Insurance Law

Is it Illegal to Abandon My Dog or Cat?

Having a dog or cat can bring a lot of love to your life, but it also includes responsibilities and expenses that not everyone is equipped to handle. Sometimes people’s life circumstances change so drastically that caring for a pet stops being feasible, and they need to surrender their animal to someone else’s care. This can be a very hard decision that usually has a strong emotional impact on both the people and the animals.

Having the right information on how to legally, safely, and humanely rehome a pet is crucial for maintaining the well-being of everyone involved, especially the animals. While exact state, city, and local laws may vary, there are a few general principles you can expect to apply in most jurisdictions.

What Are My Options if I Need to Get Rid of My Pet?

If you realize you’re no longer able to provide proper care for your animal, you may start considering your options for rehoming them, including considering factors like the legal and ethical implications of the options you want to pursue.


If you have the time and resources, rehoming your dog or cat may be a kind way you can give them a new place to live. When you rehome, you’re giving your animal up for adoption directly to its new family. If you have a trusted friend or family member you know can provide your pet with the love, attention, and care it deserves, that can be an especially humane way to relinquish your ownership.

Giving your animal to a stranger can be a lot riskier, and some local city laws may dictate how you’re allowed to do it. It’s generally advised to charge some kind of small fee to rehome them, so you reduce the risk of someone just picking up a free animal they may not be able to afford or commit to. You should ask them questions about their experience with pets, and be honest about your surrendered pet’s habits and personality to improve the odds of a good fit.

Surrendering to a No-Kill Shelter or Animal Rescue

If you don’t have the time or ability to rehome your pet directly, surrendering them to a no-kill shelter or animal rescue group might be a safe option. Make sure you research the organization you plan to leave your animal with; understand their adoption policies for rehoming and the nurturing support your pet will receive while with the organization. Note which shelters in your area euthanize animals as a solution to over-crowding, as you create the risk your pet will be put down if it’s there for too long. In areas where animal shelters are especially overwhelmed, the time limit before euthanasia can be very short.

In a worse-case scenario where you need to get rid of your pet immediately, some public rescues and shelters will allow you to drop off your pet after hours. They may even have a specified drop-off area. Some shelters won’t allow this, however, and just leaving your pet there can constitute abandonment.

Can I Go to Jail for Abandoning a Pet?

An “option” that you should not consider is abandoning your pet. Pet abandonment is typically defined as leaving domestic animals alone at some kind of private or public property in a way that could physically or emotionally harm it, sometimes with or without the intent to ever reclaim it. This is a very traumatic experience for a pet, who will end up confused and scared. You also have no way of knowing what kind of care they’ll end up with or how long they’ll survive.

In nearly all 50 states, “abandoning” an animal is classified as animal abuse, a criminal offense. In the state of Massachusetts, for example, it’s considered a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine up to $2,500. In Arkansas, depending on the specific circumstances and the level of “cruelty” involved in how you treat or abandon your animal, the charge will range from a misdemeanor to a Class D felony with a possible six-year prison sentence and $10,000 fine.

There are so many different ways you can safely surrender a dog or cat, so the illegal act of abandonment should never be a consideration.

How Long Can I Legally Leave my Dog Alone?

Sometimes you may intend to keep your pet, but circumstances will separate you for a time. While cats are generally okay on their own for up to a day or two, provided you’ve left them with plenty of food and water to last that long and clean their litter box before you go, it’s still highly recommended they don’t spend more than 12 hours unchecked.

Dogs, however, are a very different matter. For one thing, dogs are more likely to gorge themselves on food that’s left out for them rather than saving some for later as cats are a bit more likely to do, which can make them sick or end up painfully hungry as time passes without a refill. They also need a chance to go outside to relieve themselves, so unless you have a doggie door that leads to a fenced-in yard, you run the risk of coming back to quite a mess. Dogs with high or even average energy levels also need a chance to get outside and move around freely or go on walks to help them burn energy. And perhaps even more importantly, dogs tend to be very social animals—leaving them alone for too long or too frequently can cause them severe anxiety or even depression.

