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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 Members' animal law questions as she can each week.

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:

Is it legal for my home insurance to request we euthanize our dog?
Q:

Hello it is time to renew our home insurance and the insurance company says my dog is considered dangerous. The salesperson told my father to kill our dog by Monday 4/19/2013 just so we could get insured by them. Is that legal?

A:

There is legislation pending in many states to make it unlawful for insurance companies to refuse to issue or renew a homeowner's insurance policy or to cancel or charge an increased premium for such policy based upon the keeping of a dog of a specific breed or mixture of breeds. Until these bills get passed, insurance companies generally have wide discretion in most states. Not all insurance companies have the same policies so it is important to shop around. Also, there are regulations pertaining to the number of days notice one must get before a policy is not renewed or is canceled so that should be checked out. Contacting one’s state insurance commissioner would be a start. There are also companies that specifically offer a separate liability policy which covers dog incidents. Although I cannot recommend any particular company, Dog Fancy magazine indicated in an article that the Lester Kalmanson Agency in Maitland, Florida issues stand-alone dog policies. According to this article, the breed of the dog does not matter, although the dog’s biting history might.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Do I have to return the dog to a lady that threatened its life?
Q:

I work at a pet store and last week a lady came in and asked several of us if we knew of anywhere she can take her dog because she didn't want her anymore. It was after 5pm so all the places were closed where she could drop her off. Then she said "if nobody here takes this dog, I am dumping her on the interstate". So of course being an animal lover, I took the dog. The lady even said she would come back and give me her food and all the things she had for her but she never showed again. The lady adopted this dog about a month ago from the Dallas, TX animal shelter. Today, a week later, she calls me and wants the dog back. I fell in love with this dog and she is a part of our family now. Do I HAVE to give the dog back to the lady that threatened this dog's life?

A:

Usually when one gives an animal away, the person giving the animal away does not retain rights to that animal unless there is an agreement stating otherwise. The person who was given an animal that he/she suspects was not cared for in a humane manner will generally not voluntarily return the animal. If the person who gave away the animal sues for the return of the animal, it is up to the court to review the evidence, determine what really happened, and who should get the animal. People who abandon their animal or threaten to dump their animal on a highway are not the people most likely, in my opinion, to go through the time and expense of bringing such a lawsuit, but one never knows. Other things to consider are making a complaint of animal abandonment with local law enforcement authorities or contacting the animal shelter since adoption agreements sometimes contain provisions allowing the shelter to reclaim animals from an abusive adopter and to re-adopt the animal to another person. However, in these scenarios one cannot know for sure what actions the police or shelter would take.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Is it legal for a vet to keep a dog as collateral until they have received payment?
Q:

Is it legal for a vet to keep a dog as collateral until they have received payment?

A:

The laws vary in each state. Generally (but not always), a veterinarian can withhold an animal pending payment (but must take proper care of the animal during this time). However, it is important to also note that many states have laws which provide that an animal may be deemed abandoned if the animal’s “owner” or "owner's" agent does not respond in a timely manner to letters sent by the veterinarian which give the “owner” or person who left the animal at the facility a specified amount of time (as provided by the state’s law) to retrieve the animal. In some states if the animal’s “owner” or agent responds to the abandonment letters and attempts to retrieve the animal within the specified time period, the animal cannot be deemed abandoned even if the veterinarian’s bill has not been paid. New York’s law, for example, requires the veterinarian to return the animal to the animal’s “owner”/agent if the veterinarian sent the abandonment letters and the animal's “owner”/agent responded within the time period provided by law, even if the bill remains unpaid.

Below is Iowa’s law regarding animals left at a veterinarian/kennel. I suggest you also consult with the Iowa Board of Veterinary Medicine. Sometimes these boards have their own rules of conduct. Some states also have lien laws which may be applicable as well.

Iowa law 162.19: Whenever any animal is left with a veterinarian, boarding kennel or commercial kennel pursuant to a written agreement and the owner does not claim the animal by the agreed date, the animal shall be deemed abandoned, and a notice of abandonment and its consequences shall be sent within seven days by certified mail to the last known address of the owner. For fourteen days after mailing of the notice the owner shall have the right to reclaim the animal upon payment of all reasonable charges, and after the fourteen days the owner shall be deemed to have waived all rights to the abandoned animal. If despite diligent effort an owner cannot be found for the abandoned animal within another seven days, the veterinarian, boarding kennel, or commercial kennel may humanely destroy the abandoned animal. Each veterinarian, boarding kennel or commercial kennel shall warn its patrons of the provisions of this section by a conspicuously posted notice or by conspicuous type in a written receipt.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Anything we can legally do to get an adopted out dog back from the owner?
Q:

I work for a small non-profit. We adopted out a timid dog to a woman with a boyfriend, she knew the dog had issues especially with men but wanted to be "the one" to break her out of her shell. She said it wasn't working out and we agreed to take the dog back. Now the day before she was going to drop the dog off she said that she has found a foster home for her and she will not tell us where or who the dog is going with and has told us to leave her alone. In our contract it does state that any animals adopted out have to come back to us but it does also state that after 6 months we will not take an animal back. Is there anything we can do legally?

