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Top Legal Questions & Answers

By: Alex Lieber

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Q: Can I legally own a wild animal, whether indigenous or non-indigenous?

A: You have to look at federal, state and local laws. If a species is endangered or protected, you cannot legally own it without a special permit. If you can, you must check with your state's wildlife department to determine if you require a special permit. If a species is not endangered or protected you may still be required to obtain a special permit to own it. Laws may require owners of wild animals to provide specific conditions such as special housing and exercise.

Q: If I find a stray dog that has a collar and tag, can I keep him or do I have to legally return him? What about with microchips?

A: If you find someone's property and know to whom it belongs, keeping it is stealing. If you find a stray with no identification, you need to check your state's laws governing abandoned property.

Q: Is a veterinary hospital legally required to treat my pet if he has a chip but they cannot contact me?

A: While there may be a code of ethics that requires veterinarians to treat such an animal, in most states there is no legal requirement to do so.

Q: My dog bit someone on my property – what legal problems, civil and/or criminal, do I face? What if my dog bites an intruder?

A: This is a complex issue, and it depends on your local and state statutes. There may be civil liabilities associated with a simple bite but probably no criminal charges. The difference is "intent." If your dog attacks and kills, and you had reason to know the dog would kill, you may be in very serious trouble, even if someone comes on to your property without your permission. A vicious dog is a loaded gun.

Q: My dog escaped from my fenced yard and bites someone on the street – do I face a criminal charge?

A: If you had a reason to know your dog would bite, and he gets out and bites, you might be charged with a criminal offense. If you did not have a reason to know, there is less chance of facing criminal charges.

Q: A dog runs in front of my car and I hit him. Do I have a case to sue the owner of the dog for damage to my car? Can he sue me for hitting his dog?

A: This is a property issue, as if you and the other person had gotten into a car accident. It depends on the circumstances and who is at fault. If you are driving carefully, the dog is not on a leash, the owner might be sued for damages. If you were driving too fast or reckless, it may get a little more complicated.

Q: My female dog was fenced in my backyard, and my neighbor's dog jumped the fence and impregnated her. Can I legally force the neighbor to pay for the medical care and finding homes for the puppies?

A: The problem is one of proof. How can you prove another dog didn't make your dog pregnant? Are you going to pay for the DNA tests to prove whether the puppies belong to the neighbor's dog? The costs to sue may be more than what you would get back.

Q: I am getting a divorce. What are the custody issues?

A: It depends on local law, and who the original owner is. If a couple got the dog together with marital funds, the dog is marital property. However, courts recognize vindictive behavior – the husband does not like the pet but wants to upset the wife by taking it. If the wife can prove she has invested more time and emotion in the pet, the court may side with her.

Q: My pet was injured while under the care of a professional person (pet sitter, dog walker, groomer, vet). Can they be legally forced to pay?

A: If there is a contract, it should say what the person is liable for. You must show that the person caused the damage. Again, going after damages may cost more than the damage itself.

Q: I cannot afford my vet's bill. Can he legally hold my pet hostage, charging me daily boarding charges, until I pay my bill?

A: In most situations, no, however some states allow a veterinarian to have a lien or bailment on the animal for payment. This is more common with livestock and horses but can apply to dogs and cats.

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