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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:

How can I legally adopt my dog as my child?
Q:

I would like to legally adopt my dog as my legal child. I understand that dogs are deemed property, but I would like to challenge this in court. How do I proceed? Thanks!

A:

You would need to find an attorney willing to handle such a case although I doubt that a court would construe current child adoption laws to be applicable to adopting an animal. There are attorneys who are working to try to gain greater rights for animals and, hopefully, one day, sooner rather than later, we will see success in this area. In the meantime, laws continue to be passed to provide animals with greater protection. You might be interested in taking a look at the website of the Nonhuman Rights Project (www.nonhumanrightsproject.org) which states, “The Nonhuman Rights Project is preparing to litigate the first groundbreaking legal cases intended to knock down the wall that separates humans from nonhumans. Once this wall is breached, the first nonhuman animals on earth will gain legal “personhood” and finally get their day in court — a day they so clearly deserve.” The Animal Legal Defense Fund’s website (www.aldf.org) also highlights legal and legislative initiatives for animals.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Who does this kitten belong to?
Q:

My "friend" asked me to look after her new kitten because she couldn't keep him at her house until her roommates and their cat moved out. He was very small and had been taken away too early, so needed a lot of looking after. I asked her to come and see him (she only lives 10 minutes away) but she didn't visit more than 4 or 5 times in over 3 months and I gave up asking her to. He's now happy and healthy and she's asked for him back. I asked if we could meet up to talk about it cause I was concerned by her lack of effort and the state of her flat. Not to mention the fact that she's never paid a penny for him. She refused to talk and shouted at me so I left it for a while. I then went over to see her to speak about him and I was told I wouldn't get my money back, backed into a corner by some guys she knew and forced to go over to my home to get the cat. Luckily I managed to text my housemate, so they didn't get into my house. I have offered her 50 pounds for the cat so she could get a cat she could bond with but she's just been rude and childish, called me all the names under the sun and told me to give him back, she never bought him or paid for him or did anything for him. I asked her once to take him to get his injections and instead she just made an appointment for him to be neutered (which he's still at least 2 months away from being old enough for). I'm worried, do I really have to give him back?

A:

Typically, when one agrees to care for a friend’s animal on a temporary basis, the person temporarily caring for the animal does not “own” that animal. However, a court could find under certain circumstances that the “owner” abandoned the animal, in which case the person caring for the animal may obtain certain rights to that animal. I suggest you consult with an attorney in your area. Also, sometimes a person who is not bonded with an animal will sell that animal if the amount offered meets the seller's expectations. It is advisable to get agreements to sell/purchase an animal in writing to avoid future conflicts. Although unrelated to your specific question, early spay/neuter is widely performed these days. In fact, there is a law in New York City requiring shelters to spay/neuter dogs and cats eight weeks of age or older prior to placing them for adoption or releasing them to a person claiming "ownership" of the animal unless a veterinarian certifies that due to a medical reason the procedure would endanger the life of the animal.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
What can be done if a breeder wants to euthanize a puppy for not meeting breeding criteria?
Q:

A client comes into your clinic. She is a breeder. She has a puppy which does not meet her breed criteria and she will not sell him or give him away. She wants to have her euthanized and will not negotiate on this point! What can you do in this kind of situation?

A:

The veterinarian is under no obligation to euthanize the animal. Hopefully, the veterinarian will be able to convince the breeder to leave the dog with the veterinarian for adoption. Interestingly, Will provisions directing that an animal be euthanized upon the death of the animal’s “owner” have been invalidated by some courts.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Am I the rightful owner of Bella?
Q:

My niece gave me her Boston Terrier (Bella) on October 26th of 2012. She was no longer equipped mentally to handle her and a young child at the same time. I had dog-sitted Bella and instantly fell in love with her. Anyway, I said yes. I asked my niece if she wanted anything for her (monetary) and she said no; I know you will give her a good home. On February 7th of 2013 my niece in retaliation demanded Bella back stating she only gave her to me temporarily until the baby got a little older and it was not hers to give away since it was her boyfriend who bought Bella as a present. I have documentation by way of the internet stating that my niece gave her to me and thanking me for giving her a good home where she would get the attention she deserved. On February 8th I did drive Bella back to Pennsylvania (I am in West Virginia) and gave her to my niece's boyfriend's father who on tape admitted he knows she was given to me. I was not giving up ownership (I sent her a certified letter stating this), I was merely going to allow the courts to decide. You see, my niece is pregnant again and I could feel her blood pressure rising with every text message and phone call (and there are over 50). She has had complications with her previous two pregnancies and I did not want to be responsible for her delivering early or whatever. I have contacted an attorney and am still waiting to here back from him. At this point, I have only talked to his secretary. Is the internet documentation, letters from family members stating they know she gave me Bella to me and a tape of her boyfriend's father admitting he knew Bella was given to me enough evidence for me to get her back? Do I even need a lawyer? I need help. I will not rest until that little lady is back here at home.