A:

Lawsuits for the return of animals are sometimes brought when animals are unlawfully withheld. If the case is based on a breach of contract and the language of the contract is confusing, it is likely a court would construe the ambiguous contract provision in a manner most favorable to the person who did not draft the ambiguous language. If the adopter gave the animal away within the first six months after adoption, your case may be stronger. Of course, these cases can be difficult when the person being sued no longer has the animal. The court must decide whether to require the release of the second adopter’s name. I suggest you re-word your contract for future adoptions.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Can I take action against my vet for a wrongful communal cremation?
Q:

March 30th I very unexpectedly had to have my 13 year old dog put to sleep due to sickness. I brought her to a Vet that I had trusted and had been to before. I paid for private cremation and for my dog's ashes to be returned to me (should have had her remains back within 72 hours.) Needless to say, I recieve a call from the Vet's Manager regretting to inform me that I will not be getting my beloved dog's ashes after all because the Vet Tech made a mistake and tagged my dog wrong. The tech tagged my dog to be in a "communal Cremation" after the box that was checked off on the paper work clearly states that the remains are to be returned to the owner.

I not only had to make the heart wrenching decision to put her to sleep, but I do not even have her remains to take home. Is there any legal action I can take against them.

A:

I am so sorry to hear about your dog. There was a 1979 case in New York (Corso v. Crawford Dog and Cat Hospital) involving similar facts. A woman brought her fifteen-year-old poodle to the animal hospital for treatment but once euthanasia was recommended she had the dog euthanized. The poodle’s “owner” planned a funeral for the dog. Upon opening the casket at the pet cemetery, she found a dead cat. Her dog’s remains were never located. The court held that the destruction of the dog’s body was actionable. The court also stated that “In ruling that a pet such as a dog is not just a thing I believe the plaintiff is entitled to damages beyond the market value of the dog. A pet is not an inanimate thing that just receives affection; it also returns it. I find that plaintiff Ms. Corso did suffer shock, mental anguish and despondency due to the wrongful destruction and loss of the dog’s body.” The court awarded Ms. Corso $700. It is difficult to predict how other courts would decide the amount of damages to award in such a case.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Do I forever have legal ownership over my dog's puppies?
Q:

My dog had an accidental litter before we were able to get her fixed. A wonderful mom to 6 healthy puppies who are very well taken care of by grandma (me) as well. The pups are now 8 weeks & I am very nervous about sending them to new strange homes. My question is, after I send the pups to new homes do I have any legal right to check on them and/or take them back if they are being mistreated?

A:

It is possible to have a contract signed by both parties to an animal sale or adoption indicating the rights of each party. Many animal shelters and rescue groups use adoption agreements which state that the shelter/rescue has the right to do inspections of the animal in his/her new home. Some rescues/shelters do home checks prior to adoption. Adoption agreements often state that the shelter/rescue can condition the adoption based on the home visit and can remove the adopted animal if there is a breach of the agreement. Adoption agreements usually contain animal care provisions, including, for example, that the animal be provided with necessary food, veterinary care, and shelter. Some agreements require the return of the animal if the adopter chooses not to keep the animal. Many breeders also use contracts which contain provisions for the return of animals. Individuals can use similar agreements.

Many shelters/rescue groups do reference checks (including checking with the interested adopter’s veterinarian) before placing an animal in a new home. Some states have requirements governing the sale of animals by pet dealers (pet shops and some breeders). Nonetheless, once possession is transferred it can be very difficult to get an animal returned. Therefore, it is important to carefully screen potential adopters/purchasers.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Do I have to pay my ex's parents for care taking and vet fees?
Q:

I was living with my ex and his mother and had to move to a different state a year and half ago. I had left my dog and cat at their house and was told by his mother I can pick her up whenever I am ready within the time needed. We remained in contact almost everyday until about two weeks ago. Within the year and a half I was told by my ex that his mother's other dog was attacking / mauling my dog on a monthly basis and was taken to the vet for stitches many times.

