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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:

How do we get our dog back?
Q:

My boyfriend had gotten a puppy recently and he hadn't registered her yet. A friend of his took her away and won't return her, can he get her back legally?

A:

Stealing a dog is illegal, whether or not the dog is licensed. The police investigate pet theft allegations but tend not to get involved in pet “ownership/custody” disputes. These disputes arise in a variety of circumstances, particularly when roommates and couples split up. In these situations, civil lawsuits are sometimes commenced (commonly referred to as a replevin action) for the return of the animal. Courts will consider the evidence to determine who “owns” the animal. Sometimes courts will also consider the animal’s interests but one should not count on that (all the more reason for people to try to resolve these disputes more amicably with the animal’s best interests in mind).


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Can I expect the shelter to contribute toward necessary dental surgery?
Q:

I adopted a 7 year old domestic short hair female cat. I asked the counselor about her history, medical, etc. I was told that she has a clean bill of health and was just given rabies and distemper vaccines and is up to date on shots. I was assured that the cat received a full exam from their vet. After finishing paperwork and payment I received a printout of times the cat was seen by either a vet or assistant. This form said tartar/gingivitis. I asked the counselor about that and was told that the cat has some tartar "as most cats her age do" not to worry about it. Though, I may want to consider having her teeth cleaned at some point. Having cats all my life I had expected to have teeth cleaning done at some point. But, once home it was clear that this cat's teeth were bothering her (dropping kibble, refusing water) Can I expect the shelter to contribute toward necessary dental surgery? 

A:

Adoption agreements contain provisions regarding the rights and responsibilities of the parties (shelter/rescue and adopter). Usually adopters are responsible for the veterinary care of their newly adopted animals although sometimes a shelter/rescue will assume the responsibility if an animal is diagnosed with a pre-existing condition soon after adoption.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Do they people who found my dog have the right to keep him?
Q:

My dog had escaped on December 24th in which a couple from SC were there and found him and decided to take him all the way to SC, a couple of weeks of the new year, they contacted us and we both agreed that we would pick him up but due to personal reasons and issues getting there we told them that it might take a bit long for us to head there until they responded us saying that due to the length of time do they have the right to keep him, what do we do? ​

A:

 Individuals who believe that their animals are being wrongfully withheld can commence a legal action to try to get their animals returned and can also contact the police. Of course, if a more amicable resolution can be reached that is usually preferable. The clear lesson from this is that people who lose an animal should quickly redeem the animal after being notified of the animal’s whereabouts. Animals who are brought to shelters may be adopted or euthanized after a specified amount of time (the legal hold time varies throughout the country). Good luck.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
How can we get custody of our roommates dog?
Q:

My fiance and I took on a roommate - a young girl who needed a roof over her head. To keep a long story short, it's not going well, and my fiance and I are worried for the long-term health of her 9-month old shepherd. We feed the dog, let her out, house-trained her, and have even bought food when her owner knew she was out. Whenever the owner is around, the dog is nervous and the owner doesn't pay attention to her at all. The dog loves us and our pup. Is there a way we could claim her as ours for her sake?

A:

Depending on the facts and circumstances, a court could determine that an animal’s “owner” gave away, sold, or abandoned his/her animal and thus should lose rights to the animal.  Some courts have also considered the animal’s interests. In one such case involving roommates, the court reportedly awarded the cat to the roommate who did not “own” the cat on the grounds that the cat’s happiness was of higher priority than the “owner’s” property rights. However, one should not count on such a decision (they are few and far between). If at all possible, an amicable agreement (in writing) to purchase or adopt a roommate’s animal would generally be a better way to proceed.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
What kind of legal action can be taken if my cat has kittens?
Q:

A couple weeks ago a girl posted on Facebook that she had 3 female cats that she needed to give away I had been wanting another cat so I said I can take one. I picked the cat up who's name is Muffin brought it home and have been taking care of it last night I've seen it on top of my female cat I already had checked Muffin to find out she was actually a he. I'm upset because my female cat is not spayed because she is an inside only cat and didn't think it was necessary, so now I may end up getting stuck with kittens I didn't want and the cost to get one spayed/neutered. I can't just give Muffin or my other cat away because I have four kids who love them. What kind of legal action if any can I take in this situation? ​

A:

I suggest that you take your cats to a veterinarian immediately. Even when there is no error in representing the sex of an animal offered for sale or adoption, newly acquired animals should be examined by a veterinarian, tested for certain diseases, vaccinated, spayed/neutered, etc. This is particularly important when there are other animals in the household. An individual who believes that he/she is owed money can sue. Small Claims court is an inexpensive and user friendly court to attempt to resolve small monetary disputes. However, one should not count on a court ordering a person who mistakenly identifies the sex of a cat he/she offers for adoption to pay the adopter for spaying/neutering and expenses to care for a litter (unless those obligations were included in the adoption agreement). People should have their dogs and cats spayed/neutered regardless of whether the animals are kept indoors. It only takes one unexpected incident for an animal to get out, particularly when there are four children in a household! Spaying and neutering also provide health benefits to animals. 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Do former owners of a dog have any legal grounds?
Q:

