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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:

Am I responsible?
Q:

My daughter was playing with her dog and he took off and running in the street got hit by a car. The person who was driving doesn't have car insurance ..my dog died. My daughter and I saw the tragedy...am I responsible? What happens I'm a renter...accident happen in a residential area...

Thank you

A:

I am very sorry for your loss. It is unclear whether you are inquiring about your potential liability if the driver sues for damage to his car or injury to himself, if you are questioning whether you  have a meritorious lawsuit against the driver for the death of your dog, or if you are asking if you are generally responsible for not supervising the dog, or all of the above. It is possible that a dog’s “owner” could be held liable for injuries and damage caused as a result of his/her unrestrained dog running in the street. It is unlikely that a driver would be held liable for hitting a dog that runs in front of the car (there could be exceptions if, for example, the driver is speeding, driving while intoxicated, or intentionally hits the animal). Renters with insurance should check with their carriers regarding coverage. 


Submitted by Ms. Ortiz
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
How can I get my dog back?
Q:

Me and my daughters dad got a dog for her for Christmas from a shelter and we paid 250.00 for him we had him for a year and in February of 2015 we lost our home. And became homeless so I asked my aunt to please take care of our dog so has had him since and now she is treating to take him from us and my daughter wants him back. How can I go about getting him back and do I have any right to.

A:

A lawsuit can be commenced if one believes his/her animal is being wrongfully withheld. When an animal’s “owner” places his/her animal in another person’s care, particularly for an extended period of time, the issue will be whether the animal was boarded temporarily, given away, or abandoned. 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Keeping my dog
Q:

My daughter's friend gave us her dog about three months ago. Now they are making noise about taking her back.  We are very attached to our baby can they do that?

A:

Generally when an individual gives his/her dog away, such individual has no further legal rights to that animal. However, these situations can get more complex when minors are involved with the transaction. Nevertheless, three months is a long time so it would probably be difficult for even a minor’s parents/guardians to win a lawsuit for the return of an animal after this length of time (but that depends on all of the facts of each case). 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Do I have to return a dog?
Q:

My husband and I are living at an Extended Stay for a few weeks. 4 weeks ago, we observed a stray dog rummaging through the garbage and drinking from puddles, etc. We observed that dog for over a week, then one day, the dog came up to us. We decided to try to find its owner so we took it to the vet to see if it was microchipped (not chipped) and started checking all the local websites where people list lost pets. We also informed the management so they could send anyone asking to us. After a week, nothing happened, so we decided to adopt the dog and had it checked and vaccinated. 

After we had the dog for 3.5 weeks, someone in the complex recognized the dog when my husband was walking it, stating that they were watching it for another person and that person would return home the next day. However, they made no move to get the dog from us. My husband gave them our information--room number, etc.--and no one has come to us to get the dog.

At what point can we call this dog our dog? Now we are attached to the dog, and even though those folks are still in their room, they have not contacted us in any way.

A:

Who “owns” an animal is not clear in many situations involving a lost and found animal, unless the animal is held at a shelter and the “owner” does not redeem the animal in the time provided for in the law. In other words, there is not necessarily any one particular time where the finder of an animal can know for sure that a court would decide that he/she is the animal’s “owner.” Each case has its own facts and circumstances. Fortunately, most lost and found animal situations don’t end up in court. In circumstances where a dog’s “owner” can be identified (including where one has been informed that a dog was lost and the dog’s “owner” lives in the apartment complex), the finder of such dog may have a difficult case for “ownership” without first making proactive efforts to locate the “owner.” That could include, for example, contacting the dog sitter who lost the dog to get direct contact information for the “owner” and placing “found dog” signs in the complex. It could be that the people don’t want the dog anymore in which case a written transfer of “ownership” would be advisable to help avoid future pet custody conflicts


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
What can I do about an abandoned cat?
Q:

I had an old lady give me a 5 week old kitten that was left in a box on her door step. We met at my work and she gave me the kitten. No paperwork or legal adoption paperwork was signed. This was a private adoption in my eyes. I've had the kitten for over a week now and the lady keeps calling my work(not calling me or asking for me) and she is demanding her kitten back. I'm not up for giving her the kitten back. What can I do?

A:

Usually when a person gives away his/her animal, such person has no further rights to that animal. Thus, the recipient of the animal would generally not be under any obligation to return the animal.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Is the dog mine?
Q:

My sister gave me a dog for my birthday 6 years ago, however now she is trying to sell said dog or put it down. She has not taken care of it nor paid any of its vet bills besides the first few for shots and nuder. Will I be able to take her to small claims and win? The dog is healthy, in a good home, loved and has been mine for as long as it's lived. The adoption papers say it's in her name though. She does live in the same household but she is on disability and food stamps. She can't take my dog away from me can she? It's my best friend.

