{Legal Issue} Ownership Rights of a Stray Dog

Boy, it’s been a long time since we did a “Legal” post, hasn’t it?  Whoops!  My BBF (Best Blogging Friend) from And Foster Makes Five posed a great question:  What if the previous owner of a dog tries to reclaim it after you have adopted it?  Yikes!  Now there’s a scary thought.

AFM5 is a fellow “foster failure” (more like winner!) and I know the question stems from the fact that her super duper incredibly adorable pittie, Georgia, was once a stray, just like my Moo.  How terrifying to think of the blood, sweat, tears, and most of all, love we have put into our dogs, just to have their previous piece of shit owners reclaim them later?  Thankfully, I think this is something that will never happen to either of us but for some it could be a very real possibility.  Here’s Rich to give us the 411:

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Traditionally, the policy goal that drives the law in regard to lost property is to reunite the original owner, who holds legal title to the property, with the property itself. However, this is one area where the law does not strictly adhere to the precept that animals are strictly property, and have no additional rights or personal attachment than a bicycle. This is not to say that the motives behind treating pets differently in this area are benevolent, it’s probably the case that many of the differences were motivated by cutting off the original owner’s rights so that the state can dispose of strays in a shorter period of time and no longer be responsible for them.

The rights of an owner of a stray dog that is brought to a shelter generally terminate after a statutory period that is set by the either the state or local government. For those of you that have volunteered at shelters, you know this as the mandatory waiting period. This period allows the original owner to come forward to claim their lost dog before the shelter disposes of the dog, either by adoption or otherwise. Generally, if you adopt a dog from an animal shelter, the original owner’s title terminates and the shelter is able to pass along a valid title of ownership of the pet, as long as it adheres to the mandatory waiting period. This is based upon the fact that the shelter is an obvious place for the owner to look for his lost dog, so there is a presumption that the dog is abandoned if it can stay in the shelter for a period of time unclaimed. Note: there is one case that I am aware of where the court held that the original owner’s rights do not terminate after the waiting period ended. The Alabama appeals court held that where the waiting period expires, but the dog has not been euthanized then the owner still has his ownership rights. However in this case the dog had not been adopted out and that may affect the outcome of a subsequent case in the state.

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It gets a little murkier when someone finds a lost dog, and instead of subjecting it to the cold floor of the shelter, instead takes the dog home and decides to make it a part of the family. If the original owner shows up and wants his dog back, then there can be a potential issue. If the owner of the dog brought an action for return of the dog, then a court would likely look at two things. First whether the original owner demonstrated an intent to abandon the dog, and second whether the person who found the dog has manifested an intent to take ownership.

As to the first question, it would matter how long the dog had been lost, and the circumstances of it straying. Here there may be actual statutes in the jurisdiction as to how long an item has to be missing before a presumption is raised that it is abandoned. The court would look to see what steps the original owner had taken in order to find the dog. One other thing of note, if the court found that the owner intended to abandon the dog, and then changed his mind, then it is likely that the abandonment will stick.

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As to the second issue, whether the finder wanted to take ownership of the dog, the court would look to see what steps the finder had taken to care and maintain the dog. The court would look at whether the finder had taken the dog to the vet, gotten the dog vaccinated and bought the dog personal items such as a collar and home items (bowl, toys, dogbed). One other relevant consideration is whether the finder has acted in good faith and hidden his possession of the dog.

Again, these are just generalities and may be different due to differing statutes in other jurisdictions. As always, if you have an actual controversy you should consult an attorney that practices in your area and find out what your rights and responsibilities are.

IMG_3169So, it sounds like for the most part, we would be safe in the event a former owner ever tried to reclaim our beloved dog.  Phew!  I was in a rush this morning so I threw in some pictures from the honeymoon.  Hope the pretty beach helps brighten your Monday!