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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:

Do we have to return puppy left at our home for several weeks?
Q:

My daughter had a friend stay with us overnight and this girl had a puppy with her. Turns out this girl had been turned in by her mother as a runaway and she had stolen her mothers car from Colorado and came to Nebraska. She was taken into police custody and I was left taking care of this puppy. I have not heard from anyone to ask about this puppy and it has been almost two weeks. My family has grown to really love this puppy and we want to keep her. Do we have to give her back if they were to suddenly ask after this many days have gone by with no contact, I have already paid for shots at the vet and consider her abandoned and now mine. I can't give her back when I feel they really don't care enough about her or they wouldn't have waited so long to get in touch with me.

A:

Pet “ownership” rights are very much dependent on the facts of each situation. Questions of abandonment are common along with whether an animal was given away or sold. These situations even come up when an animal has an ID, such as a microchip that a new “owner” either did not know about or failed to re-register. When individuals cannot reach an agreement about an animal’s “ownership,” lawsuits are occasionally commenced to resolve the issue. Sometimes to get closure more quickly, these disputes are resolved by one individual agreeing to purchase the animal. These agreements should be in writing. Courts have considered the best interests of the animal but are more likely to consider property rights ---in other words --- who is the animal’s “owner,” which is something that is decided based on the facts of each situation. 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Does my ex have right to visitation of my dog?
Q:

I bought my dog while my ex was living with me. However, I pay the vet bills, the food, and the dog is registered in my name as well as living with me full time. He is now claiming that he owns the dog since he has paid some of the food bills previously, has taken the dog to vet sometimes, and visits the dog periodically. Would that suffice for him to have visitation rights or any ownership of the dog?  Please advise.

A:

When individuals cannot reach an understanding regarding an animal’s “ownership,” lawsuits are sometimes commenced. The purchaser of the animal can have an advantage in such a lawsuit but other factors are considered as well since subsequent to purchase, animals may be given away, sold, abandoned, etc. Courts are likely to consider under whose name the dog is registered, who has been the dog’s primary caretaker, and who has paid for most of the dog’s expenses. Best interests of the animal may be considered but generally not as much as these other factors.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Unknowingly adopted pregnant dog from Animal Control.
Q:

I adopted a dog from animal control 2 1/2 hours away ...I was required to get her spayed within 30 days, when I took her in to get spayed I found out she was 6 weeks pregnant with 7 pups they said they had to abort and charged me a few hundred for it....I want to know if the animal control should pay that bill or at least half of it . Can I take them to small claims court? Had I known I probably would have let her have the pups but I don't know what the other dog was....and also is it correct that they hold a dog for 4 days to be claimed then it goes to the humane society or they can adopt it out?

A:

The hold time for animals at shelters varies throughout the country. These laws generally provide that if the animal’s “owner” has not redeemed the animal by the expiration of the legal hold time, the animal may be made available for adoption or euthanized (some laws also allow the animals to be transferred to animal protection groups to increase adoption opportunities). It is important to keep in mind that frequently a procedure (filing a notice of claim) needs to be done quickly to preserve the right to sue a municipality. It is possible a court would hold an animal adoption agency liable for extraordinary spay/neuter expenses incurred by an adopter if the court were to find that the shelter negligently or intentionally failed to disclose the pregnancy. I suggest you carefully read your adoption agreement and any spay agreement you signed (some of these agreements state that the adoption agency will provide certain veterinary care but not reimburse for veterinary expenses incurred elsewhere). I also suggest that you consult with an attorney in your area who can review the documents and advise you.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Who covers medical costs adter my dog was hit by a car
Q:

My dog was recently hit by a car and has incurred major medical bills with another surgery pending. Is there any recourse for the medical expenses? Auto insurance or driver liability?

A:

People can check with their insurance carriers regarding coverage for veterinary expenses incurred as a result of an auto accident. A person whose dog was hit by a car may ask the driver to contact his/her insurance carrier as well. The dog’s “owner” can also sue the person who negligently harmed the animal but whether or not the the dog’s “owner” will recover money depends on the facts of the particular situation. Success in such a lawsuit would likely be dependent on whether the driver was negligent. If a speeding car veered off a road onto someone’s lawn and hit a dog who was sitting in the front yard the driver would likely be held liable (and the driver may have insurance to cover damages caused by the accident) but if a dog was unleashed and walking in the middle of the street at the time of the accident, courts would likely find that the driver was not negligent (unless he/she was speeding, etc). It is also possible that a court could find that a dog’s “owner” was at least partly negligent in failing to properly supervise his/her dog and hold the dog’s “owner” responsible for damage to the driver’s car or injuries sustained by the driver.
 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Concerned for rabbit I'm caring for over the summer.
Q:

