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Neighbor Animal Disputes

Owners have certain responsibilities for their animals, regardless of whether those animals are pets or livestock. A person with a dangerous dog has similar responsibilities to a person with livestock that is prone to creating disturbances. A dog that has bitten a neighbor on more than one occasion may be declared dangerous by a judge. That judge may order that the animal be confined in the home or behind a fence. Similarly, local ordinances may determine whether you can keep chickens or other livestock in your backyard. Local laws can dictate the outcomes of these situations. These laws can be different from one place to the next. It's always a good idea to verify the laws of your state.

This article focuses on neighbor animal disputes. It begins with the legal history of such disputes. It also covers issues related to taking legal action related to an animal dispute. If you need more help after reading this article, see FindLaw's Neighbors section for related articles and resources.

Both renters and property owners alike can benefit from this information. Animals are everywhere. It's not only livestock that are regulated. Pets are regulated, too. Continue reading to learn more.

A Brief History of Property Laws Regarding Animals

In the old courts of England, the owner was held strictly liable for any damages to persons or property livestock caused. Animals wandering across boundary lines were often considered serious offenses. Although they might not seem like infractions, the following could be grounds for liability:

  • Animals straying onto and causing minor damage to crops
  • Animals walking onto a neighbor's property
  • Animals minorly damaging personal property

If animals caused injury to any of the following, it was also considered a serious offense:

  • Cattle
  • Sheep
  • Goats
  • Horses

This strict liability position made sense in a small place like England. But in the United States, with herds of livestock wandering over vast expanses of land, a different process developed. The legislatures enacted statutes providing that livestock were free to wander. In this system, the owner was not responsible for damage inflicted by those livestock unless they entered land enclosed by a legal fence. These became known as open-range laws.

Some years later, certain states reversed the open-range laws. They required livestock owners to fence in their livestock. This position was similar to the common law position. But there was an exception to this similarity. Instead of strict liability, the livestock owner could be held liable only upon showing that the livestock escaped due to the owner's negligence.

Property damage is still taken very seriously. But the laws related to it have become more lenient. If a neighbor's dog damages your property, you may still have legal recourse.

What To Expect in Lawsuits

Under circumstances where an animal has caused damage, you would likely file a lawsuit only in a small claims court. Given that the value of damaged property under these circumstances can be low, only small claims courts would be an appropriate venue for hearing these cases. If you're suing your neighbor for such damage, expect you'll likely be heard only in a small claims setting. It's possible the court could award damages. It's also possible that a court would also impose an enjoinder on the person whose animal damaged your property. An enjoinder is a court order that forces the owner to take a certain action. It typically involves refraining from an activity.

Animal Bites

Dogs or other animals inflicting bites, scratches, or other injuries may make their owners both civilly and criminally liable for such behavior. In some jurisdictions, a court can declare an animal dangerous, and a judge may order the animal be confined or destroyed. But states differ on the threshold for liability. For instance, some states hold owners strictly liable if their dog bites someone. But in other states, the owner must have known (or should have known) that the dog was dangerous or unpredictable.

When an animal gets violent, animal control can be called. If the offense is serious enough, animal control can seize the animal. But the victim of the bite may also take legal action. Under various laws, the owner of the violent animal can obtain relief. These laws can fall within animal law and property law. This can get confusing. So, it may be best to speak with a lawyer if you need more help.

See Dog Bites and Animal Attack Overview for additional information.

Pet Hoarding

If a neighbor has too many pets, the neighbor could be in violation of a zoning, health code, or noise ordinance. The pets' welfare also may be called into question, especially if they live in unsanitary conditions or don't receive adequate food, water, or medical care. It's best to speak with an attorney to determine how to proceed if a neighbor has too many pets.

If you live in a place with a homeowners association (HOA), it could be a good idea to speak with the HOA. They may be able to provide remedies. You can also call law enforcement. In many states, there are laws against animal hoarding. Law enforcement can sometimes seize the animals. Animal hoarding is a crime in many places.

See also Types of Zoning and What to Do About a Neighbor's Noise FAQ.

Need More Help? Speak With an Attorney

If a neighbor's animals have caused damage to your property, consulting with a lawyer could be a good idea. If your animal has caused damage to a neighbor's property, the property owner may file a lawsuit against you. In that case, you should also speak with a lawyer. If an animal has wandered over the property line and onto your property, you might also have recourse. The animal would need to cause damage.

Under property rights and animal laws, people have responsibilities over their livestock and animals. It's important to remember that state laws can be very different. So, you should verify the laws of your state.

Neighbor disputes can often be avoided. But sometimes, legal issues can arise. It's usually only a good idea to file a lawsuit as a last resort. Under various real estate laws and animal laws, you may have legal recourse. Speak with a qualified real estate attorney or animal law attorney. It's important to get the legal help you need.

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