Companion Animal Law Blog

Bringing together those whose lives and livelihoods revolve around companion animals


Pets, Personal Property And Price, Part 1: Is Fido A Pampered Pooch Or Mere Personal Property?

According to the law, pets are personal property.  For instance, Virginia Code Section 3.2-6585 says that “all dogs and cats” are “deemed personal property.”  Many people find this unacceptable, and want companion animals to have a much more meaningful legal status.  As unsatisfactory as the law may seem, defining pets as personal property isn’t all bad.  And the law has added many features for pets that elevate them above mere personal property.

There are many examples of cases that show that pets, although “personal property,” have a legal status all their own.  Two vivid examples of very different approaches to how the law treats pets can be found in Maryland and Florida.

In Calvert County, Maryland, Judge Graydon S. McKee III was confronted with two spouses in a divorce arguing over who should be able to keep Lucky, a beloved Lhasa apso – ShihTzu mix.  Judge McKee held a hearing, where the husband and wife each argued who looked after Lucky, and who had more time to spend with her.  The hearing revolved around Lucky’s and the owners’ best interests – much like a custody dispute and much unlike property division.  In the end, Judge McKee ordered Lucky to spend six months at a time with each spouse.  To read more about this, take a look at this Baltimore Sun article, Split Custody of Dog Recognizes Changing Role of Family Pets.

In Pinellas County, Florida, Judge Henry J. Andringa was faced with a “custody” battle between Florida and Louisiana residents.  The Florida residents had adopted a Saint Bernard and a German Shepherd mix from the Pinellas Humane Society, which rescued the dogs after Hurricane Katrina.  After the original owners in Louisiana got back on their feet, they sued to regain ownership of the dogs.  Judge Andringa decided that he will rule based on straight property law and ownership, and not by conducting an analysis of who will be better caretakers for the dogs.  For more on this story, read this North Country Gazette article, Judge Rules Dog Personal Property in Katrina Custody Case.  These two Katrina dogs are not the only ones involved in a “custody” battle.  A recent thought provoking documentary, “Mine,” discusses the many former owners trying to be reunited with their pets after Hurricane Katrina.

This raises important points for rescues, shelters and pet owners.  First, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters, there has been a well needed focus on pets in emergency preparedness plans.  Make sure that you have thought this through and are ready to care for your pet in the event of an emergency.  As an example, take a look at the City of Alexandria’s Pet Emergency Preparedness Plan.  Second, if you are a rescue or shelter taking in animals, be sure to get paperwork making it very clear that owners surrendering dogs are relinquishing any rights to the animals, including property rights.  While it may feel unnecessary in the wake of an emergency as horrific as Hurricane Katrina, the absence of such paperwork can create emotional roller coasters like the Pinellas County Florida case after the fact.

So if the law considers pets to be personal property, how much is Fido really worth?  For answers to that question, stay posted for Parts 2 and 3 of Pets, Personal Property and Price.

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Lynchburg Fire Department Honors Search And Rescue Dog With Pet Oxygen Masks

Kudos to the Lynchburg Fire Department!  Captain Ron Sanders recently lost his incredible Belgian Malinois search and rescue dog, Ondo.  At 13 years old, Ondo had actually re-certified as a search and rescue dog, and was the only dog during the recertification test to find all six victims!  He was a fantastic dog that needed to be recognized.

In memory of Ondo, the fire department raised donations for pet oxygen masks to install in Lynchburg’s fire trucks and rescue units.  Just like Ondo’s tireless work in saving human lives during disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, these masks will aid in saving the lives of pets.  What a great way to honor a fantastic dog!

Special recognition goes to everyone who donated, along with Dr. Amy Touton of Lake Forest Animal Hospital, who helped to get the proper masks to fit pets, SurgiVet who provided the masks at a discounted price and shipped them for free, and Virginia-based High Peak Sportswear, who provided discounted bags to carry the masks with free printing “In Memory of Ondo” and instructions on oxygen saturation levels based on the size of the pet.  How wonderful to see so many folks chipping in to recognize Ondo’s years of service!

For more information on this story, check out this New Era Progress article, Pet Oxygen Masks Distributed This Week, on


So What Are My Responsibilities As A Pet Owner?

 Although the law technically treats pets as personal property, the law still imposes specific duties on pet owners.  The basic duties of Virginia pet owners are spelled out in Section 3.2-6503 of Virginia’s Comprehensive Animal Care Act.

Before you can jump to asking what an owner’s duties are, you have to answer:  Who is considered to be an “owner”?  “Owner” is specifically defined in Section 3.2-6500 as:  “any person who: (i) has a right of property in an animal; (ii) keeps or harbors an animal; (iii) has an animal in his care; or (iv) acts as a custodian of an animal.”  But Section 3.2-6503 (A) by its own terms applies to pounds, shelters, rescues, foster homes, dealers, pet shots, exhibitors, kennels, groomers, and boarders – i.e., just about anyone who ends up interacting with and caring for a pet for any length of time.

The next thing to ask is:  What is a pet or “companion animal”?  Again, Section 3.2-6500 has an explicit statutory definition.  Included in the definition:  domestic and feral dogs and cats, nonhuman primates, guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits (that are not raised for food), exotic or native animals, reptiles, exotic or native birds, any feral animal or any animal under a person’s care, custody or ownership (think twice before you take in that squirrel or raccoon), and any animal that is bought, sold, traded, or bartered by any person.  Excluded:  agricultural animals, game species, and (conveniently) animals regulated under federal law as research animals.

So what are the duties of a companion animal’s owner?  Virginia Code Section 3.2-6503 lists seven separate duties.  Each owner must provide each companion animal with adequate:  (1) feed; (2) water; (3) shelter; (4) space; (5) exercise; (6) care, treatment and transportation; and (7) veterinary care.  Again, Section 3.2-6500 gives elaborate definitions for each of these requirements.  Most of the definitions are just verbose elaborations of what you would think your duty as a pet owner would be – for instance, to provide clean, fresh water in a clean, sturdy bowl.  One notable exception is an explicit requirement found in the definition of “adequate space” that prohibits tethers that are less than three times the length of the animal, as measured from the tip of its nose to the base of its tail.

Some jurisdictions have decided to expand on these duties.  For instance, the City of Alexandria recently passed a dog tethering ordinance that prohibits a dog from being tethered for longer than three hours a day, or longer than a twelve hours a day if on an acceptable running cable line or trolley system.  As another example, Sections 2-14 and 25 of the Arlington County Code have specific shelter requirements for all animals, not just companion animals, which include providing clean and appropriate bedding, confining animals sufficiently to prevent escape, and taking precautions to ensure animals are not teased, abused or mistreated.

So what if someone doesn’t fulfill these duties?  The good news is that Virginia just got a bit tougher about enforcing a pet owner’s responsibilities.  A violation of any of these duties is and has been punishable as a Class 4 misdemeanor, carrying a fine of up to $250.  But, as of July 1, 2010, a second or subsequent conviction is punished more harshly.  For lack of adequate space, exercise, or care/transportation/treatment, a second or subsequent conviction is a Class 3 misdemeanor, carrying a fine of up to $500.  For lack of adequate food, water, shelter or vet care, a second or subsequent offense is a Class 2 misdemeanor, which can carry jail time for up to six months, along with a maximum fine of $1,000.

Remember that these are the basic duties.  Don’t forget the other responsibilities to neuter and spay pets, keep up with vaccinations, registrations and licenses, picking up after your dogs, complying with leash laws, etc.  Stay posted for more on these topics!  In the meantime, what do you think about the term “owner”?  Is “guardian” better?  Is there another word you would suggest?