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Your Rights When You Lose a Pet

Every pet owner knows that a pet is a treasured member of the family, but pets are considered property under the law (as of this writing). No one may maliciously harm or steal your pet without facing legal action. Your rights as a pet owner also apply if your dog is lost and picked up by local authorities. Here are some laws you should know in case your pet is lost:

  1. A loose dog or cat may be legally seized or impounded by local animal authorities, especially if the animal is without identification tags. In most states, an animal found with no tags is considered “abandoned property” and becomes property of the state.
  2. A dog can be impounded in some states if it not licensed, if it’s considered an immediate threat to public safety, or if it’s harassing livestock or wildlife.
  3. In some states, animal authorities can impound an unlicensed dog for 48 hours or longer before allowing the owner to retrieve him.
  4. If your dog is loose and animal control officers cannot seize him, some states give the officers the right to destroy the animal on the spot. In some states, the officers are actually fined if they don’t comply with this law.
  5. When a dog is seized and brought to animal control, he may have five days or less to be retrieved by his owner before the shelter destroys him. Luckily, many rescue groups and no-kill shelters scan state-run shelters for adoptable dogs and will try to save them.
  6. Some states acknowledge that a loose dog might be a hunting dog that has wandered off from his pack and will give this dog special consideration.
  7. If your dog is wearing identification when it is found, the way the state-run shelter will contact you varies. Often, you will receive a registered letter stating that you should pick up your dog within a specified time or he will be sold or destroyed. Some states are not required to notify owners and can destroy the animal without notification in less than three days.
  8. When a private person finds your lost pet, under the law in some states the finder must care for the pet humanely and try to find the pet’s owner within 48 hours.
  9. If a loose dog chases a person, the dog may be impounded and the owner may find himself in court in some states.
  10. The fines for reclaiming un-neutered/un-spayed dogs are higher than for fixed animals.
  11. Laws in some states allow an owner to reclaim an impounded animal for free if it has a microchip.
  12. Under the law in some states, it is a felony to steal a pet or knowingly buy a stolen pet. If a police officer is reluctant to take down a complaint for the theft of a pet, remind him or her that pets are property under the law and that pet thieves are subject to the same penalties.

The bottom line is that you have to know the laws in your state regarding the loss, theft, or seizure of animals. Once you know the laws, you will be armed with the information you need in order to protect and reclaim your pet.

Nikki Moustaki, MA, MFA, is a dog trainer, bird care and behavior consultant, and a freelance writer in New York City. She is the author of more than 26 books on pet care and training and is the host of www.dogfessions.com.

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