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If I Find a Stray Animal, Can I Keep It?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

Welcome to the new FindLaw series, "If I Find," where we'll discuss the rule of finders keepers as it applies to different topics. We hope you'll check back regularly!

One day, you walk into your backyard and find a kitten sitting in your 49'ers lawn chair! She's meowing at you like crazy, refuses to leave, and a storm is coming. What could you possibly do other than let her into the house and feed her? Once the storm passes, you do a walk around your neighborhood, knocking door to door to see if anyone is missing a cat. Nothing.

So, despite the kitty's constant meowing, her fur covering every piece of clothing you have, and the hundreds of dollars you'll have to spend giving her shots and getting her spayed, you want to keep the little visitor.

Can you? If you found a stray animal, can you keep it?

Lost Property Laws

Most states have their own laws regarding finding lost property. While many states don't specifically refer to lost animals in their statutes, some states such as Maine, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin do address lost or "stray beasts" in their lost property statutes. While the laws do vary, the general provisions are similar. Usually, you can't keep lost property until you've taken certain steps to report the find and attempt to return property to the owner.

If you find a stray animal, you must:

  • Return the animal to the owner -- Most statutes require you to attempt to return the animal to its owner, before you assert ownership. Check for a tag or license. The tag may have a phone number for the owner. If the animal has a license, it may indicate the animal shelter the animal was adopted from. Some pets also have microchips that help owners track lost pets. Take the stray to a local animal shelter or vet's office to scan for a microchip.
  • Notify local authorities -- If you can't find the owner through your own efforts, take the stray to the local animal shelter. Most states require you to notify the police or town clerk about the lost within a certain amount of time. In Maine, you must give notice to the town clerk within 7 days of finding the stray.
  • Wait out the waiting period -- Once notified, the animal shelter or town clerk may hold the stray for a certain amount of time to wait for the owner. If the waiting period passes without the owner laying claim to the animal, you may be able to assume control of the animal. Some shelters may require you to pay a licensing fee.

Be sure to check your state's lost property laws for specifics before keeping a stray animal. Violation of local rules may result in criminal charges or civil penalties.

If no one turns up, enjoy your new pet!

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