Dog owners need to know a lot to keep their pets safe — from federal laws to individual state laws to their city's code of ordinances.
Many of these laws are enforced for the public interest (no one wants to see stray dogs roaming dangerous streets), public safety, and public health. Cities want to keep public property clean and safe for everyone — including your pet.
Note: This article 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.
A Note on Dog Laws
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 and have furious reactions to off-leash dogs in public areas or request euthanasia after a dog bites a child. The range of emotions is unpredictable.
These reactions can lead to heated situations that almost always involve multiple areas of civil and/or criminal law. Many people see pets as family members, and the laws about them are continually evolving.
The most important thing to keep in mind is 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.
In this article, we discuss the laws, terms, and legal rights you should know to help keep your 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 websites will provide the ordinances you need to know or provide a cross-reference link to the right law.
You can also use their table 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
Most cities and suburbs have leash laws for the street, sidewalk, trails, or parks. You should review your city's website for leash laws before considering taking your dog off-leash.
Many also require leashes in and out of dog parks, and 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. Dogs can typically be restrained:
- Safely and comfortably within a home, building, or vehicle
- Inside fences, crates, pens, or other enclosures
- With a dog tether created from a rope, chain, cord, leash, or running line
Interestingly, some cities consider a dog "obedient to the voice commands of a responsible person" as proper restraint. The voice command recall must be demonstrated effectively if the police or other authorities request it.
Where to learn more: Your city's code of ordinances for animal restraint regulations.
Can I take legal action? Dogs in a hot car or restrained improperly can be removed by authorized people. This falls under animal abuse laws. Call the police or local animal control.
Almost every city requires a license for dogs. You need to keep the license updated, and your dog should wear the license on its collar at all times. An unlicensed dog can get lost and not make its way back home to you.
Some cities also require an ID tag that lists your contact information. Microchipping is not regulated by law and is up to the owner's discretion.
Where to learn more: Your local vet or city hall likely has resources for purchasing and renewing licenses.
Can I take legal action? If you are ticketed for an expired license, you need to renew the license, show proof, and pay the fine.
States vary on vaccination laws, but 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, such as your dog being euthanized if it bites someone. Dog bite cases should be handled by a personal injury attorney.
Note: Spay and neuter surgeries are not controlled under the law. The choice is always up to the owner unless they are hoarding or breeding irresponsibly. Your dog can be spayed or neutered without your consent if you lose it and don't claim it in time.
You can be cited and fined at the local level for not picking up after your pet, leaving doggy bags on the side of the road, or not using the appropriate trash cans. Businesses and public areas often have signs posted 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 your dog was hurt or lost during a dog walking or dog daycare service, you might have some rights under contract law protection. Some businesses try to absolve themselves of liability that they can't actually get away from, so it pays to have the case looked at.
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 and/or city level so you need to research the specific laws. For example, some cities might consider your dog a " nuisance animal" if it barks for four hours straight.
These cases can be hard to prove, 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 the owner being fined or sued. You can fight fines in local court or get an attorney to fight a lawsuit against you.
Many rentals will ask for a one-time pet fee before you are allowed to move your pet in. This is usually a security deposit in case your dog causes damage in the apartment. Rentals may also require "pet rent" to cover wear and tear of having your dog in the rental each month. Some apartments make exceptions for dogs that are just visiting for less than one to two weeks.
If your pet is a service animal, you are generally 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 and 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? If your pet is sick or poisoned from a dog food brand, you can contact a consumer protection lawyer.
If you adopt a dog from a shelter, the contract might state the shelter can conduct home visits or take your pet back if it thinks the conditions are not appropriate for the dog.
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, it may not be advisable to let a shelter employee into your house if they want to look for a reason to take the pet back.
Short of having a warrant from a judge, you do not need to let anyone into your home. You can ask them to schedule an appropriate home visit at a later date.
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 you were denied the dog you want to adopt. Shelters and rescues do have the right to review your home, family, lifestyle, and job to determine if you are an acceptable fit for the animal. These are part of their contract, so deciding not to adopt a dog to a low-income family is allowed under contract law.
However, racial bias or discrimination against disabled individuals is illegal under any circumstances.
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 to be lost, homeless, or a danger to the community. Knowing your city's laws could save your dog's life.
It is not advisable to try and hide the breed of your dog from your landlord. If someone complains or the truth is discovered, you can face eviction and fines. Your landlord could be held 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 a service dog. This is protected under the Americans with Disabilities 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? If your state bans wolf-dogs, your dog can be removed from your care and killed or brought to a rescue organization. If your state allows ownership and there is a conflict with a person or officials, you may need an attorney to navigate the restrictive nature of wolf-hybrid ownership.
