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Can I Sue a Dog Kennel, Pet Boarding Facility, or Dog Day Care?

Owner With Her Dog By A Lake

In general yes, you can sue one of these entities. However, these cases can be hard to win. You need to prove that the dog kennel, pet boarding facility, or dog day care is responsible for something bad that happened to your pet.

Most facilities make you sign a contract that has a disclaimer or a waiver of any liability. Even if you do win, your recovery in most states is limited to the fair market value of your pet.

What can happen to our pets while in someone else's care?

We love our pets. They become members of our family, but we can't be with them all the time. There are instances when we might be forced to drop off our pets at a day care or boarding facility.

No matter what pet care precautions we may take, sometimes bad things happen under the care of others. Your dog might escape. It might get injured playing with another dog. It could catch a disease. It could get pregnant. You may encounter animal cruelty. Your pet might even be killed.

Losing a pet can be devastating, never more so when we believe it is someone's fault. Although it can seem like small relief, you may be able to sue the wrongdoer and recover for at least some of the harm you suffered.

What is the difference between a pet kennel, pet boarding, and pet day care?

Let's start our discussion with some terms:

  • Pet sitting: someone who comes to your house and provides typically short-term care (such as feeding or walking your dog)
  • Pet kennel:  essentially a small crate in which your pet is kept for a few hours at a business, such as when you drop it off for veterinary care or grooming
  • Day care facility: a licensed facility that cares for your pet for less than 24 hours, but not overnight
  • Boarding facility or boarding kennel: a licensed facility that cares for your pet for more than 24 hours or overnight

We will focus on when you leave your pet at a day care or boarding facility instead of with a sitter or at a pet kennel.

Are pet day cares and boarding facilities safe?

Be assured that most professional facilities are clean, safe, and provide excellent care. They are licensed, inspected, and experienced.

Before you leave your pet at daycare or a boarding facility, however, make sure you do your research. You want to know as much about the place as you can. For example:

  • Check to see if there are any online reviews
  • See if anyone has filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau
  • Show up unannounced and tour the facility to ensure it's clean and the animals are well cared for
  • Ask the staff lots of questions (e.g., how many dogs play together, how often do they let dogs out, what training do staff members have, etc.)
  • Ask friends and family members about the facility
  • Check with your local animal control to see if it has cited the facility for breaking a local law

You also want to make sure your pet is healthy before you drop it off. Take photos before you leave them at a facility and consider bringing them to the vet so that you have updated documentation of your pet's health status.

If you do decide to bring a lawsuit, you will need to have evidence that shows your pet was fine when you brought it to the facility.

What legal obligations do day cares and boarding facilities have?

The main legal obligation in most states is the duty to exercise due care. In general, that is the degree of care that a reasonably prudent facility would use under the same or similar circumstances. That includes:

  • Providing your pet with food and water
  • Ensuring your pet gets its medications
  • Making sure your pet gets any necessary emergency vet care, although you will likely have to pay the vet bills
  • Letting your dog out multiple times a day for bathroom breaks
  • Providing companionship during your pet's stay

If the facility violates this obligation and your pet is injured, killed, or gets pregnant, you may be able to sue for what's called negligence.

Do you have a lawsuit?

State laws differ, but in general you have to show the following to make a negligence claim against a facility:

  • Duty: It owed a duty of care in connection with the care and treatment of your pet as discussed above
  • Breach of Duty: It failed to act in a reasonably prudent way
  • Causation: Its carelessness caused legally foreseeable harm
  • Damages: The extent of the harm done

There is also a related legal doctrine called negligence per se. If you can show that the facility violated the law and your pet was injured, a court may presume the facility was negligent. If you believe the facility may have violated the law, you might want to speak to a qualified attorney to see if you have a negligence per se claim.

Note that negligence and negligence per se differ from criminal animal neglectAnimal neglect occurs when the owner or caretaker either intentionally or unintentionally fails to provide food, water, shelter, or veterinary care sufficient for survival. It is illegal as well as immoral, and if you encounter it you should report it to the authorities.