I sent an Email to his Father saying I want to plan to go pick up my dog next month and he is asking me to pay over 2,000 for Vet / care fees. I don't mind paying for my dogs food etc but something sounds wrong about me having to pay for those vet visits that the other dog had caused. She was tagged under my name 4 years ago and he recently re-tagged her under his name without my permission. I was also not told about any vet visits they had taken her to at all, I always did the inquiring.

A:

You first say that within the year and a half (that the dog was at your ex’s mother’s house), you were told by your ex that his mother’s dog was attacking your dog and was taken to the vet for stitches many times. You later say that you were not told about any vet visits. If you were told about the attacks, that information should have put you on notice that there would be veterinary expenses. Also, once you had knowledge that your dog was at risk, why didn’t you remove your dog? In any event, usually dogs and cats need to be seen by a veterinarian during the course of a year and a half so veterinary expenses should not be a surprise to you. On the other hand, it does not seem that this dog is well protected in her current environment. If you cannot reach an amicable settlement with your ex and his family, you can sue for the return of the dog. It is difficult to say how a court would decide such a case both in terms of who gets to keep the dog and to what extent you are responsible for the costs incurred in caring for the animals. For example, the court may decide that you owe for expenses in caring for the animals (unless there is a written agreement that states otherwise). It is possible a court could find that your ex’s family was negligent in caring for your dog and reduce the amount due. A court could decide that you abandoned your animals or that you gave them away as a gift. The court might decide that your ex and his parents are unlawfully withholding your dog. I hope the cat is doing well.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
How do I gain legal ownership of my dog?
Q:

My ex and I adopted a dog about a year ago. When we got him, he paid for the dog (so his name is on the paper work) and I paid for all the vet bills. Soon after we broke up, and since then the dog has been living with me. I pay for everything for him and he has had no contribution since. He has since been trying to threaten me with the fact that the dog is under his name and he can take him from me at anytime even though the dog hardly recognizes him anymore. He has a family at my house and considers it his home. He is my baby. How can I take legal action to stop the harassment before he ends up trying to take my dog out of spite. The only person he would be hurting is the dog. My ex is very unstable and has lots of problems with courts/drugs/etc. I really don't want to lose my dog, but I am even more concerned about his safety. PLEASE HELP!

A:

You can try to get an order of protection, although I cannot say whether a court would issue an order of protection based on the facts you presented. You should consult with an attorney in your state. More and more states have laws that include pets in orders of protection. Illinois law states, for example, that a court can “Grant the petitioner the exclusive care, custody, or control of any animal owned, possessed, leased, kept, or held by either the petitioner or the respondent or a minor child residing in the residence or household of either the petitioner or the respondent and order the respondent to stay away from the animal and forbid the respondent from taking, transferring, encumbering, concealing, harming, or otherwise disposing of the animal.”


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
What is my next step for the return of my stolen pony?
Q:

I rescued a mare in 2011 and trained her. Assisted her start 2013(January). Organized lease March 10, 2013. Gave lady interested a contract. Told her to sign and send payment. She said she would within a few days, then asked for pony's address to quote a shipper price for pony. I gave her it and then a week later with no payment and no contract signed, she told me she had picked pony up from the property. A few days later she came back saying she had handled the mare and the mare was WILD (untrue, I trained the mare). She told me to lower price and then she would sign. I said okay I don't care just sign as this is illegal, you stole my pony. She now told me she won't sign and told me to come pick up the pony - she will send address (she still hasn't sent the address). I don't have time to drive 5 hours up coast to move a pony that was stolen. I told her put the pony back where it was within 3 days. No answer. What is my next step? Already consulted with police and they are not helping at all (I tried).

A:

I certainly hope the pony is getting proper care. If the police will not intervene, I suggest you try to obtain the location of the pony and go pick her up or at least contact a humane society in the area where the pony is located to ask that they check on her (of course, that is assuming you get the address). A lawsuit to get the pony returned may be your remaining option if the police won’t get involved or the woman won’t give you the pony’s location. However, a lawsuit will likely take more time (and money) than efforts to get the address of the pony’s location from the woman and driving five hours to get the pony.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Who may legally perform a spay or neuter procedure?
Q:

Is there anyone besides a licensed veterinarian who is legally permitted to perform spaying or neutering of dogs in the state of New York?

A:

According to NYS Rules and Regulations, a veterinary technician may assist in surgical procedures in the physical presence of a licensed veterinarian. For further information, contact the NYS Department of Education, Office of the Professions. This agency licenses veterinarians and veterinary technicians.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
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