For people who love animals, seeing one in need is a heartbreaking sight. So it’s unsurprising that if you find a stray dog, your instinct might be to bring the pup home and take care of it. But what does the law say about keeping stray dogs? What are a person’s obligations if they’d like to keep a dog they find?
Animal law is partially dictated by a few federal requirements, but many rules vary from state to state. So if you found a stray you want to keep, make sure you are following your state and local laws.
If you come across a dog that appears alone, pause before you approach it. Watch its body language for signs of fear or aggression. You do not want to be the victim of a dog attack, especially if there is no owner to hold accountable.
If the dog seems scared to the point of defense, or it won’t let you come close to it, you may want to call your local animal control, an animal shelter, or the local authorities.
If you’ve managed to get the animal into your possession, your next step should be to check if it’s a lost dog instead of a stray dog. Search the dog for any kind of identification that provides an owner’s contact information, such as a collar with an owner’s phone number on it.
If there’s no identification, you can take the dog to a local animal shelter or veterinarian for help. They can check the dog for a microchip that contains the owner’s information. These pet professionals can usually offer more insight into the animal law in your area as well.
If these first attempts to find the owner don’t produce any results, you could try to leave the dog in a shelter or with animal control. It’s highly recommended you look for a no-kill shelter that won’t euthanize dogs that don’t find a home quickly enough. If you don’t want to leave the animal in a shelter, you can usually take it home with you, although it’s important to check state and local laws first.
Once you bring your new little houseguest home, you can continue the search to find the owner, like posting “Found Dog” flyers in the area where you found the dog, posting about it on social media every few days, or sending a notice to the “Lost Pets” section of your local newspaper.
If you bring home a lost dog and start to bond, you may think about keeping it. The laws around keeping found dogs vary from state to state, so make sure you know what you need to do.
Some states require you to make a good-faith search for the owner for a minimum amount of time before you’re allowed to claim the animal as your new pet. That may mean you have to check in with animal control to see if an owner has reported the dog missing, or you may have to put information about the pet you found somewhere public where an owner could have a reasonable chance to see it. This might last for a few days to a few weeks before the dog will be free and clear for you to officially adopt it.
If you live in an area that has a law like this but you ignore it, the owner could make a legal claim against you if they discover you have their pet and kept it without making an attempt to search for them. If they take you to court and win, you may be ordered to return the dog to its owner. If you follow the law as required by your local jurisdiction, however, and the original owner eventually finds their dog again, you may have a stronger legal claim to keep it.
If your area doesn’t have a law for trying to find a stray dog’s owner, you should probably still take some time first to make a genuine effort to search for a possible owner, even if you know right away that would like to keep the dog.
This article is intended to be helpful and informative. But even common legal matters can become complex and stressful. A qualified pet lawyer can address your particular legal needs, explain the law, and represent you in court. Take the first step now and contact an attorney in your area from our directory to discuss your specific legal situation.