A:

There is an expression, “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.” Although not literally true, you certainly did not help your case by giving up possession of Bella. If the person in possession of Bella will not voluntarily return her to you and you want to proceed with a lawsuit, it would be advisable to consult with an attorney in your area. Some of the “evidence” you mention in your question may not be admissible in court.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Pet store sold me shelter dog - how do I recoup the difference in cost?
Q:

I bought a mix breed puppy from a pet store that had been relinquished from a girl who bought it at the shelter the day before. I was not told about this and got a call from an animal control officer from the local shelter saying they were going to press charges against the girl because she had a contract saying she could not do that. The pet store knew of this and after the officer told them to call me, they never did until the officer told them they had sold stolen property. I paid $400 for this puppy which would have cost $110 including spaying if bought from the shelter. I want the difference between the $400 and $110. HELP!

A:

Your question implies that you still have the animal. If that is correct, consider that you could have purchased this dog or another dog for the lower price if you chose to go to the animal shelter. For some reason, you chose to purchase a dog from a pet store and pay $400. If the pet store won’t return any money to you, your option is to sue but, again, keep in mind you chose to go to the higher priced venue to purchase the dog. What this scenario demonstrates, among other things, is that one can usually adopt a homeless animal from an animal shelter for a lot less money than one can purchase a similar animal (in your situation the same animal) from a pet store. More people should adopt a shelter animal! There are millions of homeless animals needing a loving home. Why go to a pet store, many of which get animals from puppy mills, large commercial breeding facilities where animals are kept in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, are deprived of necessary socialization and exercise, and often, because of inbreeding and other factors, have genetic problems?

Adoption agreements often require adopters to return the adopted animals to the adoption agency or to get consent from the adoption agency to re-home an adopted animal if the adopter can no longer keep the animal. However, these agreements usually would be enforced through a civil action. It is unclear if this was a scam--- that the girl adopted the dog for the purpose of selling the dog to the pet store which in turn sold the dog to you. That would possibly explain the involvement of the police who usually do not get involved in enforcing adoption agreements.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Can a shelter sue for abandoning animals on their property?
Q:

In a case of an illegal abandonment of dogs outside an animal shelter and the police did not prosecute the owner, can the private shelter have recourse to take out a civil suit against the owner for costs incurred by the shelter in abandoning his animals?

A:

The shelter can commence a lawsuit to try to recoup the money. A court might consider whether the shelter normally charges a fee to accept animals surrendered by “owners” and might consider that surrender fee to be reasonable compensation. Alternatively or additionally, the court might consider the reasonable cost to care for the animals, assuming it can be proven to the court’s satisfaction that the animals were actually abandoned by the person being sued. What is reasonable compensation might be determined based on how much money it normally costs the shelter to care for an individual animal or it might be based on how much it costs to care for the animals who were abandoned. Since some shelters accept only certain animals, possibly animals abandoned at a shelter could require more care than animals typically accepted at the shelter, including, for example, additional veterinary care and training. A court may factor that in as well although it is difficult to know how a court would decide this kind of case. Certainly, people who abandon animals should be held accountable.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Who's to blame in this situation?
Q:

My boyfriend and I were outside yesterday, and this little girl came up to us with a big husky dog. She was crying saying that her dad was making her give it away and needed someone to keep it for $20. We said no because I had two dogs already. The girl kept walking on. About 30 minutes later, the girl comes back and says we're her last hope. Knowing the pain of having to let go of a pet, my boyfriend agreed to keep it for free. On his way home, someone stopped him on the street, and asked if they could buy the dog from him. My boyfriend gave it to them without charge. Now the owner of the dog came yelling to my home threatening to have their dog back, but we don't have it and didn't get the info of who does. But we have the little girls address. Do we tell the owners to take it up with them or is it our fault?

A:

It is hard to know what the real facts are in the scenario you presented. Was the dog stolen? Did the child’s father want to make some quick cash from the sale of a stolen dog? It wouldn’t be the first time this happened. One should be suspicious of people who sell animals on the street. In fact, a law was recently passed in California to ban the sale of animals on streets (with certain exceptions, such as for humane organizations). One should be particularly wary about purchasing or accepting an animal from a child without speaking with the child’s parents first. A child cannot enter into legally binding contracts. In answer to your question, it sounds as if there is a lot of fault to go around. I hope for the dog's sake, this all works out.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
How do I get a legal document proving the dog is mine?
Q:

I recently broke up with my fiancé and he is threatening to take my dog away. I am the sole provider, I have been taking care of my dog for the last 2 and a half years. I need some legal document because he is just going to come to my house and take my dog. Please help me!