Pet insurance is optional for pet owners. Some insurance companies will not insure breeds they perceive as aggressive. This is not against the law, as dogs and their owners do not have legal protection against "breed discrimination."
Your homeowner's insurance policy may not cover certain dog breeds and injuries that could occur on your property.
Where to learn more: Read each pet insurance company's policy and your homeowners 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 it can be less in urban areas or more in rural areas.
This is not often 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 into a big hassle.
The law on how many pets are considered hoarding changes by city. It is common for 15 pets to be considered hoarding, though some cities do not have a problem 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 you are accused of hoarding dogs, you should contact a criminal defense lawyer. Hoarding falls under animal cruelty laws and can range from a misdemeanor to a felony.
If your dog causes an injury, the other person can sue or press charges in a personal injury case. You can be held liable for the damages, which usually involves paying their medical bills or replacing their damaged property.
Unfortunately, you can have "Beware of Dog" signs in your yard and not invite someone onto your property, but if they have hostile contact with your dog, they can often still press charges. 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 you were bitten by a dog, you will want to talk to an attorney experienced in dog bite laws.
A "dangerous dog" is generally defined as a dog that:
- Bites, attacks, endangers, or has other hostile contact with a person
- Shows aggressive, threatening behavior (such as severe barking, chasing, or following a person with a menacing attitude)
- Injures or kills a domestic animal (generally must happen more than once and not on the owner's private property)
- Is used or trained for dog fighting
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.
If you are being accused of dangerous dog allegations you need an attorney right away. 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? If you have been accused of animal abuse or cruelty, you should contact a defense attorney right away. Do not try to talk out 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 that enforces the city's ordinances regarding animals. They tend to handle the control, containment, and welfare of animals and respond to formal complaints (called civil infractions) about animals. They are considered "code enforcement officers" with limited powers, while police are "law enforcement officers."
Police take action when there is a crime related to the animal or the dog's owner, like a dog bite or a stolen dog. The two parties cooperate on cases that involve crimes and animals.
Both parties only have entry power to your home with proper identification and consent. In some cases, they can get a warrant from a judge and enter your home.
Where to learn more: Penalties for civil infractions are listed 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 on their laws. Generally, a dog must be chasing livestock or running loose to be caught and impounded (kept in a cage or enclosure). Police often have 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 your dog was captured and killed illegally, you might be able to bring a lawsuit against the police.
If you already own (or wish to open) a dog-related business, you will need to follow the business laws of your state. 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? If there is a legal conflict, you may want to consider a business law attorney or animal law attorney.
Laws generally still think of pets are property, so they are protected under personal property laws. If your dog gets out (called being "at large" by the city) and someone finds them, they must return them to a shelter or to you.
Even if you see your dog in someone else's yard (whether lost or stolen), you cannot enter their private property. You must call the police or animal control, and an authorized agent will intervene on private property.
Where to learn more: Call your local animal shelters if your dog is lost. Call the police if your dog is stolen 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 a lost dog that is abused or neglected, 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. It is best to create some sort of contract or agreement, so the new owner has proof of purchase. Microchips information should be switched to the new owner. Note that registered breeds might ask for new 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 may be able to legally take it back if there are no contracts in place. Owners may want to keep receipts when purchasing or adopting a dog. Any issues in this area may involve contract disputes or property law.
If you face a long-term illness or jail time, you need to plan for your dog's care. If you don't, the police can remove your dog and surrender it to a shelter where it can be adopted or killed. Dogs can also be spayed or neutered if you take too long to reclaim them.
Where to learn more: Your local ordinances outline how your city handles dogs locked in their owner's homes or left in cars. The systems are not perfect, 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 purchased your pet before you were married (and can prove it), your dog is safe with you. If the dog was purchased while married, you might need to decide who gets it, or prove that you paid for it.
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 you might 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 emergency situations, some states allow law enforcement, animal control, vets, or other professional to shoot or euthanize your dog without your consent if you are unavailable.
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 be euthanized.
Some policies state that adoptable animals cannot be euthanized at the owner's request and must be surrendered instead. Unfortunately, the pet may be euthanized at the shelter anyway.
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 your dog was unnecessarily euthanized, you can bring a lawsuit against the responsible party.
Most states have laws that require your pet to be buried or cremated within 24-48 hours. Vet offices can hold deceased animals while you make arrangements, and sometimes you can ask for an extension of time.
Where to learn more: Some states ban burying a pet on your property. Read your state's per 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.
Dog Laws Can Be More Complex Than You Think
In general, animal law intersects with a wide range of other legal areas. Your case could involve property law, civil or criminal laws, personal injury, contract law, consumer protection laws, and much more.
There are animal law attorneys skilled in understanding the complexities of these laws. Every state is different, so an attorney that knows the nuances of your state is essential.
You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.