As a Washington animal law attorney, many of the calls I receive involve disputed ownership and possession of pets. These disputes most commonly result from messy divorces or breakups; where a pet owner entrusted their pet to a friend (usually at this point an ex-friend) for longer-term boarding or care; or when a Good Samaritan finds, and then decides to keep, an animal.
As many of these aggrieved pet owners find out, law enforcement generally will not get involved in a pet custody unless there is a court order directing their involvement. So, what are your rights then?
The pet owner’s recourse follows two main courses of action: you can attempt to negotiate for the return of the pet. Or you can also file a court action to determine the legal ownership of the pet and mandate return of the pet to the rightful owner.
As readers can imagine, initiating a lawsuit to regain possession of a pet isn’t cheap and is rarely easy (read: lots of drama!) This is why I recommend to avoid it if you can.
Tips to Regaining Pet Ownership
Here are a few suggestions to minimize the chance that someone will wrongfully assert an ownership interest in your pet and to maximize the chance that you’ll be able to prove yourself the rightful owner, if you should find yourself in this unfortunate predicament.
Possession: When it comes to animal ownership, at least, the person possessing the pet starts out on top. Why? Because you’re probably going to have to file an expensive lawsuit to get your pet back. Many people cannot afford to do so and simply give up. If you suspect a pet custody dispute is in the air, do your best to keep possession of the pet (so long as you’re not breaking any laws in the process) while you work it out.
Indicia of ownership: “Indicia” is just a fancy word for “proof.” Courts prefer to see documentary proof that you are your pet’s rightful owner. The more ongoing and current proof of ownership, the better your chances of convincing a court that you legally own the pet.
For example, a five-year-old AKC registration in your name is a start, but certainly not dispositive; many dogs were originally registered to an owner, and then sold or given away without changing the paperwork. Make sure you keep up-to-date on the following records:
- City/county license – this usually needs to be updated yearly (and it’s the law!)
- Microchip – keep your pet’s microchip information current and up-to-date. You should report your pet stolen with your microchip company if someone refuses to relinquish possession.
- Veterinary records – they ask for owner information; make sure you update it after a breakup/divorce!
- ID tag – make sure you pet wears a metal ID tag with your current contact information.
- Purchase/adoption contracts – if you purchased or adopted the pet as your sole property, make sure the contracts reflect that. Try to avoid adopting pets together with a person. Have a discussion beforehand as to whom will keep the pet in case of a separation.
- Receipts for veterinary/other care – if you’re the primary financial caretaker for the pet, make sure you retain receipts.
- AKC or other registration paperwork – whenever possible, update to reflect your ownership. If not possible, contact the AKC in writing (e-mail is fine) so there is a written record of your attempt.
Beware of who cares: We often trust pets with friends, neighbors or acquaintances when we leave for vacation. Unfortunately, some people don’t want to give the pet back. More often than not, this situation arises in one of two ways (1) the person keeping your pet doesn’t think you were taking great care of it or (2) you leave the pet with the caretaker for a long period of time (think, months). At some point, it becomes unclear on what terms the person continues to care for the pet.
When you’re leaving a pet for caretaking, make sure you have the arrangement in writing. It could be as simple as a text: “I’ll be back to pick up Fluffy on Sunday! Thanks for watching her!” For a longer-term temporary care arrangement, I would suggest a document that outlines the duration of time and the responsibilities of both the caretaker and you, the owner.
When you leave your pet with a professional organization, you likely signed some paperwork. You probably won’t encounter an ownership dispute, unless you simply neglect to show up and pick up your pet.
Consider the best interests of the pet: You might legally be the owner of a pet, but the pet is living a good life with someone else and has been for a while. While animals legally considered as property, it’s always worth considering whether “winning the war” really is in the best interests of the pet. Sometimes love means letting go.