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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:

Pet sitting service will not give back my dog.
Q:

I have a service dog (registered) Perseus, who has separation anxiety (we are always together, I have severe anxiety as well). I had some issues at my restaurant that required me to leave him home for a few hours, he barked too much so I had to call a friend whom we used a pet sitting service with too watch him. We agreed that I'd pay him back, but there was not much income coming in while my place was being renovated. Well this turned into longer than expected, and the days are simply going on and on getting simply too much to pay for. They will not give him back and I don't have my service dog with me. I am more than willing to start a payment plan, any advice?



A:


A person who believes that his/her animal is being wrongfully withheld can sue for the return of the animal. Interestingly, several years ago the Office of the Texas Attorney General responded to a similar question, not involving a pet sitter, but a veterinarian. The question presented was, “Whether a veterinarian may refuse to return an animal if its owner is unable or unwilling to pay for the veterinary medical services rendered…” The Attorney General concluded that the animal may not be withheld under these circumstances (although noted that its decision might be different if the veterinarian complied with notice requirements in a law pertaining to veterinarians' responsibilities towards abandoned animals and the animal’s owner failed to retrieve the animal). The Attorney General also discussed the issue of abandonment and found that there was no abandonment in a situation where the owner “makes a good faith effort to arrange with the veterinarian to make installment payments and otherwise insists that he wants the animal returned.” While the Attorney General’s opinion does not pertain to pet sitters, a court might find it to be persuasive. All that said, it would probably be more cost effective in the long run to pay the pet sitter sooner rather than later as compared to filing a lawsuit. The financial obligation will not go away (and will likely increase over time) even if the court orders the return of the animal.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
My Ex-girlfriend surrendered my dogs to a shelter, how do I get them back?
Q:

My ex and I got 2 dogs when we were together and when we broke up I let her take the dogs until I found a house that will let me have pets. The other day I noticed their picture on a shelter site and when I called the shelter they said that she told them she couldn't care for them anymore and needed to find somewhere for them to go without even telling me. What can I do to get my dogs back? I need to find answers please.

A:

Have you considered asking the shelter if you could adopt the dogs or providing the shelter with proof of “ownership” and asking the shelter to return the dogs to you? They may/may not choose to do so for variety of reasons. The shelter might take the position that the dogs belonged to your ex at the time they were surrendered to the shelter (after all you acknowledge you got the dogs when you and your ex were together and the dogs were living with her after the split). The shelter may consider that there was a reason why your ex chose the shelter and not you to care for the dogs. Individuals who believe that their animals are being wrongfully withheld may sue to try to get their animals returned.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Ex-girlfriend adopted my dog while I was deployed.
Q:

Currently I am deployed and my ex girlfriend was trusted to take care of my dog while I was away. We've been broken up for some time however she still has the dog. Now she has told me she adopted the dog because I failed to properly take care of him. How can I from here? He's chipped in my name. I know that does not prove ownership but is there a way I can get him taken from her and give him to a family member? Possibly through power of attorney?

A:

When animal custody disputes cannot be resolved amicably, sometimes individuals commence a lawsuit for the return of the animal.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Am I entitled to a refund for vet bills from the breeder?
Q:

I purchased a puppy pug from a breeder. I got her number from one of the pet stores I visited. The puppy's name was Taz, he was purchased for $1500 and he was happy and healthy. About a week and a half later, I came into his play area to check on him, and saw him walking slowly and suddenly fell to his side. I called the breeder and she immediately rushed over to see what happened. Taz passed away from unknown causes. The vet that the breeder brought Taz to, performed an autopsy and found nothing.  The breeder gave us another puppy that I named Dozer. Because of what happened to Taz, I became extremely concerned for Dozer's health. The night Dozer came into my possession I brought him to my own vet to check him out the doctor said he had sniffles but other then that, healthy. I brought him home, and he seemed a bit off along with the fact that I was overly worried because of my past experience with Taz, so I brought him in again to another vet to check on him. The second vet said he was healthy, and I ordered a stool examination. I brought him home after the visit and he was eating and playing and sleeping. Later on that night, he threw up his food. I thought it was just the new food and wasn't yet familiar with it. As the hours passed the vomiting  continued. He then began to have terrible diarrhea, to the point that it had blood in it. I contacted the breeder with images of his discharges, and he told me he was fine and to not worry about it. I stayed with him to make sure he was hydrated and didn't walk into his own discharge.The next morning at his feeding time, 6am, he did not show signs of feeling better so I brought him to the emergency vet. There we learned he had the parvo virus. Later on, the breeder contacted me to find out how Dozer was doing. I told her that brought him in, and she asked me to take him to her vet I did. However because I brought Dozer to the emergency room to seek immediate care for the pup I was charged $1012.12. When I brought Dozer to the breeders vet, the breeder gave me back $1500 for the dog and ensured me that she would pay for the emergency room vet bill. I called the breeder the following day and told me that she hadn't looked yet and would call back the next day. She hadn't called the next day, so I did ask for money for the emergency room vet bill. Nothing progressed and she said she would call back on Monday (actually yesterday), but she did not. But while I was waiting for Monday to come, Dozer could not make it through and passed away Friday. In summary I received two puppies from the breeder, both died, and I have an emergency room vet bill for Dozer. What can I do to get my money back for the emergency room vet bill?

