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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:

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
How do I get my dog back?
Q:

My husband gave away my 7 month old puppy Dexter without my consent to a friend of a coworker. I called this coworker within 2 hours of finding out that my puppy was gone. She gave me the phone number of her friend, but the friend won't answer my calls. The dog is microchipped in my name and I have all the records for his shots plus neuter surgery and herniated belly button surgery. My husband also loves our pet. I was just complaining about the excess fur so he thought I would be happy if he found Dex a new home. This all happened less than 24 hours ago. How do I get Dexter back?

A:

If the person who has the dog refuses to return the dog, your option would be to sue. It will then be up to the court to decide who “owns” the dog. While a court will likely consider that the dog is microchipped in your name and that the dog’s veterinary records are in your name, that evidence alone does not guarantee a win. A court may still determine that you subsequently agreed to give away the dog. Please keep the dog’s best interests in mind as you decide how to proceed. The dog will still have "excess" fur when he returns, although grooming can help.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Can I take my puppy back that I sold?
Q:

I recently sold a 12 week old puppy about a week ago to a person that responded to a flyer I had posted. I was never able to see his living environment or anything & the man is a little mentally slow. I have just been told by a friend that she had seen the man with the puppy & that she suspects neglect & that he isn't mentally capable to properly take care of the puppy. Do I have the right to take back the puppy if I return the money that he had paid to me?

A:

A seller of an animal does not have the right to take the animal back from the purchaser unless there was a provision in the sales agreement providing for the right of the seller to reclaim the animal. Of course, you can ask the purchaser if he will sell the animal to you. You do have the right to report suspected animal abuse or neglect to law enforcement authorities. Also, there is a serious overpopulation problem of dogs and cats. I suggest that you get your pets spayed/neutered. If you still have puppies to sell, I suggest that you make an effort to determine whether the purchaser can provide a humane home for the animal before you sell the dog.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Can a shelter demand a dog be returned since it was not spayed?
Q:

I'm a dog groomer and a client of mine went to our local shelter looking for her cat. While there the head of the shelter begged her to take a dog and didn't charge her a fee or anything. She later found out that she couldn't keep it so she asked me if I wanted her and my family fell in love with her. Two days later the pound called her and told her if she didn't return the dog back to them she would be charged with a felony unless she decided to keep the dog. He then said that after the pup was fixed she could give it away. This makes no sense to me. We can't find out who his boss is. HE HAS HARASSED US ALL WEEKEND AND DEMANDS THAT SHE BRING THE DOG BACK. Can he do this??

A:

The police will normally not intervene in these types of disputes. Of course, if one went into a shelter or pet store and stole an animal, the police would/should get involved. There is a law in Virginia (and other states) which requires animals adopted from shelters to be spayed or neutered. Under Virginia law, individuals who adopt an unsterilized animal from a shelter must sign an agreement to have the animal sterilized within 30 days of adoption or within 30 days after the animal reaches 6 months of age. The law further states that an animal control officer, humane investigator, and State Veterinarian may petition the court for an order directing the new adopter to comply with the spay/neuter requirements. Civil penalties may also be imposed on the shelter and adopter for non-compliance. If the reason the shelter is concerned is because the dog is not spayed, perhaps if you agree in writing to get the dog spayed, the shelter will be satisfied.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Can I sue my vet for spaying my dog without permission?
Q:

I took my dog in to a vet hospital to get her hernia removed. The vet called me when the surgery was complete and told me that they neutered our baby because the hernia would possibly come back when she was in heat. So they went ahead and neutered her without our permission. Can I sue? I'm very disappointed and upset right now. What can I do?

A:

It sound as if the veterinarian gave you a reasonable explanation regarding why the spaying was performed in conjunction with the hernia surgery. Keep in mind that spaying provides health benefits to animals and that there is a serious dog overpopulation problem. Spaying (and neutering) helps to curtail the population and saves lives. If you believe the veterinarian acted inappropriately, you can file a complaint with your state’s veterinary licensing board and you can sue. The court would consider the evidence presented (including a hospital admission form which sometimes gives veterinarians discretion during surgery) and determine whether you suffered any monetary loss as a result of the veterinarian’s actions. Consider that the court could decide that the veterinarian actually saved you money that you might have had to spend on another hernia operation in the future.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
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