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Custody of a dog | Animal League

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Question

Someone gave me a puppy to watch because she could not care for him. He was about 2 months old when I took him in. I have now had him for about 10 months, have paid for all his food and vet bills and care. That person now wants the dog back. He will not live a good life with her and he’s happy with me and my family. Do I have the power to keep him even if he is registered in her name?

Answer

People who give their animals away generally have no further rights to those animals and the people to whom the animals were given generally have no legal obligation to return the animals. Pet-sitters typically must return animals they agree to care for. However, when an animal is left for longer than agreed upon and the animal’s “parent” fails to pay for the animal’s care, an argument can be made that the animal was gifted or abandoned. There is an expression that “possession is nine-tenths of the law” meaning that the person in possession is in a better position, at least initially, than the person who does not have possession. This is because the person who does not have possession often has the burden to sue to try to get the animal returned (and many more people threaten to sue than sue). In the meantime, in the event a lawsuit is commenced or the police inquire, it may be helpful to have on hand copies of paid veterinary bills, evidence that the animal was left behind for much longer than agreed upon, dog food receipts, and evidence that you have been the animal’s primary caretaker for an extended period of time. Although not applicable to this situation, worth noting is an Illinois law which addresses custody of companion animals when people get divorced. It states, in part: “If the court finds that a companion animal of the parties is a marital asset, it shall allocate the sole or joint ownership of and responsibility for a companion animal of the parties. In issuing an order under this subsection, the court shall take into consideration the well-being of the companion animal.” Some courts have also considered the well-being of companion animals in non-marital animal custody disputes.

PLEASE NOTE: Responses to legal inquiries are not meant to replace seeking legal advice from an attorney in your state. The materials in this website and any responses to questions are for informational purposes only and are not intended, nor should they be construed, as legal advice. This website, the information contained herein, and any responses to questions directed to this column are not intended to create and do not establish an attorney-client relationship. You should not rely or act upon any information provided on this website or in any response to your inquiry without seeking the advice of an attorney in your state regarding the facts of your specific situation.

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