While not every state provides an exact limit for when a time period becomes “too long” before a dog is considered abandoned, you do risk animal cruelty charges if the time you’ve left them is deemed excessive. It could also be illegal to leave them alone for long periods of time, even if they’re not technically ruled abandoned. Nearly all states make it illegal to leave a dog alone in a car at all, or for more than a few minutes at a time. Leaving a dog tied outside all day or all night is usually illegal as well. You’ll need to find information that specifically relates to the local laws in your city or town.

In general, for the sake of your dog’s physical and mental health, you shouldn’t leave young puppies alone for more than two hours, or older dogs for more than six to eight. Elderly dogs may also require a shorter timeline.

How Does Surrendering My Pet Emotionally Impact Them?

Pets who are surrendered, even if they end up rehomed to loving families, can develop emotional scars from the separation. Anxiety, depression, and confusion can be common. It could make them less trustworthy of people or less confident in general. If your animal was often isolated or neglected before you officially surrendered them, they may display some behavior problems as well, as the majority of behavior issues in pets are caused by lack of care or training from its owners. If they’re abandoned, those painful feelings will be even worse. Finding them a good, safe, loving home is a good way to combat some of these issues, but if you have any options for just keeping and properly caring for your pet, it could be the best thing for them.

What Do You Do if You Find an Abandoned Animal?

If you find an animal you think is abandoned, you should consider a few options for keeping them safe:

  • If the pet is friendly, you can try to get them to come to you. Monitor their body language for signs of anxiety or fear, as these emotions can put even the most docile dogs on high alert and cause aggression.
  • If you do get the animal to come to you, search for tags including a phone number or other contact information. It’s possible that the dog accidentally got loose from a worried owner who’s trying to find their furry friend.
  • If you can’t find any identification, you can take it to a local vet or shelter so it can be scanned for a microchip that could aid in the search for the owner.
  • If you can’t find any kind of identifying information to contact the pet’s owners directly, you could try search for them by hanging flyers in the city where you found it, posting about it on social media, or advertising the found pet in a local discussion forum. This could also allow the general public in your area to help you find the owner as well.
  • If you do everything to search for the owner but can’t find them, you may have the option to adopt the pet yourself. Once again, you’ll need to check the laws in your jurisdiction to find out how to do that.
  • If you can’t find the owner, or they’ve truly abandoned the animal and you can’t hold on to it yourself, you can bring it to a no-kill shelter or animal rescue group in your city.
  • If you’re unable to get the animal to come to you at all, you should call animal control, a local shelter, or an animal rescue group. If it’s late and after hours for any of these organizations, you can call the non-emergency phone number for your local police department. Police and animal control should generally be your last option, because you have no way of knowing which facility they will bring abandoned animals to.

You should also call the police department in your city if you think an pet is being neglected or abused at its home.

Pets are living, feeling animals that deserve to be treated with love and proper treatment. Before getting a pet you should do a lot of research into the kind of animal you want, the breed, ways to train it, and ways to keep it healthy. Don’t get pets you aren’t able to care for or that you can’t see yourself owning long-term. A dog can live an average of 10-13 years or more, and cats may live even longer, so if you foresee dramatic changes in your future that could impact your ability to have a pet, the time isn’t right to have one.

Be careful about giving pets as gifts as well; not everyone is equipped to tend to an animal’s needs or to commit to it for so long.

You should be especially careful when considering the age of the animals you want. Puppies and kittens are cute, but they require a lot of patience, time, work, and discipline. If you don’t set the right boundaries when they’re babies, you risk having bad habits to address later on. And as they first learn, there will be accidents in the home and chewed or clawed furniture. Many people end up adopting young pets and then surrender them when they realize it’s more work than they’re able to do, or they pick up young animals and surrender them once they’re older and the novelty of a puppy or kitten wears off.

Pets should be lifelong commitments, and if you’re willing and able to put in the time and attention they need, it can be worth the work.

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