. Can she do this? I love my Maltese.



A:

While anyone can call the police to make a complaint, usually the police will not get involved in animal custody disputes. Even if the police do an investigation, once made aware that possession of an animal was voluntarily given to another person (as compared to being taken without consent), it is unlikely the police would take any action, other than to advise the parties that it is a civil matter (which means that one can sue for the return of the animal). If such an action were to be commenced, the court would consider the evidence and make a determination regarding ‘ownership.’ Courts occasionally consider the best interests of the animal, particularly when evidence indicates that one party was neglectful or abusive towards the animal.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
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