A:

I am very sorry for your losses. The New York State Attorney General’s Office has established an Animal Protection Initiative which, according to the AG’s website, “is designed to safeguard the public and to ensure the humane treatment of dogs and cats by requiring pet dealers to guarantee the good health of any such animal sold by a pet dealer to a consumer.” The Attorney General’s Helpline number is 1-866-697-3444. The Attorney General’s office has obtained restitution for consumers. Complaints regarding the sale of sick animals can also be made to the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets (this agency licenses pet dealers), http://www.agriculture.ny.gov/petdealercomplain.html. Individuals also have the option to sue a pet dealer if the pet dealer refuses to issue a refund. Under New York State’s pet sale law, if within 14 business days following the sale of a dog or cat by a pet dealer (180 days for congenital defects), a veterinarian certifies the animal to be unfit for purchase, the consumer has the right “… to receive reimbursement from a pet dealer for veterinary services from a licensed veterinarian of the consumer's choosing, for the purpose of curing or attempting to cure the animal. The reasonable value of reimbursable services rendered to cure or attempting to cure the animal shall not exceed the purchase price of the animal.”  For a summary of New York’s pet sale law, see http://www.ag.ny.gov/consumer-frauds/pet-lemon-law. There are also other laws, such as the Uniform Commercial Code, which provide remedies to consumers who purchase sick animals from merchants. This law essentially provides that goods (including animals) must be merchantable (fit for sale). This law does not contain the same restrictions as in the pet sale law. In fact, there have been several New York cases where courts have found that purchasers could recover not only the purchase price of an animal but also the cost of veterinary care and treatment.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
How can I get my dog back after I surrendered her to a shelter?
Q:

Hi I had to surrender a dog to the local no kill rescue in NJ this past Sunday. All week I have been heartbroken and trying to find a solution for her. I got a call from one of the kennel managers midweek who told me if I could find a trainer to work with her I could get her back. I did and for two days have been trying to get her back to no avail. They said she is no longer my dog. I have also been trying to get a hold of the rescue owner. Do I have the right to get her back ? What can I do ? Thank you.




A:

Although individuals who surrender an animal to a rescue organization generally have no further rights to the surrendered animal (but that depends on the terms of the surrender agreement), sometimes rescues are willing to work with individuals who have a change of heart if the rescue believes it is in the best interests of the animal to do so.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Can I get a refund for an agressive dog?
Q:

I just bought this beautiful 3 old lab from private seller for $2000. We have an agreement of the sale without any conditions. The dog is healthy and well mannered, and when I asked the owner regarding the behavior of the dog with other dogs, they mentioned that they have had no issues, as the dog gets along with everyone. After I paid for the dog, the same day, I took it to a dog park, and I found out it was so aggressive with other dogs and I had to leave. I called the owner and I asked to bring the dog back, but they refused. Do I have the right for my refund?


A:

It can take time for animals to adapt to new situations and it is very possible that a dog who got along with dogs in his/her prior home would react differently when put in a new environment with new people and new animals. Imagine how stressful and confusing this all is for an animal. It is possible (but I certainly would not count on it) that a court could order a refund if it believes that the seller was intentionally deceptive (which would be difficult to prove without evidence, such as a dangerous dog record or judgment in a civil action for an animal bite). Consider contacting a humane animal trainer. Good luck!
 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Neglected cat resold.
Q:

A friend of mine recently purchased a cat from someone he corresponded with online. Unfortunately he returned it due to health/hygiene reasons. Within just days after returning it, the cat has been resold. My friend has not been given a refund as requested, and we are starting to suspect animal neglect and abuse and want legal action. What do we do?


A:

Individuals who believe a person owes them money can sue. Pet sales agreements often contain a provision regarding when or if refunds will be given. Individuals who purchase animals from licensed pet dealers also can have specific refund rights under pet sales and other laws (which generally apply when an animal is certified by a veterinarian as being unfit for sale ---not simply because the purchaser had a change of mind). Individuals who suspect an animal is being neglected or abused should contact local law enforcement authorities, including, for example, the police and humane organizations (some have the authority to enforce animal cruelty/neglect laws).
 





Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Neglected cat's "owner" wants him back.
Q:

About 6 months ago I found a cat near our neighborhood, he's a long hair so at first glance the state of his condition wasn't very apparent, but upon petting him he was basically skin and bones and had heavily matted patches of fur all over. I began to ask people in the neighbourhood about the cat, anyone I had talked to had said the cat had been outdoors for years and a women down the street had been feeding him. I came back later that day with food and water and found the cat; who ate like he hasn't been fed in a while. The woman came home and was able to speak with her about the cat. She told me that the cat had been there for about 3 years and had always been really poorly and thin and not taken care of. She has cats of her own and her and a few other people on the block had taken it upon themselves to help care for the animal by way of food and water. She said that the cat had previously been taken in by someone but returned to the original owner once the microchip was scanned and he requested the cat back, but then he was let back out to deteriorate again. I asked her if she minded if I took him because I can't in good conscience leave an animal in that state out there. She said she would be happy if I did.

