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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:

Does everyone in my household need to agree to a new adoption?
Q:

I was wondering can you legally adopt an animal from a shelter if someone in your house refuses to allow you to adopt it?

A:

The goal of most animal shelters is to place homeless animals in loving, forever homes. Therefore, many shelters require that everyone in a household agrees to the adoption.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Can I take a dog back from a friend who is not being a good caretaker?
Q:

I sold a Husky puppy to a friend and they are not taking care of them. They are covered in fleas and have not seen a vet. What can I do?

A:

Sometimes a purchaser/adopter who has not bonded with a recently purchased or adopted animal is willing to sell/return the animal. Also, at times people are unaware of humane animal care and need to be educated. Animal cruelty/neglect is illegal in every state. Reports of suspected cruelty/neglect can be made to the local society for the prevention of cruelty to animals (SPCA), humane society, and the police. Even if the humane organization one contacts does not have law enforcement powers, they should be able to provide information on who to contact in the area to report the mistreatment of an animal.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
My dog conceived while at doggie daycare - is there anything I can do?
Q:

I took my two dogs to a doggie care. I informed the workers at the place my female dog was in heat. August 5 my dog had puppies. I do not have them in the same room at all. Down to taking them to the doggie day care we drove the two dogs in different cars. Based on the dates she (female dog) conceived while in the doggie daycare, is there anything I can do?

A:

I suggest you have your dog spayed as soon as your veterinarian says your dog is ready after nursing her pups. I think it is highly unlikely that a doggie care facility will assume financial responsibility for a pregnancy under circumstances where one has an unspayed female dog and an unneutered male dog. I suggest you also have your male dog neutered. There is a dog and cat overpopulation crisis in the United States.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Do I have any rights as a foster parent to breach a breeding contract?
Q:

I have been fostering a dog for almost 2 years now. I have been responsible for her care, upkeep, food and other expenses. I have grown to love her and I signed a contract with the breeder for her to be bred 3 to 4 times at the breeders request and if I breach the contract the breeder states she can sue for $10,000.00 My question is, do I have any rights, and if I want to keep her as part of my family, what can I do?

A:

I strongly suggest that you retain an attorney in your area to thoroughly review the entire contract. Such contracts sometimes contain provisions that courts may not enforce. The agreement you signed sounds quite onerous to you (and to the dog). Also, if a veterinarian determines that an animal has a congenital problem or that breeding can be detrimental to the animal, the breeder may consent to spaying and adoption.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
How can I get my cat back from my ex?
Q:

My fiance bought me a sphynx kitten & he is registered in my name & address. My boyfriend broke off our engagement & took the kitten. I have asked for him back but he won't give him to me. I'm the rightful owner of the cat. He was a gift.

A:

When a pet ‘custody/ownership’ dispute cannot be resolved amicably, lawsuits are sometimes commenced.. Mediation may be worth considering if both parties are amenable. Courts will review evidence to determine if an animal was abandoned or given as a gift. Courts are likely to consider evidence regarding an animal's registration, licensing and microchipping (including the timing of such registration, licensing and microchipping) along with other evidence. Sometimes courts also consider the animal’s best interests. The police usually do not get involved in pet custody disputes but sometimes they do if they believe an animal was stolen.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
What can I do to get my cat back from my ex-girlfriend?
Q:

My girlfriend and I broke up. We went our separate ways, and she offered to take care of my cat while I got an apartment, so I could then get my cat. But after I was settled in my new apartment, my ex changed her number and would not respond to my emails. I adopted that cat myself from the ASPCA...and I want her back...What can I do? What rights do I have? Please help.

A:

You can sue for the return of the cat. Generally if an individual purchases/adopts an animal, that person is the ‘owner’ of the animal. There may be exceptions for animals acquired during a marriage. Also if a court believes that an animal was subsequently given away or abandoned the court might decide that the animal now belongs to another person. In making such a determination, courts may consider who paid for the animal’s care, who was the primary caretaker (who fed the animal, who took the animal to the vet, etc.), under whose name an animal is registered/licensed and when such licensing/registration took place. Sometimes courts also consider the best interests of the animal. For example, in one appellate cat custody case in New York, the court stated, “Cognizant of the cherished status accorded to pets in our society, the strong emotions engendered by disputes of this nature, and the limited ability of the courts to resolve them satisfactorily, on the record presented, we think it best for all concerned that, given his limited life expectancy, Lovey, who is now almost ten years old, remain where he has lived, prospered, loved and been loved for the past four years.” Another case in New York involved the following fact pattern: Man acquired dog from his parents. At the time he received the dog, he was living with his girlfriend and they both cared for the dog. When the couple split, the ex-girlfriend cared for the dog while the ex-boyfriend looked for an apartment. The ex-boyfriend subsequently took the dog but then returned the dog to his ex-girlfriend while he traveled. After the trip, the ex-girlfriend refused to return the dog. The ex-boyfriend filed a replevin action (basically an action for the return of property wrongfully withheld). The court held that the ex-boyfriend had a “superior possessory right” and ordered the return of the dog to him. As you can see, it is not always clear how a court will decide pet custody cases. If at all possible, the disputing parties should try to reach an agreement that considers the best interests of the animal. The courts might not.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
How can I make my neighbor pay the vet bills?
Q:

My neighbor's dog attacked my dog in my yard. My dog was on her leash. His was not. He told me he would pay the vet bills, but has not done so and now he is avoiding me. How can I make him pay the vet bills?