A:

Generally the recipient of a gift (including an animal) becomes the “owner” of the gift and the person who gave the gift typically cannot take the gift back (unless there were conditions attached to the gift allowing for the gift to be reclaimed under certain circumstances). A person who is not the animal’s “owner” typically would not have the right to sell or give the animal away or have the animal euthanized without the “owner’s” consent. However, it is important to recognize that an animal may be in jeopardy (regardless of who “owns” the animal) when a person who lives in the same household as the animal is threatening to sell the animal or have the animal euthanized. The safest resolution would be to move with the animal. In determining whether the person who gave away or sold an animal or had an animal euthanized was the animal’s “owner,” courts would likely consider not only who purchased/adopted the animal but who has been paying for the animal’s care, who has been the animal’s primary caretaker, and under whose name, if anyone, the animal is registered, licensed, and/or microchipped. 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Negligent Dogsitter
Q:

I had someone stay in my home to watch my 2 little teacup yorkies.  Against specific instructions she took them to her home and while there her father took one of them out without harness or leash and let her go resulting in her getting killed by passing car. what are my legal options?

A:

I am so sorry to hear this tragic story. A pet “parent” can sue a caretaker when the pet “parent’s” animal gets injured, sick, or dies while in the custody of the caretaker and the caretaker failed to provide reasonable care to the animal. Worth noting though is that courts in New York have tended not to award substantial sums of money when a companion animal is negligently harmed or killed. This is because the courts have generally not considered emotional distress or loss of companionship in these cases (although there have been a few noteworthy exceptions and perhaps there will be more). NY courts have typically considered the market value of the animal and have awarded money for veterinary expenses. Courts may also consider whether the animal had special training and special traits in determining the animal’s value.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Gave my dog to a friend
Q:

My boyfriend and I adopted a second dog-  took ---- home and our dog would attack her on and off all night long. I decided this wasn't going to work. I didn't want to take ---- back. Instead I told my friend about her. After a big talk and pictures shown, she took ---- home, I gave her all the paperwork and instructions on how to change contact info to her name etc. Months later I get a call from Animal Control. --- ran away. ----said she went to pick ----up and they refused to let her because of how ---was acting towards ---- husband. Months later I wanted to make sure --- was able to get back with -----, apparently ---- is with another family and happy. However, I got told recently that ---- never picked ----up from Animal Control. I don't have any of --- information because I gave it all to ----. I just want to make sure ---- is okay and that our names are no longer connected to her. What should I do? Can you help me? Thanks

A:

 I suggest you contact the animal shelter that you adopted the dog from, the dog licensing agency in your area, animal control, as well as the microchip registration company, if applicable, to inform them of your “ownership” status. While it is understandable that an individual would want to get information about the well-being of a dog he/she gave away, there is generally no legal obligation on anyone’s part to provide such information.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Legal Ownership
Q:

Hello,

My dogsitter has now decided that the dog belongs to him and refuses to return him to me. He stole the papers that I had. However, my name are on all of those papers, and my name and information is on the microchip in the dog's skin. Does that make me the legal owner? I am taking him to a small claims  court to argue the issue and I need to know exactly what makes me the legal owner.

Thank you!

A:

 Dog registration papers, microchip registration, a dog license, and veterinary records are indicia of “ownership” but they don’t necessarily prove “ownership” in all cases. Just because one’s name is still on an animal’s papers does not negate acts taken thereafter, including, for example, giving an animal away or selling an animal. The court will consider the totality of the evidence presented and make a determination. I suggest that people confirm with their local Small Claims Court that the court handles replevin actions (return of property, including animals) since in some states only lawsuits for money can be brought in Small Claims Court. 


Submitted by Katie
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
What can I do to keep the dog?
Q:

My ex and I recently split. I've been caring for his dog for over 8 months. Even when she was with him he could not afford to buy food for her as well as his child. I flipped the bill because i did not want to see the dog or his child starve.. I picked up the dog a few months a go and still have her. After further examining her skin I realized that she had not been properly bathed or cleaned in a very long time. He works out of town 14 days out of the month and has a week off. He sends the dog to whoever will take her and then spends a week with her.. When he leaves she does not eat, she suffers from awful separation anxiety. But since she's been in my care I've scheduled shots and to be spayed. She's been clean, eating healthy and happy.. He has no papers to prove that the dog is his. I don't want her to be neglected anymore. I love her with all my heart but there's more to caring for a dog than just being able to feed and have a home.. She seeks attention because she hasn't been getting enough. It's heartbreaking. What can I do to keep her? He left her in my possession and I do not want to give her back. I've finally estaished a healthy routine and trust that she will not be left alone anymore..

A:

When a person leaves his/her animal in another person’s care for months without paying for the animal’s care, a strong argument can be made that the animal has been abandoned. Also, sometimes in these situations the person who left the animal doesn’t want the animal and that resolves the issue. Occasionally, the original “owner” is willing to sell the animal to end a dispute. Ideally, there would be a written transfer of ownership agreement. At times, the original “owner” contacts the police and alleges theft so the caretaker who believes an animal has been abandoned or gifted should be prepared to present a cogent argument on these points and have an attorney ready to call. A dog license, veterinary records, and microchip can be helpful indicia of “ownership” but it is important to keep in mind that even if one gets a dog licensed and microchipped and brings the dog to a vet, that may not be dispositive regarding “ownership.” Courts will consider other evidence which may demonstrate that an animal was sold, given away, abandoned, or neglected.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
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