I came back later that evening to retrieve the animal and made a vet appointment for the next morning. I've been careful to document the condition of the animal via photos and that was also my intention of getting him to the vet asap, to have him checked out, get vaccinations immediately (I have cats already) and to document the state of him. The vet brought him up to date on shots and helped cut out a few matts. I took him home and started the process of shaving him down, bathing him and removing the rest of the matted fur. I then brought him to a groomer the day after to further clean him up and put him on high grade wet and dry food asap.

I took him a few months after to get his booster shots and my vet recommended the possibility of attempting to get legal ownership transferred to me. In trying to do the right thing I agreed to let her contact the previous owner regarding this. And I've recently received a call after a few weeks he's gotten in touch requesting the cat be returned. Beyond the fact that I have already invested hundreds of dollars in vet bills and food into this cat (and will be spending about another $700 for dental exams and possibly tooth extraction) I cannot in good conscience be willing to return an animal to a situation where he will almost undoubtedly be neglected again. I'm hoping that the information I've provided and documented would mean I have a substantial legal case for retaining "ownership" of said cat. I know in the state of WI animals are unfortunately still considered property, but handing an animal over to someone who has repeatedly neglected it (even though he says the animal has "sentimental" value - which makes it even worse in my opinion) doesn't seem like the morally right thing to do.  The quality of life for the cat since he came to our home as improved drastically, his health has improved considerably as well (obviously) and my current cats and him have formed a very strong bond.

I'm hoping to figure out what my rights are and what I can do if this issue becomes a legal matter. I am working on getting statements from people who have seen the state of the cat when we got him and also from some of the neighbours in the area who can prove that he was in poor condition and neglected for some time (years) prior.

A:

“Ownership” rights in lost and found animal situations are often not perfectly clear but, as the expression goes, “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” Generally if an amicable arrangement cannot be worked out between the disputing individuals, the person not in possession of a found animal has the burden of suing to try to get possession (and people who have neglected an animal are not as likely to go through the time and expense of a lawsuit). As unfair as it might seem (and often is), sometimes these situations can be resolved more quickly by the payment of a fee for the animal along with a written and signed contract which makes it clear that one person is relinquishing all rights to the animal to the other person. The police generally don’t get involved in pet custody disputes unless they believe an animal was stolen. While courts would consider a microchip registration, they would also likely consider evidence of ongoing neglect. Courts might also consider that the original “owner” waited weeks to contact the animal’s finder (after being notified by the veterinarian). In light of these facts, the court could determine that the original “owner” abandoned the cat and has no further rights to the cat. I suggest that you consult with an attorney in your state if you are sued (or even before).


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Is it considered abuse if a dog stays in a kennel the rest of its life?
Q:

I work at a kennel, and there are several dogs there that we have from a rescue. We are not allowed to play with these dogs, walk them or anything. They stay in the kennels inside or outside. That's it. If the dog has no chance to be adopted out, and lives its life in a kennel forever, is it animal abuse? It seems like it to me.



A:

Maryland’s animal abuse/neglect law provides, among other things, that a person who has “charge or custody of an animal” may not “unnecessarily fail to provide the animal with nutritious food in sufficient quantity, necessary veterinary care, proper drink, air space, shelter, or protection from the weather.” Sometimes the failure to provide a good life for an animal does not fall within the scope of the animal cruelty laws. When animal neglect/abuse is suspected, local law enforcement authorities should be contacted. Some rescues take animals who would otherwise be euthanized and place them in kennels while they try to find good homes for the animals. Have you considered speaking with a representative from the rescue group to find out what their plans are for these dogs?


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Can Animal control take an adopted dog?
Q:

My brother in law found a dog who was abandoned. He located the owner and told him she no longer wanted the dog. Can animal control come and take the dog after he has already become attached and has given her a safe and loving home with his other dog who has also become attached? Animal control claims the dog belongs to the humane society.



A:

Some animal adoption agreements provide that if the adopter no longer wishes to keep the animal, the adopter must return the animal to the humane society that adopted out the animal. Despite these provisions, typically the humane society or animal control officer would not have the right to simply remove the animal from the third party (person who the adopter gave the animal to or otherwise allowed to keep the animal). Often, new adopters can work out an arrangement for transfer of name with the humane society. If the humane society is not satisfied with such an arrangement, it has the option to sue (but often does not unless there is genuine concern that the animal is being neglected or abused in the new home). I suggest that your brother-in-law consult with an attorney in his area who, hopefully, can resolve this situation in the animal’s best interests.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
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