A:

When disputes are not resolved amicably, sometimes people choose to sue. Small Claims Court is a fairly simple and inexpensive way to have disputes adjudicated if the amount sought is within the court’s jurisdiction.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Am I liable for anything in this dog walking incident?
Q:

I was returning from walking my 2 beagles. We were walking up an alley that leads to our back gate, when we encountered a woman walking her 2 dogs. One of her dogs is a chow mix (70 lbs) and the other a border collie mix. Her male chow has exhibited aggression in the past. Our dogs saw each other at about the same time. She pulled her dogs to the left, and I to the other side of the alley. My dogs were pulling and barking. Hers not barking, but pulling also. Her dogs pulled her down. I asked her if she was OK. She said yes. I returned home. Am I liable for anything here?

A:

I think it would be difficult in most situations where a dog pulls and knocks his/her “owner” down after seeing another dog yanking on a leash to attribute liability to the other dog’s “owner.” However, people sue for all sorts of things even when liability of the other party is not that apparent. Homeowners insurance may cover this kind of incident.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
What can I do to protect my dog from my ex boyfriend?
Q:

My ex husband then ex boyfriend rescued a dog off of the street last February 2013. Because he lives in a building that does not allow pets, I took him to my place which does allow pets. I recently broke up with him. He is now demanding that it is his dog even though he has not contributed to the care of the dog. He is doing this to hurt me because he knows how attached to him I am. He claims he has some legal paperwork and is demanding to pick up the dog on this coming Friday. This dog is terrified of men and is completely adjusted to living here with me. There was never an agreement, verbal or otherwise that he would take the dog in the future. He plans on placing the dog with someone I don't know and is just a game to hurt me. Does he have any legal rights to my dog? What can I do to protect my dog from further mental damage? Thank you for your response.

A:

While the police sometimes get involved in pet theft cases, they usually do not get involved in pet custody disputes between people who know each other and have different versions of who is entitled to keep an animal. While one may have a dog license, vet records, or similar forms of ‘ownership’ documentation, animals are given away/sold frequently so the police and courts should and usually would consider much more evidence in determining custody of an animal. I suggest you consult with an attorney in your area to discuss a plan of action in the event the police get involved or a lawsuit is commenced.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
What constitutes abandonment?
Q:

I know the legal definition of abandonment of a pet (relinquishing all responsibility to or for a pet), but I've heard it's hard to prove in court. Even my attorney says so, at least in this situation: Person #1 has had several dogs for years, but shared one dog with a family member (Person #2) for six years. If Person #1 leaves town with her other dogs, but leaves that dog with the family member and contributes nothing to its care for over a year, isn't that abandonment? Especially if during the year Person #1 stops calling, and even accepting or returning numerous calls from Person #2. The dog was unlicensed, had an unregistered microchip, and the dog's normal vet wouldn't see the dog during that year because the account was in violation and sent to collection due to unpaid bill from Person #1's other dog months earlier. By the way, I am Person #2 in this situation. Person #1 came back into town after a year and demanded the dog (who had been licensed and chipped to me months earlier). We are currently in a legal battle and she puts on the "sweet, kind, generous, older lady who's been stabbed in the back" act.

A:

Courts will consider many factors, including the verbal or written agreement between the parties, when deciding a pet custody dispute. A court might very well find that if an ‘owner’ made arrangements for another individual to care for his/her animal, there was no abandonment. However, if an animal is left for much longer than originally agreed upon, a court could decide that the ‘owner’ abandoned an animal. It may be more likely for a court to do so if the caretaker communicated to the ‘owner’ that if the animal is not retrieved within a certain amount of time the caretaker will presume the animal to be abandoned. That communication in and of itself does not mean a court will deem the animal to be abandoned but may be considered among the other evidence. There are laws in some states that specifically address abandonment when animals are left for boarding. These laws generally require notice to be given to 'owners' and an opportunity for 'owners' to redeem their animals prior to an animal being deemed abandoned. In a 'shared 'ownership' arrangement, courts might consider whether the animal was ultimately gifted to one party. The court might also consider the best interests of the animal.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
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