Ask an Animal Lawyer with Elizabeth Holtz
Q: My neighbor moved but left his dog behind. The dog has been with us for months. Could the neighbor claim the dog as his if he returns?
First, a big thank you for stepping up and caring for this abandoned dog. If you hadn’t intervened, the dog might not be alive today. Generally, a person who abandons his dog and moves away loses the right to his “property.” That’s right — in the United States legal system, and most legal systems around the world, animals are classified as property.
It may come as a surprise that animals are still categorized as property considering that science and commonsense tell us our companion animals are individuals with unique personalities. Most of us consider them to be members of our families. I doubt you would be as worried that your neglectful neighbor might one day want his couch back.
Abandoning an animal is a crime under most states’ cruelty laws. While animals are still considered property, the law is slowly changing. The Animal Legal Defense Fund recently filed a groundbreaking lawsuit on behalf of an Oregon horse named Justice that challenges animals’ status as property and argues that animals have the legal right to sue their abusers in court. Advances are also happening in the area of companion animal custody.
Recognizing the profound bond people develop with their companion animals, some judges are approaching companion animal custody cases much differently than they would disputes about a car or TV. Judges are increasingly considering which home is in the best interests of a dog or cat rather than approaching the case from a strict property analysis.
Your situation is much more straightforward. If your neighbor hadn’t moved but instead was hospitalized for a long period of time or forced to leave for reasons beyond his or her control, then things might be different. But as stated above, if your neighbor abandoned the dog, then you should be in the clear. Of course, nothing in life is certain. Even if the facts are on your side, someone could still contest custody. If you do find yourself in a dispute, I recommend consulting an attorney to ensure that the dog stays with the person who has stepped up and cared for her — you.
It’s also a good idea to keep records demonstrating that you are now the dog’s caregiver. For example, receipts documenting veterinary care, food, medicine, and toys provided will bolster your case if it comes to that. Licensing and microchipping your new friend under your name is also a smart move.
Thank you again for your compassion. I hope your new best friend has a long and happy life with you!
Elizabeth Holtz works with the Animal Legal Defense Fund. A graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, she began rescuing injured and abandoned animals as a very young child, though she admits her mother did much of the work.