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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 long does a shelter hold a lost dog before they adopt him out?
Q:

My dog got out and fell into a pond and was rescued. 4 days later they adopt him out. How long do they really have to adopt your dog out? They wanted me to pay 300 dollar vet bill or I couldn't get my dog back. He was the family pet and they refused payments.


A:

Hold times at shelters vary throughout the country. West Virginia’s law provides that impounded dogs at shelters must be held for a minimum of five days (this gives“owners” an opportunity to redeem their dogs). The law states that if the dog warden knows who the dog’s “owner” is, the warden must immediately give notice to the “owner,” but if the “owner” is not known, the warden must post a notice in the county courthouse describing the dog, location where the dog was seized, and that the dog must be redeemed within five days. There may be local laws that address these issues so they must be checked out as well. Impoundment fees also vary. Animal “owners” who refuse to pay the amount due and  redeem their animals in a timely manner risk losing "ownership" rights to their animals. I suggest you consult with an attorney in your state regarding your specific rights under these circumstances.
 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Previous owner wants dog back.
Q:

A friend of my son's had a dog but she couldn't keep him; he was around 13 weeks old. She said my son could keep him and just had to pay for his shots which we did. I paid for his shots and his license. Now she says that her cousin gave her the dog wants him back; he will pay us for the shots or if we want to keep him we have to pay him $400. What can I do? We love the dog and I don't think it's right to give him away and then want him back.


A:

Generally when a person gives his/her animal away, he/she has no further rights to that animal, unless there is an agreement that states otherwise. Often people who give an animal away have a change of heart, but that does not change the legal consequences of their actions. When multiple people are involved in multiple transactions regarding an animal (son, son’s friend, son’s friend’s cousin, you) and there are no written contracts, the terms of all of the agreements can be unclear and subject to different interpretations. For example, did the friend “own” the puppy at the time the puppy was given to your son? What was the actual agreement between the friend and her cousin?  Sometimes in an effort to get a quicker and less costly resolution, these disputes are settled out of court. Any agreement should be in writing to avoid further conflicts.
 


Submitted by anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
If someone moves out but leaves their cat, is that illegal?
Q:

If someone moves out but leaves their cat, is that illegal?

A:

Massachusetts’ cruelty to animals law provides that it is illegal for a person having charge or custody of an animal to willfully abandon the animal. 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Can someone surrender a dog that doesn't belong to them?
Q:

Can someone surrender a dog that doesn't belong to them? I was living in a rented place and I couldn't bring my dog, and my family surrendered my dog. I just got a house and was able to bring my fur baby home, my kids love him dearly. I called the humane society and the officer told me since he was at my family members house for 6 months that makes the dog theirs. Is that true? Hope to hear back. Thanks

A:

Generally a person does not have the authority to surrender another person’s animal without the consent of the animal’s “owner.” There are exceptions to this general rule, such as when a person is declared legally incompetent and a guardian is appointed. However, sometimes circumstances are such that it is not clear who “owns” an animal. A court could (but may not) decide that an animal left with a family member for months was given away to that family member or abandoned. This is more likely to happen if the original “owner” was not paying for the animal’s upkeep or regularly caring for or visiting the animal during this time. If the dog is still at the shelter, consider trying to adopt him.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Does our landlord have the right to take my dog?
Q:

I'm a teenager from a split household and my dog lives in a house with my dad. The landlord said they were chasing my dog outside. Does the landlord have the right to take my dog and give her to one of his friends?

A:

Landlords who believe that a tenant is violating his/her lease can commence a legal action, not steal a tenant’s pet. Landlords do not have the legal right to take a tenant’s animal and give the animal away without the tenant’s consent (although there are exceptions to this general rule if, for example, a tenant moves and leaves an animal behind, in which case the landlord should take appropriate action to ensure the animal’s well-being).
 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Dog trainer refused to give me my dog back.
Q:

I rescued a dog from a private party. The dog was sent to a friend of mine who rehabs rescued dogs. She was supposed to return the dog to me after my current dog recovered from torn ACL surgery.  I received a private message from her telling me she was keeping this dog as she feels I can not handle her needs. I have the same breed of hunting dog at home currently. What legal action do I have to get my dog back?


