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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:

Will I get my dog back from Animal Control?
Q:

My dog has been aggressive lately. We have an appointment with a dog trainer,  but today he tried to bite me so I hit him on the muzzle. He growled so I pushed him with my foot. Someone called Animal Control and they took him. Will I get my dog back?

A:

Unless a dog ‘owner’ signs a surrender agreement, he/she is generally entitled to a hearing before any final disposition of a dog alleged to be dangerous is made. Even if a surrender agreement was signed, one can still try to assert rights. Dogs who bite are often ordered quarantined for several days (although sometimes in the ‘owner’s’ home, not at a shelter). I suggest that you immediately contact animal control to inform them verbally and in writing that you want your dog back. Remember that a hearing should be requested if there is any indication that the dog may not be returned, or that the dog may be killed or subject to other conditions. The dog’s life may be in jeopardy. I suggest hiring an attorney in these matters. I also suggest hiring a humane animal trainer.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Do I have to give my dog back?
Q:

I was just wondering: I just adopted a puppy and it's not working out with some personal issues I'm dealing with right now. I live in PA and I adopted the dog from the adoption agency in SC. I actually got the dog!...despite the most absurd questions and the investigation of my home. But in the contract it says that I have to give the dog back if I can't care for it anymore. I've already told them (only after a few days due to sudden personal issues that erupted) that I need to give the dog back and they are working on a transport to get her back to SC...and they asked me to do 1/3 of the trip!. But they are taking a while in working it all out and I can NOT care for this dog any more. I spoke to a good friend of mine who is involved in vet care and she said to just tell them that the situation/personal problem I had was resolved and I want to keep the dog but then give it to someone else after, because I have a few friends and family members with good homes that are looking for a new dog. And since the rescue group is all the way in SC, I figure that they will never, ever find out if I give the dog to someone else. But I read an article online about how someone got caught with a legal situation that cost $500! I don't need that on top of it all! Please email me and tell me what you think of my situation and what I should do.

A:

Many animal shelters and rescue groups include language in their adoption agreements requiring the return of adopted animals if the adopter chooses not to keep the animal. In this way, shelters and rescue groups can ensure that prospective adopters meet adoption standards. However, sometimes if a shelter/rescue group is informed of an interested adopter by an adopter who no longer wants to keep an animal, the shelter or rescue group will try to cooperate if screening of the prospective adopter is possible.  Some adoption agreements include provisions pertaining to potential liability for breaches of the agreement but I cannot say whether or not the particular organization from whom you adopted the dog would sue based on breach of contract or how a court would decide the case. I suggest that you arrange for proper care of the dog pending the outcome of this situation (after all, you did adopt the dog and the dog is your responsibility for now).  Also, keep in mind that shelters and rescue groups usually spend a lot of time, effort and money to care for their animals and it is very disappointing when an adoption does not work out. Frankly, doing the 1/3 drive seems to be a reasonable request under these circumstances. I hope the dog gets a humane forever home next time.
 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Is it animal abuse if a dog is not properly supervised?
Q:

Me and my familiy were coming back from an errand, when all of a sudden a puppy ran out through the street! Luckily we were able to stop the car before it was too late. Me worried about the dog, got out of the car and tried to call him because he was alone. When I did that I guess he got scared and went under the gate of this house. Wouldn't this be animal abuse because the people that own this dog should have proper care for that dog and if something is not done that dog could get hit by a car?

A:

While it is certainly negligent for pet ‘parents’ not to properly supervise their animals, it is unlikely that they would be charged with cruelty to animals if their animals (in otherwise good condition) escape from their yards. It is possible the dog’s ‘owner’ could receive a summons for a leash law violation (in those areas where there is a leash law) and could be subject to a lawsuit if the animal injures a person or other animal orcauses property damage. I hope this puppy is OK. Sometimes it can help to send a note (if one knows where the dog lives) to make the dog’s ‘owner’ aware that the dog escaped. Hopefully, more appropriate precautions will then be taken so the dog won’t escape again.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
What right does Animal Control have to keep my dog?
Q:

Hi I own a 6 year old pittbull. Months ago a dog came onto our property and my pitt went after him the owner came over and beat my dog so he bit his leg. Then a year later a lady come into our yard and went for my daughter in her stroller my pitt snapped the line knocked her away and held onto her leg small puncture no stiches. But then last week he bit my daughters friend whose been around him for years. Anyways animal control told us he needed a 10 day quarantine at there shelter 2 days later they call and say hes not alowwed home and they just said the 10 day thing to get him there. Now they're planning to put him down without our consent. Can they do that? Is there anyway we'll get him back




A:

