Dog owners need to know a lot to keep their pets safe. What squeaky toy is their favorite and their favorite treats aside, pet owners must also know the laws. These laws range from federal to individual state laws to their city's code of ordinances. Many of these laws are for the public interest, safety, and health. No one wants to see stray dogs roaming dangerous streets or abused. Cities want to keep public property clean and safe for everyone, including your pet.
Situations that involve pets tend to elicit strong reactions from everyone involved. Some jump to protect a pet and may break someone's car window to save a dog on a hot day. Others may take the human's side. Then, some have furious reactions to off-leash dogs in public areas. In the most heightened situation involving a dog attack, a parent may request euthanasia after a dog bites a child. The range of emotions around dogs and dog bite claims is unpredictable.
These reactions can lead to heated situations that almost always involve many civil or criminal law areas. Many people see pets as family members, and the laws about them are continually evolving. The most important thing to remember is that most state laws see your pet as property. You are its only advocate to keep it safe, healthy, and out of trouble with law enforcement.
This article discusses the laws, terms, and legal rights an owner of a dog should know to keep their dog safe.
Using Your City's Code of Ordinances 101
You can search online for your city name and "code of ordinances" (such as "San Francisco code of ordinances"). Once you find the official government website, you can use the search functions for "dog" or more specific terms like "leash laws." Most cities' websites will have the ordinances you need to know or give a cross-reference link to the proper law.
You can also use their tables of contents to look under areas like "public protection" or "animals" to find the list of laws.
Table of Contents
Jump to the laws you are curious about by clicking the links below:
Owning a Pet
- Dog leash laws
- Dog restraint laws
- Dog license and ID tag requirements
- Dog vaccination laws
- "Pick Up After Your Pet" signs and laws
- Doggy daycare or dog walking services
- Pet noise laws
- Leases and pet fees/deposits
- Faulty pet products or dog food
Buying or Adopting a Pet
- Animal shelter/rescue adoptions and contracts
- Animal shelter/rescue adoption discrimination
- Breed restrictions at rental units or in cities
- Hybrid wolf-dog laws
- Pet insurance and dog breeds
- Household pet amount restrictions
Dangerous Animals and Animal Abuse
- Animal hoarding laws
- Dog bites
- Dangerous dog laws
- Animal abuse and cruelty laws
- Legal duties of local animal control officers vs. police
- Impound laws
Losing Your Pet
- Losing a dog or stolen dogs
- Selling or giving your dog away
- Getting your pet back after illness or incarceration
- Dogs in divorce
- Laws for euthanizing pets
- Laws on burying your dog
- Hire a lawyer
Most cities and suburbs have leash laws for the streets, sidewalks, trails, or parks. Before taking your dog off-leash, you should review your city's website for leash laws.
Many also require leashes in and out of dog parks. Some dog parks may still have on-leash regulations. Be wary: Police and other authorities can shoot off-leash dogs if they seem threatening.
Where to learn more: Your city's code of ordinances and individual dog park websites.
Can I take legal action? Yes, if you wish to defend your leash ticket in court or sue an officer for shooting your dog.
Generally, cities have rules for the secure and humane restraint of dogs. You can restrain your dog if they are:
- Safely and comfortably within a home or building
- Inside fences, crates, pens, or other enclosures
- Humanely with a dog tether created from a rope, chain, cord, leash, or running line
- Under control. Interestingly, Pennsylvania considers a dog under verbal control as proper restraint.
People can't leave dogs in cars in 31 states. Those states allow first responders to break the vehicle window to save the dog without civil liability to the owner. Fourteen of these states provide the same protection to good Samaritans. Where to learn more: Your city's code of ordinances for animal restraint regulations.
Can I take legal action? Authorized people can remove dogs in a hot car or those restrained improperly. This falls under animal abuse laws. Call the police or local animal control.
Almost every city requires a license for dogs. An animal's owner needs to keep the license updated. Your dog should wear the license on its collar at all times. An unlicensed dog can get lost and not return home to you.
Some cities also require an ID tag that lists your contact information. Laws don't regulate microchipping, so it's up to the owner's discretion. Information on a microchip includes the animal owner's phone number, email, and a secondary emergency contact. Having your best friend microchipped is a good idea so they can find their way home to you once scanned.
Where to learn more: Your local vet or city hall likely has resources for buying and renewing licenses.
Can I take legal action? If you get a ticket for an expired license, you need to renew the license, show proof, and pay the fine.
States vary on vaccination laws. Your vet's office will know how to stay compliant. While some medications, like heartworm medication, are up to the owner's discretion, vaccinations like rabies are often mandatory.
Where to learn more: Talk to your vet. They will know the city's laws and keep records of your dog's shot schedule.
Can I take legal action? Keep your dog up to date on rabies vaccination to avoid severe penalties. Euthanasia is a possibility if it bites someone. Personal injury attorneys should handle dog bite cases.
