Top Legal Questions & Answers

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.

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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