Generally, a dog ‘owner’ whose dog is alleged to be dangerous has the right to a dangerous dog hearing and must be notified about this right (if the identity of the ‘owner’ is reasonably ascertainable). The law in NJ states that if “the owner wishes, a hearing will be held to determine whether the impounded dog is vicious or potentially dangerous. This notice shall also require that the owner return within seven days, by certified mail or hand delivery, a signed statement indicating whether he wishes the hearing to be conducted or, if not, to relinquish ownership of the dog, in which case the dog may be humanely destroyed.” Also, sometimes when an animal is quarantined due to a bite the animal’s ‘owner’ inadvertently signs a surrender form relinquishing all rights to the animal (thus giving the municipality the right to kill the animal). There could be grounds to challenge the validity of the document.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
What are my rights as the dog owner?
Q:

I left my dog in the care of someone for a month and they will not give me my dog back. The original agreement was to give me my dog back as soon as I returned and now they are not willing to return him. I haven't had him registered yet, but I do have him in my divorce decree as my personal property and I have pictures of him as my only proof that I own him. What can I do? Do I have any rights to get him back???

A:

Generally, when a pet ‘parent’ leaves an animal for boarding, the pet ‘parent’ is entitled to retrieve the animal. However, the issue gets more complex if the pet ‘parent’ does not return to get the animal on the agreed upon date or pay the amount due for the animal’s care. Arizona’s boarding law says, “When a small animal left at a boarding facility or any animal left at a veterinarian facility has not been reclaimed within the period of time previously agreed upon at the time of delivery of the animal…, the boarding facility or veterinarian may give written notice by certified mail to the last known address of the owner, possessor or custodian of the animal, and if the animal is not reclaimed within thirty days from the date of the mailing of the notice, the animal shall become the property of the boarding facility or veterinarian to dispose of as the boarding facility or veterinarian sees fit.” When boarding is not with a boarding facility or veterinarian, one’s rights largely depend on the boarding agreement and compliance with it. In cases where no written agreement exists and the parties dispute the terms of the verbal agreement, courts would consider other factors, including, for example, whether money was paid for the care of the animal, to determine the respective rights of the parties. Proof of ‘ownership’ from a divorce decree and photos can be helpful but do not definitively prove ‘ownership’ since the animal could have subsequently been given away, sold, or abandoned. If one believes his/her animal is being wrongfully withheld, he/she can sue for the return of the animal.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
My late boyrfriend's mother wants custody of our dog.
Q:

First I would like to thank you for taking the time to review my questions, and for any advice that you can provide me. This is regarding my 8 year old miniature Dachshund. My boyfriend passed away unexpectedly and was rightful owner of a dog since the day he found him as a stray. At the time he found the dog, he was only 8 weeks old. He moved into my home in 2010. The entire time that we lived together I was a primary caregiver to the dog. His mother has sent a non-legal letter stating that she wants me to turn over  the dog  to her because she feels that this is what her son would want, and he is a Family Dog. I can honestly say that his family was not a big part of the dog's life once we began dating. He did not have a will. I am in the process of getting him registered, he has an appointment to be vaccinated for the registration, and I regularly have him groomed. I have been the sole caregiver of the dog since the day that my boyfriend passed away. His mother stated in her letter that she plans to go to court if I do not follow her requests. I understand that they may have been in his life more frequently prior to my dating their son, but for more than 3 years this dog has become my family. The idea of losing him is ripping me apart, and this is the last piece of my boyfriend that I have. Any assistance or advice that you can provide me with I would be so appreciative.

A:

The law on who gets what when a person dies without a will can get complicated and usually depends on who the surviving relatives are (for example, spouse, children, parents). However, if a court believes that the decedent’s companion animal was gifted prior to the decedent’s death or that the decedent and another person were ‘co-owners’ of the animal, then the court would likely find that the person who was the recipient of the gift or ‘co-owner’ is entitled to the animal. It is hard to know if the court would determine that you, your boyfriend’s parents, or neither of you were ‘co-owners.’ Occasionally when custody of an animal is at issue, a court will also consider an animal’s best interests. A visitation schedule can sometimes work if the individuals are amenable, but when the  individuals live far apart, that obviously poses a problem for the animal and the individuals.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Neighbor had my cat euthanized.
Q:

My indoor/outdoor cat, who has lived in the same house his whole life, was wandering a few doors down. The neighbor noticed he was injured, took him to the vet and had him euthanized. Can any action take place over this matter?

A:

I am so sorry to hear about your cat. Texas law states that: “(a) A veterinarian who provides emergency treatment to an ill or injured animal on the veterinarian's own initiative, or at the request of a person other than the animal's owner, is not liable to the owner for damages to the animal unless the veterinarian commits gross negligence. (b) If the veterinarian performs euthanasia on the animal, the veterinarian is presumed to have performed a humane act necessary to relieve the animal's pain and suffering." If the finder of an animal knows the identity of an injured  animal’s ‘owner’ and fails to make reasonable efforts to contact the ‘owner’ before having the animal euthanized, such person might be held liable. It is likely that any monetary award would be low, particularly if the animal was severely injured and not able to be saved.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Neighbors who found my dogs want $100 to get them back.
Q:

I was recently away for a weekend and when I returned my parents told me that my dogs had gotten out of the house. My parents went everywhere looking for them and couldn't find them. Finally they found them at a neighbors house but they are charging us $100 to get them back. They also cut my dogs hair without my permission. How can I get them back and should I call the police?