My friend and her suite mate got a rabbit together to stay in their dorm during the school year. But in the summer they need someone to watch him, so I agreed. My friend drops the rabbit off in his cage and the food in it's dish. She brought no food and no hay, thankfully we had some of our own to give to him. Also when she dropped him off the way the cage was set up for him was unacceptable. There was no newspaper at all just hay sprinkled on the plastic floor so he can wade in his own pee. Now she said she was to come over everyday to feed him and see him. Not once has she, she hasn't even asked me about him, and I've seen her in person since she dropped him off a little over 2 weeks ago. Right now he's getting proper care but I'm afraid he will be terribly neglected come the school year when I have to give him back.

A:

There is no easy answer to your dilemma. Oftentimes when people agree to be an animal’s temporary caregiver, they become attached to the animal. Sometimes these situations get resolved amicably because the animal’s "owner" decides that he/she does not want the responsibility of caring for the animal anymore or recognizes that the animal is better off with the caregiver. At times, rather than relinquishing the animal, the “owner” will work out an arrangement so the caregiver can visit the animal. Also, sometimes an “owner” needs to be educated regarding proper and humane care. When a person suspects that an animal is being neglected or abused, the local police and SPCA should be contacted.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
What legal rights do I have against Vet who won't return dog and Orphanage who sold me a seriously ill dog?
Q:

Good afternoon... I adopted a dog from a "pet orphanage" a month ago, when I brought him home he was completely fine... but it's been a month now and he got extremely sick overnight, started throwing up so much until it was nothing but water. Took him to the vet immediately to find that he has diabetes, stomach problems, and an infection in his blood. NONE of this was disclosed to me when I adopted the dog... there was a document of what was done on him before we received him.. an xray (they thought he swallowed a cotton ball), treatment for his eye... the document said he has an eye ulcer but this document was not given to us until my mom demanded paperwork after visiting the vet. They merely told us he was being treated for an eye infection... but he has a chronic eye ulcer, his eyes are almost always watery and have discharge... Now the vet is threatening me and saying that if I don't pay the bill he is going to treat my dog and give it to a different home... which is freaking ridiculous to me... why not treat it and give it to me? To a home he already has? I was not disclosed this information when I adopted him, which I believe is illegal... what if I'm not capable of paying for such vet bills... what did they expect me to do with the dog? Had I known he had so many problems, I wouldn't have took on the responsibility because I'm not financially capable of it... My 2 main questions are: Can the vet give my dog away legally, if I can't pay the bill? And if so, what if I send my boyfriend to go adopt the dog. It's a different family.. why does it matter who it is... if his concern is to give it away to a different family? He has his own place with his own name. Second question, where do I stand with the pet adoption place? I am planning on taking the vet bill to them and telling them to pay for it because it is THEIR responsibility since they did not disclose this information. Had I known and agreed to accepting the sick dog, I would not have blamed them... but they reassured my mom several times that the dog had been checked and was healthy.. and he seemed healthy... but he's only a puppy... and the vet said that it's rare for a puppy this age to have diabetes... so it didn't happen overnight, you know? Also... they claimed to have had the dog for 2 months before we adopted him... and if that's the case, how did they not know he had diabetes... he is tremendously ill because of lack of insulin that he needed to be given... they potentially almost killed the dog, had I not took it to the vet on time. Also, on the documentation, it did not say diabetes on the "special needs" section... which is the reason that section exists, for cases like this. If they refuse to pay the vet bill, I am going to sue them for the adoption fee they charged me ($270), the $700 vet bill, and money to pay for his treatments, AND emotional distress... do they understand the situation they have placed my family and myself in? We love this dog, but we don't have the opportunity to pay for all of these treatments... and that's not even the main issue... if it was only diabetes, I wouldn't be concerned... but the dog has extremely elevated neutrophil levels and lipase levels... he is suffering from stomach issues and an infection... I don't know if this is chronic or due to the lack of insulin.... please write back asap, I am on my way to the vet in an hour....