Note: Laws don't control spay and neuter surgeries. The choice is always up to the owner unless they hoard or breed irresponsibly. A shelter can spay or neuter your dog without your consent if you do not claim it in time.
Citations and fines await you locally if you do not clean up after your dog. This includes leaving waste, including bagged waste, on the ground. It can also include not using appropriate trash cans if marked for pet waste. Businesses and public areas often post signs requiring you to remove pet waste.
Where to learn more: You can find this information and fines in your city's code of ordinances.
Can I take legal action? You can appear in court to argue the $50-$100 ticket if you believe it was in error. If this is your third offense, then going to court is typically mandatory.
If a dog walking or dog daycare service agent loses or hurts your dog, you might have some rights under contract law. This is only if you signed one, unfortunately. A dog walker or sitter must take reasonable care of your animal. Some businesses try to absolve themselves of liability with release waivers. It pays to discuss the contract, waiver, and facts surrounding your claim with a personal injury lawyer.
Where to learn more: Read the contract and waivers you signed and talk to a contract law attorney.
Can I take legal action? Call a local attorney and double-check if the company is liable for vet bills.
Pet noise laws are typically at the county or city level, so you must research the specific laws. For example, some cities might consider your dog a "nuisance animal" if it barks for four hours straight. It's hard to prove these cases, but it is common for neighbors to complain to the city instead of discussing it with you first.
Where to learn more: Check your county or city ordinances for animal noise regulations.
Can I take legal action? A dog "unreasonably" annoying or disturbing the neighborhood can result in fines and lawsuits. You can fight fines in local court or get an attorney to defend you in a lawsuit.
Many rentals will ask for a one-time pet fee before your pet can move in. This is usually a security deposit in case your dog causes property damage in the apartment. Rentals may also require "pet rent" to cover the wear and tear of having your dog in the home. Some apartments make exceptions for dogs that visit for less than one to two weeks.
If your pet is a service animal, you are exempt from pet deposits and pet rent.
Where to learn more: Check your apartment's rental policy. Pet security deposits are usually refundable at the end of the lease.
Can I take legal action? If you believe your landlord is breaking the law by refusing to return a pet deposit or requiring illegal payments, contact a local landlord-tenant lawyer.
There are few laws or regulations surrounding pet food. It must be safe to eat, sanitary, labeled accurately, and free of harmful chemicals. Pet food products fall under consumer protection laws.
Where to learn more: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has some regulations on pet food.
Can I take legal action? You can contact a consumer protection lawyer if your pet is sick or poisoned by a dog food brand.
Suppose you adopt a dog from a shelter. In that case, the contract might state that the shelter can do home visits or take your pet back if it thinks the conditions are inappropriate.
You do not need to let a rescue employee into your house if they drop by for an unexpected home visit. Even if you have nothing to hide, don't let a shelter employee into your house if they want to look for a reason to take the pet back.
You do not need to let anyone into your home without a warrant from a judge. You can ask them to schedule an appropriate home visit later.
Where to learn more: Each state has different regulations for pet adoptions.
Can I take legal action? This is a contract dispute, so you should reread your adoption contract and talk to a contract lawyer.
You may wonder why a shelter denied you the dog you want to adopt. Shelters and rescues can review your home, family, lifestyle, and job to determine if you are an acceptable fit for the animal. These are part of their contract. They can decide not to allow an adoption under contract law.
But, racial bias or discrimination against disabled people is illegal.
Where to learn more: Review the shelter's policies and contracts for their adoption criteria.
Cities and counties may have ordinances about specific dog breeds. These are essential to know because some cities allow employees to pick up and euthanize these dog breeds if they seem lost, homeless, or a danger to the community. Knowing your city's laws could save your dog's life.
It is not a good idea to hide your dog's breed from your landlord. You can face eviction and fines if someone complains or discovers the truth. Your landlord could be responsible for injuries.
Where to learn more: Research the rental policy before you move in or see which states have breed-specific laws.
Can I take legal action? No, unless the landlord is refusing to allow protected dogs, such as:
- A service dog protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act
- An emotional support animal is protected, with some restrictions, under the Fair Housing Act
States vary on wolf dogs and private ownership. You may need a permit, outdoor enclosures, rabies vaccinations, and to follow strict laws if you want to own a wolf hybrid.
Where to learn more: Read the wolf-hybrid laws for your state.
Can I take legal action? States can remove wolf dogs from your care under state law. Your furry friend could face euthanasia or go to a rescue organization. Suppose your state allows ownership, and there is a conflict with a person or officials. In that case, you may need an attorney to navigate the restrictive nature of wolf-hybrid ownership.
Pet insurance is optional for pet owners. It is a liability insurance that follows your dog wherever they go. It differs from the medical pet insurance you get to pay your pup's medical bills. This type of pet insurance covers claims if your dog attacks another person or animal.