A:

Many people who lose animals are not so lucky. Their animals are lost forever. Although perhaps un-neighborly to charge $100 for caring for the dogs, the value of the dog care (when compared to commercial boarding fees, for example) could even exceed $100 depending on how long the neighbors cared for them. Of course, finders of animals should notify local authorities. In California there is a law which states that, “One who finds lost property under circumstances which give him knowledge of or means of inquiry as to the true owner, and who appropriates such property to his own use….without first making reasonable and just efforts to find the owner and to restore the property to him, is guilty of theft.” If these were my dogs I would thank my lucky stars that they were safe. I would also thank my neighbors and pay the $100.


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
Lost dog ended up in another city.
Q:

I lost my dog, then he ended up in the another city. The lady who has now is not returning him. I am 110% sure he is my dog. When the vet neutered him he had bad infection so they removed his scrotal sac. He does not have microchip. what I should do? I went to the local police station. They assigned detective. Now detective is saying dog is in the other city. He cannot help me. I have this dog 4 years. I have 2 little kids. All family is so sad. Please help me.

A:

If the reason the finder of the dog will not return the dog is that she does not believe the dog is yours, it might help to work out an arrangement for your dog’s veterinary records and photos to be provided to a veterinarian who can then examine the found dog. When settlements cannot be reached for the return of an animal and the police refuse to get involved, sometimes civil actions for the return of an animal are commenced. One’s rights are dependent on several factors. If the person in possession of an animal adopted the animal from a shelter that held the animal for the legally required time period and followed other legal mandates (such as notification of owners where identifiable through microchips, licenses, etc.), courts have generally found that the adopter has greater rights than the original ‘owner’ who lost the dog (although there have been exceptions, particularly in disaster situations ---Katrina, for example--- where the ‘owner’ could not have gone to the shelter in a timely manner). In other lost and found disputes, courts have considered the efforts of the finder of the animal to locate the animal’s ‘owner’ and the efforts of the person who lost the animal to find the animal. Good luck!


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
What rights does my son have to the puppy police forced him to give to his ex?
Q:

My son and his ex where engaged to be married in October, they purchased a puppy this past December after Christmas. I should say my son pulled out the cash and handed it to her to pay the breeder for the puppy. He has paid 1/2 in everything with this puppy as far as the security deposit at their apartment, to the vet bills, dog tags everything and so on.
They were having issues she became unhappy and took off on a Friday night when she was under doctor orders to not be driving, and left. My son thought she went back to her parents house where she was suppose to go for the weekend with her mom out of town to a relatives bachelorette party. The next morning he receives a text from her sister asking what Alexa was doing spending the night with this guy.
My son upset packed up the dog and came back to our house as he didn't know what was going on or happening. Long story short she called off the wedding and she wanted him to move out of the apartment.
For the last 3-4 weeks now he has dealt with the police from there calling him threatening him that they were going to charge him with theft over numerous things and she kept demanding the dog back.
Last week the detective told him that if he didn't bring the dog back that he was going to turn it over to the prosecutor and charge him with theft. As my son explained he paid for the dog and has paid half for everything for the dog. The detective said he would turn it over to the prosecutor.
Apparently she obtained a reciept for the dog that she had put in her name, nobody had a reciept for the dog as of a few weeks ago. She had put the dog tags in her name due to his work schedule. He had no idea that she was going to do this to him.
He received a call yesterday by the detective to bring the dog now to the police station or our county we live in would be out to arrest him and take him to jail and arrest him. He felt he had no choice but to take the dog back so he wasn't charged with theft. So my question is what rights does he have to his puppy?

A:

If one believes that his/her animal is being wrongfully withheld, a lawsuit for the return of the animal can be commenced. Courts will review the evidence of ‘ownership,’ including, for example, who purchased or adopted the dog and whether the dog was subsequently given as a gift or sold, who paid for the dog’s care, who was the primary caretaker (fed the dog, took the dog to the vet and groomer, walked the dog, etc.) and under whose name the dog is ‘registered’ (dog license, microchip, purebred papers). While having a dog license, microchip, and registration papers in one’s name can be helpful in trying to prove ‘ownership’ of an animal, they do not definitively prove ‘ownership.’ After all, if one steals an animal and buys a dog license, the thief doesn’t have a lawful claim to the animal. Disputes between separating couples are difficult to resolve since oftentimes both parties purchased/adopted the animal and have contributed to the animal’s care on a fairly equal basis. Sometimes courts will consider the animal’s best interests. Courts tend not to order visitation (although that has been done) since many courts view animals as property and they do not want to get involved with enforcing visitation orders (which depending on the circumstances could last for years). I hope your son and his ex can reach an agreement that considers the animal’s best interests.
 


Submitted by Anonymous
Answered by Elinor Molbegott
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