A:

I hope you are able to work this out with the veterinarian and the orphanage. There is an abandonment law in California that provides that if an animal is not retrieved within 14 days after the animal was due to be picked up, the animal is deemed abandoned. After being deemed abandoned, the veterinarian is required to keep the animal for 10 days while trying to find a new home for the animal. However, very important to note is that the California Veterinary Medical Association’s website states, “One contingency, however, is that if the owner attempts physically to retrieve the animal or otherwise contact the veterinary facility, or give notice of intent to retrieve the animal within the initial 14-day period, even though the veterinarian’s bill has not been paid, the animal cannot be considered to be abandoned.”  The responsibilities of animal rescue organizations are largely dependent on what their adoption agreements provide. Most rescues really try their best to have animals evaluated carefully before adoption and some rescues will help with veterinary costs but that is done on a case by case basis and sometimes also depends on the availability of funds.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
What are our legal rights in keeping dog that Aunt gave away?
Q:

My husband and I were given a dog by his aunt, it was her adult son's dog. He had left it at her house, but she could not keep it there due to her lease allowed no animals. We came and got the dog and she made it clear she did not want it back and we could even give it away if we needed to. We did not give him away we are very attached to the pup, have vetted him and purchased food and items for him. Her son after 2 weeks texted and wants the dog back and is threatening us with court. What is our legal rights in this situation? We talked to his mom and she advised she gave him $1200 for the dog also. Now she is telling us to give the dog back.


A:

When an animal is given to someone as a gift, the person giving the animal away usually has no further rights to that animal. However, if the person who gave the animal away had no legal right to do so (for example, such person did not “own” the animal), then the rights of the recipient of the animal may be trumped by the rights of the actual “owner.” If the aunt in the scenario you presented purchased the dog from her son (by paying $1200 for the dog) before giving the dog to you, her son may not have rights to the dog anymore--- since he no longer would have been the dog’s “owner” at the time the dog was given to you. However, often people have different versions of the facts (so the aunt and her son might not agree with the facts you presented). Also, occasionally people change their minds after they sell or give an animal away and then attempt to undo what they did. Sometimes that works through the voluntary capitulation by the person who has the animal or through a lawsuit, but often it does not. I hope your family can resolve this dispute in the best interests of the dog.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
How can we get our cat back from cat sitter?
Q:

A little over a year ago we had a family friend take care of my two cats because we moved and couldn't have them where we were living. All we asked was to care for them for a year or so and not to let them outside.  We have finally established a home where we could have our cats. My fiance' contacted our "friend" this evening to see if we could get our cats to find out that 1 of the 2 had passed away because he allowed them outside and then to be told that the other cat is theirs now because it is a part of their family and we didn't come to see them. My fiance' told me he was in regualar contact in regards to our cats. Unfortunately tonight it was brought to my attention that he has not been in contact with our cat sitter. I am beyond hurt as is our 4 year old son, in regards to not getting our cat back.  What can I do?

A:

Perhaps consider going to an animal shelter and adopting a cat. When a person leaves a cat with a friend for over a year and has not paid for the cat’s care during this time, has not visited the cat or even contacted the cat sitter, an argument (a good one in my opinion) can be made that the cat was either given away or abandoned.
 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Can I take my ex-boyfriend to court for money I paid for dog?
Q:

Hello, in March 2012, I bought my dog for $500, which I have the receipt, I also have the vet bills. Then I got another dog, me & my ex boyfriend broke up so I moved out & took one dog with me due to the fact I can't keep both dogs in my grandma's house. My ex and I decided that (the dog) will stay with him until I was able to get her. I recently found out he registered her under his name without telling me. Well my question is can I take him to court to pay me the money I paid for the dog? I would love to get her back but I know she's happy with him so I don't want to take her away from him.

A:

Lawsuits are brought all of the time. Some have merit and some do not, so the issue is not whether one can sue but whether there is a likelihood of success if one does sue. Consider that the recipient of a dog could argue that the dog was a gift and, therefore, he/she should not be responsible for reimbursing the gift giver for the cost of the dog. Also consider that one can countersue for the expenses incurred in caring for the dog (food, veterinary services, boarding, grooming, toys, etc).


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
My friend won't return dog that we agreed he would care for temporarily.
Q:

I have a notarized written agreement with a friend to take care of my dog temporarily. And now the friend broke the agreement and won't give me back my dog. I went to legal services. But they said they can't help me. I'm lost and confused and dont know what to do from here. Can you please help me?

A:

One can commence a civil lawsuit for the return of an animal who is being wrongfully withheld. When an individual cannot afford an attorney, he/she can bring the lawsuit pro se (without an attorney). State laws differ but lawsuits for the return of property (or an animal) are often referred to as “replevin” actions, which essentially means actions for the return of property that is being wrongfully detained. The lawsuit can be based on a breach of contract. Court clerks are sometimes very helpful to pro se litigants. Also, the police may intervene if they believe an animal theft law has been violated.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
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