There may also be other legal claims available to you, depending upon the state. These include:

The damages you might recover under these theories are often the same as for a negligence claim, which is explained below. For more information about conversion, trespass to chattel, and bailment, follow the links in the above list.

When is a kennel, day care, or boarding facility not liable?

You may think you have a good claim by showing wrongdoing by the facility and that the facility harmed your pet. This notwithstanding, you may still lose in court. There are at least three major obstacles to a successful lawsuit.

The first obstacle, which is a major one indeed, is the contract they make you sign when you drop off your pet. It almost always contains a disclaimer or a waiver. The language will state that the facility and those who work there cannot be held liable if something bad happens to your pet. Unless there is a valid legal reason, in general courts will uphold these contractual disclaimers and dismiss your lawsuit. 

The second obstacle is proving that the facility did something wrong to your pet. As noted above, you have the burden of showing that the facility was negligent. That requires you to present proof that the facility failed to exercise due care and that this failure harmed your pet. This can be hard to do.

The third, like with the waiver or disclaimer, depends on the language of the contract you sign. It may have what is called an arbitration clause. Arbitration is a formal process for resolving a dispute outside of court. Some lawyers like arbitration; others don't. You can learn about arbitration here, but the bottom line is that if there is an arbitration clause in your contract, a court will likely dismiss your lawsuit and compel you to arbitrate your claim.

What damages can you recover?

If you win in court, the amount you can recover varies from state to state. No matter how much we love our own dog, most states view pets as personal property, much like a sofa or a chair.

This means that you can recover what you are out financially, known as your economic damages. If your pet is injured or gets pregnant, you can recover your out-of-pocket costs and expenses (e.g., vet bills). If your pet gets lost or killed, states' laws differ on what the measure of your economic damages is.

Fair Market Value

Most states limit you to the fair market value of the animal at the time it is lost or killed. Courts take into consideration:

  • Pedigree (a purebred German Shephard, for example, is worth more than a mixed-breed rescue dog)
  • Purchase price
  • General health of your pet
  • Unique traits (e.g., specialized dog training for hunting, etc.)
  • Age (some courts have held that older dogs are more valuable than younger ones)

Replacement Cost

In some states, courts will award a replacement cost if your pet is lost or killed. That is simply the cost of replacing your pet.

This often will be the fair market value, but can be more if it was a trained service animal, though service animals are rarely, if ever, left in another's care.

Noneconomic Damages

In very few states, you may be able to recover more than you are what you are out financially.

These damages are called noneconomic damages and can include money for:

  • Loss of companionship, as many people view their dogs as companion animals even if they are not trained service animals
  • Loss of sentimental value
  • Emotional distress
  • Loss of enjoyment

If noneconomic damages are available, your claim is worth more than if you are limited to economic damages.

Punitive Damages

In some situations, a court might consider awarding punitive damages. These are damages intended not to compensate you for your loss, but to punish the wrongdoer for horrible conduct and to deter others from doing the same thing. The precise standard depends on state law.

How long do you have to sue?

Because courts often treat pets as personal property, the time in which you can bring a lawsuit will depend on what the state statute of limitations for property damage is.

In the case of a service animal, however, some courts may apply the personal injury statute of limitations. That could be longer or shorter, depending on where you are.

Do I need a lawyer?

Our pets, as wrong as it may seem, are not worth much in terms of money. If you do want to bring a lawsuit, you may have to go to small claims court. In some states, you are not allowed to have an attorney in small claims court.

For many, however, it's not about the money. Even though you might not recover what you think your pet is worth, you may at least be able to hold the facility accountable for the harm it did.

consumer protection lawyer in your area can give you state-specific legal advice and talk you through the legal issues of suing a company. They will help you figure out whether it makes sense to bring a claim, and at the very least they might be able to help you work out a settlement with the facility or its insurance company.

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