Frequently Asked Questions on Lost Pets

Christopher A. Berry (2010)

Q. What steps can I take before my pet gets lost to maximize my chance of getting it back?

A. It is very wise to take certain measures to protect yourself and your pet in case it gets lost. Most cities require dog owners to register their dog with the local government. Taking this step is important because it may give you extra legal rights and improve your chances of being reunited with the dog if it is taken by animal control.

It is also wise to put a collar or tags on your pet with your contact information so if it gets lost it can be easily reunited with you. This is especially important for outdoor cats because many people do not put tags or collars on their cats.

Perhaps the best measure you can take is to microchip your animal. Most shelters and veterinarians scan for microchips and many are actually required by law to do so. Microchipped dogs find their way back to their owner about 52.2% of the time as compared to 21.9% for ones without microchips. Microchipped cats are reunited with their owners 38.5% of the time but only 1.8% of the time if they are not microchipped.

While stories of microchips causing cancer have emerged, the American Veterinary Medical Association strongly encourages microchipping anyway because the risk of cancer is so small compared to the risk of losing your pet. Since stray pets may ultimately die while stray or get put to sleep if unclaimed at an animal shelter, death is more likely to result by an owner’s failure to microchip their pet.


Q. My pet just ran away from home, what should I do?

A. If your pet ran away from home, there are several things you should do. First of all you should contact local veterinarians, animal shelters, and animal control agency. There may be more than one animal shelter in your city and oftentimes there are shelters for the city and shelters for the county. Do a thorough job locating and contacting all possible places. Continue to check up over the next several days as your ownership rights over the animal may be extinguished in as little as two days if you do not find and reclaim it.

In addition to contacting local animal agencies and veterinarians, you should post notice of your lost pet in your neighborhood and community. This way, if someone finds your pet they can reach you. If someone decides to keep the pet, your effort to find the pet may give you a greater legal edge in court.


Q. I lost my pet several months ago and I think I saw it at a house on the other side of town. How do I get my pet back?

A. Sometimes when pets wander away from home they will be adopted off the street by well-meaning citizens. If you lost your pet and think it is living in another home, there are a few things to keep in mind.

First of all, you may want to visit the home and tell them what is going on. You can ask to look at the animal up close to see whether it is really yours. If it is your pet, hopefully the people will be kind enough to turn it over. If they do not turn it over you can always exercise your rights in court.

Your legal right to get the pet back will depend on a few things. If the adopter took your dog right off the street your rights will probably be governed by the traditional legal rule allowing the “true owner” of property to reclaim it. However, this “right to reclaim” may be lost if you did not make a reasonable effort to find the pet, meant to abandon the pet, or waited a long time to bring the issue to court.

In a few states, your right to get the pet back may be governed by a lost property statute. Lost property statutes require people who find a wallet of money on the ground, for example, to put up fliers and newspapers ads as well as report it to the police. If the owner does not reclaim the property within a few months, it may go to the finder, go to the local government, or be sold at auction with the income shared between the finder and government. It is possible that these laws will apply to pets in some states although it is unclear because most courts have not decided the issue.

If the pet was adopted from an animal shelter, you will probably be unable to get the pet back. Animal control laws allow stray pets to be impounded for a holding period that only lasts a few days. If the owner does not come forward during that time to reclaim the pet, the shelter can either place it for adoption, sell it to a research facility, or put it to sleep. The only way to get the animal back from someone who adopted the pet from a shelter is to prove that the shelter did not comply with the law. Perhaps the shelter did not make reasonable efforts to locate the owner, did not hold the pet for the proper period of time, or did not have the power to pick up the pet in the first place.

Ultimately, if someone else has your pet and you want it back you should either try to come to an agreement with the person who has your pet or consult with an attorney.


Q. Can I sue an animal shelter for putting my pet to sleep?

A. Maybe. As discussed in the previous question, animal control laws allow shelters to hold stray pets and get rid of them after a holding period that usually lasts a few days. If the shelter puts the pet to sleep, sterilizes it, sells it, or places it up for adoption after the holding period the owner usually loses his or her right to get it back.

However, you may be able to sue the shelter if it failed to follow by the law. If it disposed of the pet in an illegal way, acquired it illegitimately, did not make efforts to find the owner, put the pet to sleep it without a reason, or did not keep the pet for the full holding period then it may be liable to you for the damage it caused.

An animal shelter might also be liable for damaging a pet if you tried to reclaim it before it was damaged. In one case, a court awarded damages to a dog owner whose dog was sterilized after he asked for it back even though the holding period had already expired.

Lastly, the shelter might be liable for violating your constitutional rights if its actions were unreasonable. However, this argument is likely to fail as courts regularly uphold the government’s power to take and dispose of stray animals. The shelter’s conduct must be especially unreasonable and abnormal to rise to the level of a constitutional violation.