Some insurance companies will not insure breeds they perceive as aggressive or labeled as dangerous dogs or vicious dogs. This is not against the law, as dogs and their owners do not yet have legal protection against "breed discrimination."
Your homeowner's insurance policy or renter's insurance policy may not cover certain dog breeds and injuries that could happen on your property.
Where to learn more: Read each pet insurance company's policy and your homeowner's insurance policy on breed restrictions. Some companies are breed-neutral in their coverage.
Can I take legal action? Yes — if the insurance policy covers your dog's breed, but the company refuses to honor it. This is a breach of contract, and you will want to speak with a lawyer experienced in bad-faith insurance matters.
Most local ordinances limit the number of pets you can have in one household. For many cities, the limit is three, but urban areas might allow fewer while rural areas allow more.
This is only sometimes enforced unless there is a problem with noise, smells, or suspected hoarding. If you have two dogs and your partner moves in with two dogs, you might have suspicious neighbors report you. If a neighbor complains about your dogs, you should try to work out the issues before they go to the authorities.
Where to learn more: Your city's code of ordinances for animal amount regulations.
Can I take legal action? You can defend yourself. Even if the police don't take a dog away, a pesky neighbor can sue you in small claims court and make the situation a hassle.
The law on how many pets constitute hoarding changes by city. It is common for 15 pets to be considered hoarding, though some cities do not have a problem with it unless the animals are not properly cared for.
Where to learn more: Your city's code of ordinances for animal amount regulations.
Can I take legal action? If accused of hoarding dogs, you should contact a criminal defense lawyer. Hoarding falls under animal cruelty laws, ranging from a misdemeanor to a felony.
If your dog causes a dog bite injury, the other person can sue or press charges in a personal injury case. You can be liable for the damages, which usually means paying the victim's medical bills or replacing damaged property. That could mean a new animal if your dog kills theirs.
Some states have a one-bite rule, meaning a dog can attack a person or pet one time without repercussions. Other states follow strict liability law, meaning the pet owner is liable if a dog attacks another person. A vast majority of states look at comparative negligence or contributory negligence standards. These states will allow civil liability in a dog bite lawsuit. Still, they will lessen damages awarded to the injured person if they caused the injury. An example is if there were signs of aggressive behavior, but the dog bite victim still engaged with the dog.
You can have "Beware of Dog" signs in your yard and not invite someone onto your property. Yet, in a minority of states, if a trespasser enters your yard and has hostile contact with your dog, they can often file a personal injury lawsuit. Owning a dog means you are liable for whatever they do. Though, this can depend on the specific circumstances and if you have a strong defense.
Where to learn more: Most states have specific dog bite laws that define the breeds and behaviors that make a dog dangerous under the law. Check with your homeowners, renters, medical, or other liability insurance to understand your coverage if your dog bites another person or pet.
Can I take legal action? Whether your dog has bitten someone or a dog bit you, you want to talk to a dog-bite attorney experienced in dog bite laws of your state.
State laws define a "dangerous dog." Generally, it is a dog that:
- Bites, attacks, endangers, or has other hostile contact with a person or animal
- Shows aggressive behavior
- Shows threatening behavior (such as severe barking, chasing, or following a person with a menacing attitude)
- Injures or kills a domestic animal (generally, this must happen more than once and not on the owner's private property; public places will count toward dangerous propensities)
- Is used or trained for dog fighting or personal protection
Where to learn more: Learn about your state's dangerous dog laws and penalties.
Can I take legal action? Report dog fighting to the police immediately by calling 911 or the Humane Society tip line at 1-877-TIP-HSUS. Report injured dogs to local animal control or shelters. You need an attorney immediately if someone accuses you of dangerous dog allegations. You could lose your dog and face fines or jail time if convicted.
There are federal laws on animal abuse and penalties. You can report abuse by calling the police or animal control.
Where to learn more: Learn more about animal cruelty definitions.
Can I take legal action? You should contact a defense attorney immediately if someone accuses you of animal abuse or cruelty. Do not try to discuss the issue with the neighbor or person who accused you. Anything you say can be held against you, and the charges are already in progress with the police.
An animal control officer (sometimes called "animal care") is a government employee who enforces the city's ordinances regarding animals. They tend to handle the control, containment, and welfare of animals. They also respond to formal complaints (called civil infractions) about animals. They are code enforcement officers with limited powers, while police are law enforcement officers.
Police act when a crime is related to the animal or the dog's owner. This ranges from an injury claim like a dog bite to a stolen dog. Animal control and police departments cooperate on cases that involve crimes and animals.
Both parties have access to your home only with proper identification and consent. Sometimes, they can get a warrant from a judge to enter your home.
Where to learn more: Penalties for civil infractions are in your city's ordinances.
