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America is not only a nation of law, but also a nation of dog owners. A growing body of dog-related laws shows increased respect for humane issues and recognition that pets are family members.
Where dogs once were regarded only as property, courts now may consider them as intelligent creatures who feel pain and fear. People who mistreat dogs are no longer dismissed with a slap on the wrist.
Laws pertaining to dogs differ, depending on your state, county and municipality. Whether you are moving to a new neighborhood or just traveling through, you should be aware of the responsibilities and protections given to dog owners and their pets.
Basic Laws for Dog Owners
Rabies. Proof of inoculation is required by most states or municipalities.
Spay/neuter. More and more localities require that all animals adopted from shelters be sterilized. If the animal is too young or is medically unable to undergo this surgery at the time of adoption, the law can require that the owner leave a deposit until the pet is fixed. Some localities charge a higher licensing fee if the animal is not sterilized. Reasoning goes that only breeders would have reason not to sterilize their dogs, and that they are willing to pay extra for the privilege. These fees often go into a spay/neuter fund for indigent animals. In a few states, dog or cat vanity license plates finance such programs.
Chaining. Tethering or limiting the movement of dogs is considered inhumane. In fact, chained dogs are more likely to bite humans and other pets and are unable to defend themselves or flee if attacked. Many communities restrict the length of time a dog can be chained and forbid certain methods of restraint.
Shelters. State or local laws specify the minimum amount of time a dog must be held by an animal control shelter before he is considered without an owner. When the period is up, the shelter has the right to put the dog up for adoption or euthanize him. In areas where there is limited shelter capacity, the period may be as little as 48 hours.
Breed bans. From time to time, local legislatures pass laws banning a specific breed – such as pit bulls – which they label as "dangerous." Others require owners of a "dangerous" breed to carry a certain amount of liability insurance on the dog. Such laws are not effective, because individual dogs – not entire breeds – can be bred or trained to be dangerous. Also, history shows that when one breed is banned as "dangerous," people who want an aggressive dog simply raise and train another breed to take its place.
Identification. In some states, shelters are now required to scan for a microchip I.D. when the dog arrives.
Aid to suffering animals. In many states, it is against the law for a passer-by not to call authorities or offer aid to an injured or suffering animal.
If your dog threatens or bites a person or another pet, expect a call from a lawyer representing the victim (or owner) and prepare for a trip to court. A judge or a health department official will hear your case and determine the consequences. Some communities have established special "animal courts" to handle bite cases and dog-related nuisance and quality-of-life complaints.
If your dog is a nuisance – roaming the neighborhood, for example – the judge may require that you install high fencing to ensure that your dog will not escape your yard. The judge also can require that you sterilize your dog.
If your dog bites someone, you may be directed to pay the victim's medical or veterinary bills. If your dog is seized and impounded, awaiting a decision by the courts, you will be charged for the food, lodging and care he's given. If a bitten animal dies, you may also be required to pay several hundred dollars for the mental anguish and loss of companionship suffered by the owner. The judge will determine whether your dog can be rehabilitated. If your "dangerous dog" is not put to death, the judge may require him to be muzzled at all times, even in your yard.
If you have no proof of rabies inoculation, your dog may be impounded for observation for some weeks, and you will pay the bill. But if the dog bites a child and you can't prove rabies immunity, he may be euthanized so that his brain tissue can be tested for the fatal virus.
Animal Cruelty Laws
Neglect or injury. Failure to provide food, shelter or medical care or injuring, beating or overworking a dog is a misdemeanor in most states. Punishment varies, but is typically up to a year in prison, as much as $1,000 in fines, or both.
Torturing a dog. Intending to inflict serious pain, injury or death is now considered a felony in 30 states. Punishment may include as much as a year in prison and thousands of dollars in fines. After years of lobbying by humane organizations, legislators are now writing laws that recognize the close relationship between animal and child or spousal abuse. Some states require that a person convicted of animal cruelty get psychological counseling at his own expense. Others ask that the offender and his family be interviewed by social workers assigned by the district attorney.
Veterinarians are asked to report extreme or repeated instances of animal abuse to police or social service agencies. Many states protect them from lawsuits stemming from such reports.
Dog fighting. State laws intended to prevent animal cruelty set tough penalties for people who train and fight dogs, and often set fines for spectators, as well.
Many condominium complexes or apartment buildings ban dogs across the board or limit the number and weight of pets you can keep. Check policies before buying or signing a lease.
Most public housing forbids anyone but the disabled to keep pets. This can present a particularly heart-wrenching problem for senior citizens who must give up their pets when entering subsidized housing.
Consumer Protection Laws
Pet shops and puppy mills. Government health departments work with animal control officers, answering consumer complaints and inspecting pet shops and puppy mills to check that the animals are being provided food, shelter and veterinary care. Puppy-mill owners often try to locate their businesses where such laws or enforcement are lax.
Pet lemon laws. Many states or localities recognize that puppies raised in puppy mills and sold in pet stores often become sick soon after going to a new home. Although nothing is just compensation for the suffering and tragedy the dog and his family endure, laws require a pet store or breeder to refund the purchase price or cover veterinary bills incurred during the illness.
Life changes. Dog owners can call on lawyers to work out pet custody agreements in divorces and to draw up trusts to provide for their dogs in case of their death.
Animal Rights Issues
The federal government has banned the importation of dog and cat fur for sale in this country. The government also requires airlines to report statistics for animals injured or lost in transport. Many states ban the processing of dogs for food to be sold here or in foreign countries and monitor laboratories that use dogs in chemical and pharmaceutical testing and experimentation.