Q. I found out that my lost pet was adopted by another family from a shelter and I want it back. What can I do?

A. There may be very little you can do if your pet was adopted by another family from a shelter. If the shelter complied with the local laws, it probably had a right to place your pet up for adoption because of your failure to reclaim the pet within the holding period. Look at above at the two previous questions for scenarios where an owner’s rights may have been violated.

If you do think your rights have been violated, you will probably need to use legal processes to make the shelter to disclose the identity of the adopter so you can ask the adopter to return the animal or sue them if necessary. The court will only order a shelter to disclose the adopter’s identity only if it is relevant to your lawsuit and it will probably only be relevant if you allege that the shelter did not comply with the law.


Q. I found a stray pet and don’t know what I should do.

A. If you find a stray pet, your actions will depend on your own values and desires.

If you are not interested in adopting the pet but want to help it out, you have a legal right to take it in and care for it or to do nothing. If you decide to help the pet you acquire a duty to the pet’s owner to take reasonable care of it and make reasonable efforts to reunite it with the owner. You also acquire a duty to the rest of the world to keep them safe from the pet. In other words, you can be sued if you unreasonably cause harm to the pet or to someone else because of the pet.

Once you take the pet, you can either hold on to it temporarily while you look around the community for the pet’s owner or you can surrender it to animal control. If it ends up at an animal shelter, there is a considerable risk that it will be put to sleep after a short period of time so the nicest thing to do for the animal may be to hold on to it while looking for its owner before surrendering it.


Q. …what if I want to keep the pet?

A. If you want to keep the stray pet, you have a few options and duties. You could simply take it into your home and start taking care of it. If you do this, you should at least put up some notices in your local newspaper, courthouse, and community to give the owner a chance to reclaim the pet. Your failure to give notice is likely to give the owner legal ammunition if the issue ever goes to court. As mentioned earlier, giving notice to the community may actually be required in some states.

Taking a pet directly off the street and taking care of it in your home has some risk. The owner of a lost pet can come forward several months or even years after you start taking care of the pet and reclaim it. (The exact timing depends on the state and city where you live). This can be painful for you if you’ve formed a bond with the pet, and harmful to the pet as well since a change in lifestyle may be upsetting for it.

Because it may take so long for an owner’s rights to be extinguished if you just start taking care of a stray pet, the most efficient approach may be to take the pet to an animal shelter and adopt it after the holding period. The shelter will hold the pet for a few days and give the owner a chance to claim it. If the pet is not claimed, it will usually be placed for adoption.

Be sure to ask whether the animal will be put up for adoption and how long it has to hold the animal. Inform the shelter that you will be back to adopt it. There is a small risk to the animal that the shelter will decide it’s not fit for adoption or will euthanize it before you come back to claim it. However, if everything goes as planned you will acquire ownership rights in the pet in as little as a few days instead of a few years.

At least once state (North Carolina) allows you to look after the pet as an agent of the shelter and adopt it after the holding period expires. This eliminates the risk that something bad will happen to the animal while waiting in the shelter.


Q. …what if the pet needs medical assistance or needs to be euthanized?

A. If you find a stray pet that appears to need medical assistance, there are a few things to keep in mind. The first thing to keep in mind is that ordinary people don’t need to do anything to help the pet although the humane thing to do is find it help.

If you decide to intervene, you must make reasonable decisions. Although some states offer additional legal protection from liability if you are acting as a Good Samaritan, not all states do. Some places require that you make an attempt to find the owner and put up notices before you have the right to make decisions regarding the animal’s well-being. If the situation is an emergency such an effort is probably not necessary.

Since the pet appears to need medical attention, the reasonable and humane thing to do is bring it to a veterinarian. Be sure the veterinarian knows that you found the animal and how much (if any) you are willing to pay for assistance. Some states impose a duty on veterinarians to provide at least minimal assistance to alleviate animal suffering even if the owner is not present, and some veterinarians may provide treatment out of compassion even if not obligated to do so.

If the veterinarian recommends putting the pet to sleep, the safest approach to take is to tell the veterinarian that you do not feel comfortable making that authorization since you do not own the pet. Some courts have upheld lawsuits against individuals who find pets and authorize their destruction under certain circumstances.


Q. My neighbor always lets his pet roam outside without supervision. Can I take it to a shelter?

A. It is not advisable to take a pet roaming outside and dispose of it if you know who its owner is. First of all, trapping a neighbor’s pet is not neighborly. You should try to mediate the dispute or at least put the owner on notice before taking any action. If the pet is bothering you, then you can take the owner to court to compensate you for damages.

Second of all, you may be guilty of theft or liable for damages to the pet if you take it. Some court decisions have actually permitted people to take their neighbors’ roaming animals to shelters but there is no guarantee that all states would permit that kind of conduct. ┬áIn fact, some states expressly make it a crime to keep lost property with knowledge of its owner.

Lastly, such a drastic action as taking an animal to a shelter could inflict emotional harm on your neighbor and result in the pet being put to sleep.