Our quasi friend was extremely abusive to a four month old Chihuahua puppy. He and his wife asked us to take the dog to find a new home. We did, 30 days later the husband is asking for the dog back, threatening to call the police. We gave the puppy to our sister-in-law who is taking great care and loves this little puppy. He is going back over my dead body, this guy is a pet abuser. Prior to our sister in law taking the dog, I have email documentation requesting two local pet foster care networks to take the puppy. Does this guy have any legal grounds?

A:

Generally when a person gives his/her animal away, such person has no further rights to the animal (unless there was an agreement granting such rights). 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
How do we get custody of a dog that keeps running away from his owner to us?
Q:

My family took in a stray dog about a month ago and after 2 days finally found his home. Since then he's been back to our house twice. Each time we have contacted the owner to let them know we have him and let them come pick him up. This time, they haven't shown up to get him. We live less than a block away so there's no reason they can't come pick him up. When he runs away, he always shows up on our front porch and waits patiently to go inside. We love him and would love to keep him. At what point, if any do we get to keep him as our own? He's clearly underfed and not cared for and our family would love to make him a new addition to our family. He definitely thinks he already is a part of that. 

A:

This dog is lucky to have you in his life. While there are laws that specify how long an animal must be held at a shelter to give the animal’s “owner” an opportunity to redeem the animal before the animal may be adopted, the laws do not address when a person loses rights to an animal if he/she fails to retrieve the animal from an individual finder who keeps the animal (rather than bringing the found animal to a shelter). The most expedient way to resolve these issues (if all are in agreement) can be for the parties to enter into a written agreement whereby the animal’s “owner” relinquishes his/her “ownership” of the animal to the other party. Sometimes it is necessary to pay a fee to get an “owner” to agree to transfer “ownership” and sometimes these situations resolve on their own with the neglectful “owner” doing nothing (essentially abandoning the animal). If litigated, courts would consider whether or not the original “owner’s” actions constituted abandonment or a gift to his/her neighbors.​ 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
I plan on appealing my custody case, what motions do I file?
Q:

In a court ruling I lost possession/custody of my dog of 8 years. I plan on appealing the case and am wondering if there are any specific actions/motions I should file.

A:

There are many reasons why a person may lose possession/custody of an animal and the specific actions or motions that a person would file depend on the circumstances. For example, people who are convicted of animal abuse or neglect can lose custody/ownership of the animal.  People who abandoned an animal or gave an animal away are likely to lose rights to the animal. People who did not redeem their animal from an animal shelter within the time prescribed by law may lose rights to the animal. I suggest you consult with an attorney in your area who can review the facts of your particular situation and advise you on next steps.

  


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
What rights do I have when I foster a dog?
Q:

I drove out of state to Houston, TX to adopt a dog from the rescue organization. I have had her for 6 days doing a foster to adopt, the adoption will be final when I get her spayed. A couple of days ago I asked representatives for help house breaking etc. Today they sent me an email wanting the dog back. We signed papers and I gave them a check for 350.00, do I have any rights? 

A:

Rights and responsibilities of an animal’s foster “parent” and the rescue/shelter which provided the animal for fostering are typically delineated in a written foster care agreement. The goal of animal rescue organizations is to place animals in humane forever homes so most rescues/shelters will try to work things out with a foster “parent” unless there is concern that the foster “parent” and the animal are not a good match or the foster “parent” is not properly caring for the animal. 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Animal caretaker wants me to pay for a medical procedure I didn't consent to.
Q:

Hello. My cat caretaker took my cat to the hospital without my consent and had the hospital perform a procedure that costed $2,500.00 and she is demanding me to pay that even though I never authorized it. Now she is suing me in small claims. How do I defend myself?

A:

I hope your cat is doing much better. Generally animal caretakers are legally responsible for the well-being of the animals in their care. In one New York case, for example, a horse’s caretaker was found guilty of violating the state’s cruelty to animals law for failing to provide a horse with adequate food (despite the caretaker’s defense that the horse’s owner did not pay a sufficient amount of money to provide proper care). It is unclear from your question whether the cat needed immediate veterinary care and, if so, whether you were reachable at that time. It is also unclear whether the veterinary care provided to your cat resulted from the caretaker’s negligence (in which case a court might find that the animal’s “owner” should not be responsible to pay the veterinary bill). A court would also consider the terms of a boarding agreement. Consider how you (and the cat) would have felt had the cat died from his/her illness or injuries if the caretaker failed to take the cat to a veterinarian in a timely manner. How a case is defended depends on the facts of each case. ​ 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
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