Can I take legal action? If an animal control or police officer entered your property without permission, you might have a civil rights case.
States and counties vary in their laws. Generally, a dog must be chasing livestock or running loose for impounding. Impounded means they are in a cage or enclosure at the animal shelter. Under common law, police often have the authority to catch and euthanize animals.
Where to learn more: Read about your state's laws for dog impound.
Can I take legal action? If animal control captured and killed your dog illegally, you might be able to bring a tort or property lawsuit against the police.
If you own (or wish to open) a dog-related business, you must follow your state's business laws. Your business will be under strict safety, animal control, insurance, and pet care regulations according to your city's "animal establishment" ordinances. If you decide to start breeding your dog, you should follow responsible breeding guidelines.
Where to learn more: Learn about your state's business laws and animal establishment regulations.
Can I take legal action? Consider a business law attorney or animal law attorney if there is a legal conflict.
Laws generally still think of pets as property. While some states like Nebraska and California give them elevated status for dog custody in a breakup, elsewhere, dogs are property like a boat or a car. Personal property laws protect them. If your dog gets out (called being "at large" by the city) and someone finds them, they must return them to a shelter or you.
You cannot enter their private property even if you see your dog in someone else's yard (whether lost or stolen). You must call the police or animal control; an authorized agent will intervene on private property.
Where to learn more: Call local animal shelters if you lose your dog. Call the police if someone steals your dog from your private property.
Can I take legal action? Keeping a found dog, or stealing a dog, is a crime. You can take someone to small claims court if they are trying to keep your dog. Be ready to prove ownership of your pet. If you have found an abused or neglected lost dog, you can choose to let authorities know before giving the dog back to a neglectful owner.
You own your dog unless you explicitly sell it or give it to someone. Creating a contract or agreement is best so the new owner has proof of purchase. The dog's microchip information needs updating for the new owner. Note that registered breeds might ask for further ownership information.
Where to learn more: Talk to a contract law attorney if you have questions about creating a legally binding contract.
Can I take legal action? If someone gives a dog away but wants it back later, they could legally take it if no contracts exist. Owners may want to keep receipts when buying or adopting a dog. Any issues in this area may involve contract disputes or property law.
You must plan for your dog's care if you face a long-term illness or jail time. If you don't, the police can remove your dog and surrender it to a shelter. At that point, your pet may get adopted or killed. The shelter can spay or neuter your dog if you take too long to reclaim them.
Where to learn more: Your local ordinances outline how your city handles dogs locked in their owners' homes or left in cars. The systems are imperfect, and officials will work to find your dog a new home if you do not, but the outcomes can be unfortunate for the original owner.
Can I take legal action? You can try to prove you had someone taking care of the dog, and the police unlawfully removed it from your home or vehicle. You can also try to prove the shelter did not comply with the law when they adopted your dog to a new owner.
Divorce involves splitting up marital property. If you have proof you purchased your pet before marriage, your dog is safe with you. If you bought the dog during the marriage, you should decide who gets it. In some states, proof that you paid for the dog from separate funds may allow you to keep ownership of your best friend.
Where to learn more: Talk to your divorce attorney about keeping your pet.
Can I take legal action? Alaska, California, and Illinois recognize pets as more than property. Most states still do not. Depending on where you live, you may have a pet custody case or need to work something out with your former partner.
Every city is different, but it is common for city ordinances to regulate animal euthanasia. In emergencies, some states allow law enforcement, animal control, vets, or other professionals to shoot or euthanize your dog without your consent.
If you seek owner-requested euthanasia or "convenience euthanasia" from your vet, they will discuss the options with you. Generally, any animal that can have a "safe and appropriate life outcome" with medical attention or a different owner will not qualify. Some veterinarian policies do not allow for owner-requested euthanasia of a healthy animal. Instead, that pet owner must surrender the otherwise adoptable animal.
Where to learn more: Read about your state's euthanasia laws from the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Can I take legal action? If you believe someone unnecessarily euthanized your dog, you can bring a lawsuit against the responsible party.
Most states have laws that require you to bury or cremate your pet within 24-48 hours. Vet offices can hold deceased animals while you make arrangements, and sometimes, you can ask for an extension.
Where to learn more: Some states ban burying a pet on your property. Read your state's pet burial laws to understand your options.
Can I take legal action? You have rights if someone tries to stop you from buying your dog on your property if your state allows it.
Animal law generally intersects with a wide range of other legal areas. Your case could involve property law, civil or criminal laws, personal injury law, statute of limitations, contract law, consumer protection law, and more.
There are animal law attorneys skilled in understanding the complexities of these laws. Every state is different, so an attorney who knows the nuances of your state is essential to help you and your pet in a legal action.
Note: This article only covers dogs as pets. Visit our Guide on Service Animals to learn about the laws relevant to service animals, companion animals, and emotional support animals.
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