A:

I suggest you take precautions so that your ex-fiancé is not able to enter your house and remove your dog. The police do not typically get involved in pet custody disputes but one could certainly alert the police of a pet theft threat. The dog should be licensed and microchipped. If one ends up in a lawsuit concerning “ownership” of a dog, the dog license and microchip registration will be considered, as will other factors, including, for example, who purchased the animal, who is the animal’s caretaker, under whose name is the animal listed at the veterinarian/groomer, etc., and who pays for the animal’s care. Courts have considered the animal’s best interests in a few cases.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Can I regain custody of my dog?
Q:

Hi, I had a pug - she was the best thing ever. I moved into this apartment and she was my medical therapy dog and my landlord was forcing me to give her away or she was calling the pound to come pick her up. So I had to give her up against my will. I gave her to this dude and we agreed on I can come see her anytime I want and he is not living up to his end of the deal and my life is not the same with out her. I am very depressed and not myself, so my question is: since I had to get rid of her against my will is there any way I can get her back because I am in a new place where I can have her at?

A:

The person to whom you gave the dog did not force you to give him the dog. The fact that your landlord pressured you to get the dog out of the apartment probably will not impact the rights of the dog’s new guardian. However, if you believe that the person who has the dog breached your agreement by not allowing you to visit and you cannot resolve the matter with him, you should consult with an attorney in your area regarding the commencement of a lawsuit. Of course, when agreements are not in writing, these cases can be more difficult. Sometimes in these situations, if the new “owner” is not attached to the dog, he/she may be willing to sell the animal to the prior “owner.”

For future reference, it is worth noting that people who have emotional support or service animals may be allowed to keep these animals despite no-pet lease clauses. Under the federal Fair Housing Act and state laws, individuals with a disability may be allowed to keep an assistance animal as a reasonable accommodation in housing facilities, including those housing facilities that prohibit pets. According to a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) memo in which HUD interprets the Fair Housing Act, “In order to qualify for such an accommodation, the assistance animal must be necessary to afford the individual an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling or to participate in the housing service or program. Further, there must be a relationship, or nexus, between the individual’s disability and the assistance the animal provides. If these requirements are met, a housing facility, program or service must permit the assistance animal as an accommodation, unless it can demonstrate that allowing the assistance animal would impose an undue financial or administrative burden or would fundamentally alter the nature of the housing program or services.” That burden is extremely difficult for a landlord to meet. Individuals with a mental or physical disability should get a letter from their health care provider. The letter should state that there is a connection between the individual’s disability and the need for the animal---that the animal is necessary for daily functioning and for the person to use and enjoy the premises. If the landlord still refuses to allow the animal one should consider making a fair housing complaint with HUD, 800-669-9777, or online at www.hud.gov.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Can I be reimbursed for costs due to my lost cat being taken out of state?
Q:

I am a student studying abroad for a year. I left my microchipped Himalayan cat in the care of my son in Chicago, Illinois. The cat got out. My son posted flyers and contacted the police and animal control but could not locate the cat. My son did not want to upset me, so he did not tell me, hoping he could find the cat. Several months later, while I was in Rome, Italy, I received a call from a vet in Idaho telling me that they had my cat. The person who had found him was a student and took him home with her when she graduated from college. She claims she posted flyers that she found him, but she never had him checked for a microchip. She took him into a vet in Idaho to have him groomed and get shots and they found the microchip and confiscated him. I am now stuck with the grooming bill, vet bills, boarding bills and the cost of having him flown home. She e-mailed me, asking me to let her keep the cat since she was attached to him, which I politely declined. Do I have any legal recourse to have her reimburse me for any of these expenses? I have asked her to help me with the expenses she has caused me and she refuses.

A:

I agree that finders of an animal should have the animal checked for a microchip. This can avoid hardship for everyone. However, I think you should thank your lucky stars that she took your cat in, provided him with good care, and that you can get your cat back. Many lost cats and their guardians are not so lucky. Have you considered that after your son lost your cat, the woman who found your cat paid for the cat’s care, expenses that you would have otherwise incurred had your son not lost your cat? While there is an Illinois law requiring shelters to check for microchips, based on your question it doesn't seem that your cat was brought to a shelter. Consider asking your son for the money.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
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