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Top Legal Questions & Answers

By: Alex Lieber

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The bond between you and your pet may be a private, special thing, but there are a lot of legalities attached to your companion animal. It's important to know your legal rights and responsibilities to protect your pet while respecting laws.

Here are a few answers to many of the legal questions that often come up in regard to pets. It is the responsibility of the pet owner to learn the local, county, state and/or federal laws that may pertain to their animals. Remember that ignorance of the law is no excuse. You can find out about the laws of your area by contacting the animal control department of your city, county and/or state. Remember that some laws may apply only to your community while others apply throughout the state or even the country.

Q: Dogs and cats are largely considered property in the legal definition. Is this changing and what would the effect be?

A: Although some cities have changed the wording of pet owner to "guardian," pets are still considered property. If someone deliberately kills a neighbor's dog, he or she usually has committed a crime against property. There is, however, currently a trend is some states to move slowly toward allowing owners compensation for loss of companionship.

Q: Are cruelty and neglect considered felonies or misdemeanors, and are the laws changing on this?

A: Most crimes against pets were once misdemeanors – a lesser crime – because pets were seen more as farm animals or workers. If you shot someone's dog, you used to only owe the owner a new dog. But with pets being viewed as family members, animal abuse (actual cruelty inflicted on a pet) and neglect (ignoring an animal's basic needs) are becoming felonies. Pets are still considered property, however.

Q: My lease says "no pets" but I adopt one anyway. Can my landlord evict me without giving me a chance to find a new home? Generally, how long do I have to find a new place?

A: That all depends on your lease, the written contract between you and your landlord. Leases usually provide some time for you to leave, if you violate the lease. As a tenant, you have specific rights and your landlord must go through the courts to evict you. Some states are tenant-friendly while others favor the landlord. Here's a hint: if your lease does not mention a pet, in most states you have every right to bring one in. However, your landlord can choose not to renew your lease.

Q: Can my landlord take my pet to the pound while I am at work?

A: Most likely no, unless your lease specifically says he can take your pet. Otherwise, that would be theft.

Q: Why do laws vary from state to state and city to city? Are there federal laws governing pets? What happens if a local ordinance is in conflict with a state law?

A: The United States operates under the federal system. In theory, the states govern themselves and the federal government only governs enough to keep the nation unified. With the exception of specific (often endangered or dangerous) species, it's easier for the states to handle pet laws themselves, based on their particular situations. Likewise, it's easier for municipalities to establish the community standards that pertain to their situation. A rural community has different requirements than a crowded city, for instance.

Q: Why does my dog need a license but my cat doesn't?

A: In a lot of places, cats do. You need to make sure where your community stands on the issue. Licensing cats is somewhat controversial because the law is difficult to enforce, especially with indoor cats. If your cat is caught outside and you're identified as the owner, you may be subject to a fine.

Q: I was recently fined for violating pooper-scooper laws. Can I appeal it?

A: You appeal a fine the same way you appeal a traffic ticket. Usually, you go before an administrative board, local court or whoever is enforcing the law.

Q: My dog stays on my property without being leashed or fenced in. Can he be picked up by animal control?

A: That depends on your local laws. If your laws say your dog must be leashed or fenced in, animal control may be allowed to come onto your property and take him away, especially if he doesn't have a tag and is potentially aggressive.

Look at it from their point of view. They are driving down a road and see a dog barking at them, loose in an unsecured yard. Kids are on the street and there is no way for them to know to whom the dog belongs. If they leave the scene and the dog bites someone, the city may be liable.

Q: My neighbor's dog is digging up my yard. Can I take the dog to the pound if he's roaming off the owner's property?

A: If he is roaming off the property, I'd err on the side of caution and call animal control to pick him up. It isn't like making a citizen's arrest; an individual usually cannot enforce a leash law.

Q: When is euthanasia legally mandated?

A: Again, this depends on your city or state laws. Dogs with rabies are euthanized, as are some vicious dogs that have attacked people. Public health and welfare laws usually govern whether or not euthanasia is mandated.

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