A:

 Lawsuits for the return of an animal (referred to as actions in replevin) are sometimes brought when people cannot resolve pet custody disputes. Courts will consider the written agreement, if any, specifying the rights of the parties and other evidence to determine “ownership,” including evidence that would indicate whether the animal was given away, boarded, or abandoned. For example, courts may consider whether boarding payments were made, whether the person who left the animal for boarding visited the animal, and whether the animal was retrieved on or near the agreed upon time. While courts occasionally consider the animal's interests, they often do not.
 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Transfer papers were never filed, do we still have the rights to the dog?
Q:

We were giving a dog away, we signed transfer papers that were never filed by the other party. Now the other party is wanting to sell the dog. Since the transfer papers were never actually filed with the akc like they should of been, do we as the original owners have the rights to the dog due to the fact transfer papers were never signed? Do they have the right to sell the dog even tho ownership is not in there name?

A:

When a person gives his/her animal away, such person usually has no further rights to the animal, regardless of whether the new “owner” changed the AKC registration. While AKC registration, dog license, microchip, veterinary records, etc. are all indications of “ownership” and can be very helpful in an animal custody dispute, they do not necessarily prove “ownership” in all cases, particularly when the animal was subsequently given away or sold. New “owners” generally have the right to sell or adopt out their animals. Prior “owners” could attempt to purchase or adopt animals that they previously gave away or sold.
 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
My dog is being neglected by my pet sitter what can I do?
Q:

I had to fly to the hospital with my baby as she had severe bronchialitis so I got a friend to watch my house and dog. She verbally agreed to watch my dog until I knew what was going on. I cannot go home just yet as the baby is still in and out of hospital. My dog has been severely neglected. What can I do about this? I am so worried about my dog.


A:

If you do not have a family member or another friend to care for your dog, consider making arrangements with your veterinarian or a boarding facility. You can also contact local animal control officers to see if they will intervene and law enforcement authorities if you believe animal cruelty/neglect laws are being violated.
 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
How do I get my cat back from someone who was taking care of it?
Q:

I have let my friend, who I thought I could trust, watch my cat while I was looking for a new home and getting situated. I am now in a home with a roommate and they will not give my cat of 16 years back to me. I have been asking for weeks now and nothing.

A:

People who believe their animals are being wrongfully withheld can sue to try to get their animals returned. While sometimes courts consider the interests of the animal, they usually decide these cases based on property rights. In determining “ownership,” courts would consider the terms of the agreement between the parties (although, unfortunately, often “friends” do not enter into written agreements and disputing parties often have different “versions” of a verbal agreement). Courts would likely consider the length of time the original “owner” had the animal, the length of time the animal was allegedly boarded, and other relevant evidence to determine whether the animal was really boarded or given away or abandoned. This may/may not include whether any boarding payments were paid and how often, if at all, the person who allegedly left the animal for boarding visited the animal.
 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
How to reclaim a surrendered kitten?
Q:

I'll keep it simple, an accident happened where my 2 year old tossed our kitten down the stairs. She was left in pretty bad shape but within 24 hours was doing much better. A friend of mine contacted a local rescue to get advice as we could not take her to an after hours clinic but were waiting until the following day to see our regular vet. Anyways I was guilted and threatened into surrendering our kitten (with paperwork) with the thought that we would be adopting her through their program after her treatment. Now its seems like that won't be the case. How do we get her back? Thank you.

A:

Individuals can sue to try to get an animal returned. However, generally when a person signs an animal surrender agreement, such person no longer has any legal rights to the animal (unless the agreement provides otherwise). Animal shelters/rescues have discretion on their animal adoptions. Clearly shelters/rescues would be very reluctant to place a kitten in a home where a toddler had thrown the kitten down the stairs. The failure to procure immediate veterinary care would add to this reluctance.
 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
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