You probably have an intense emotional connection to your pet, but in the eyes of the law, animals are personal property. This means that in a dispute about ownership, courts rarely look to the best interests of the animal. If an animal is accidentally killed, the damages available rarely exceed its market value. At the same time, an owner has liabilities and responsibilities that may far exceed the cost of the animal. As with all legal issues, it is best to think ahead.
Consider whether you can truly afford a pet. In addition to food, vet bills, grooming, and liability issues discussed below, many shelters now charge a fee to those who want to give up an animal. Many states impose criminal fines on owners who neglect or abandon pets.
Pet ownership is most often disputed in divorce situations and when an animal has been left with a caretaker. In some cases, people try to disclaim ownership after the pet has injured a person or property. State property laws on ownership, gifts, and abandonment of property govern. There are a variety of ways to prove ownership: how the animal was acquired, the payment of expenses, and long-term possession. Get it in writing. If you are “sharing” a pet with a roommate or have to leave a pet with someone for a long period, talk about your intentions and prepare an agreement.
Pets can constitute a nuisance by, for example, excessive barking, knocking over garbage cans, damaging neighbors’ landscaping, or simply frightening other people. Neighbors can go to small claims court and obtain a judgment against an owner if they cannot get municipal authorities to intervene with respect to an animal that runs free or barks constantly.
Animals can also cause personal injury by biting or jumping. Your best course of action is to be a responsible owner. Be aware that some municipalities have actually banned certain breeds of dogs. Almost all municipalities have leash laws, vaccination and registration laws, and noise control ordinances. You should also let your homeowners’ insurance carrier know that you have a dog. Some do not insure certain breeds, and many will not insure a dog that has a history of biting.
You may have heard of the “one bite” or “first bite” rule. The doctrine, which varies from state to state, holds that the first time an animal acts aggressively, the owner is liable only if the owner was at fault. Aggression is not necessarily a bite. A large dog could knock someone down and cause injury. Fault can be simple carelessness, such as allowing the dog to slip out and run through the neighborhood unattended. After that first act of aggression, the owner is liable even without fault. For example, if your dog or cat has a history of aggression, you can be liable for the animal biting a child even if the child was provoking the animal by poking it with a stick.
Many businesses, including those dealing with housing and transportation, prohibit or restrict entry onto their property by animals. An exception exists for service dogs, and, in some cases, other service animals. The Department of Justice has revised regulations implementing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to require that state and local government services, public accommodations, and commercial facilities permit service dogs to accompany people with disabilities in all areas where members of the public are allowed to go. For purposes of the ADA, a service animal is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability. The Fair Housing Act, Air Carrier Access Act, and some state and local laws are broader in allowing access by service animals. While businesses are not allowed to question people about their disabilities, they are often unaware of the law and question whether an animal is a service animal. To avoid the problem, owners of service animals often register them with an online service.