Companion Animal Law Blog

Bringing together those whose lives and livelihoods revolve around companion animals


Protecting Your Business: A Checklist For New (And Existing!) Pet Care Businesses In Virginia

Whether you are starting up a new pet care business, or you want to make sure you are covering your bases with your existing business, here’s a great checklist for you.  Watch for more details on these steps in later posts.

1.         Choose a name and protect your mark.  Before settling on a name, check for name availability with both the Clerk’s Office for Virginia’s State Corporation Commission and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.  It’s not enough to make sure that no one is using the name of your business.  To fully protect your mark, it is well worth registering your mark on the state level and filing a trademark application with the USPTO.  It usually pays off to consult with a trademark attorney at this step.

2.         Choose a business entity.  The most common entities are a sole proprietorship, a partnership, a limited liability company (LLC) and a corporation.  LLCs are a popular choice for businesses due to the LLC’s flexibility.  It is often in your best interest to consult with a corporate attorney at this point.

3.         Register your business.  Corporations, LLCs and limited partnerships must register with the Virginia State Corporation Commission.  If you are a franchise, you will also have to register with the State Corporation Commission’s Division of Securities and Retail Franchising.

4.         Register any trade names and general partnerships.  If you are using a trade name that is other than your entity’s official name, make sure that you register the trade name with your local Circuit Court Clerk’s Office.  Note that general partnerships also need to register with the Circuit Court.

5.         Check on state requirements.  Depending on your profession and business, you may have state licensing, registration or other requirements.  For instance, veterinarians and veterinary facilities must comply with licensing and registration requirements for the Virginia Board of Veterinary Medicine and the Virginia Department of Health Professions.  Commercial dog breeders, animal shelters and pounds, and rescues are subject to state reporting and other requirements.  Non-profits also have to register with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Division of Consumer Protection to solicit as a charitable organization.  Various state laws also impact groomers, dog kennels and boarding facilities.

6.         Comply with zoning and permitting requirements and code regulations.  You will need to check with your local jurisdiction to ensure that you have complied with zoning and permitting requirements.  This step is more streamlined in some jurisdictions than others.  For instance, the City of Alexandria has created a “Permit Center” as a “One Stop Shop” in an effort to simplify this process.  (By the way, in 2010, Alexandria changed its small business zoning to add a new permitted use in the Cameron Station area for pet supplies, grooming and/or training with no overnight accommodations, if you’re looking for a location!)  Additionally, be sure to check on all building and other code regulations.

7.         Get a local business license.  Once you have registered your business and complied with your locality’s zoning and permitting requirements, you need to get a business license.  This license must be renewed annually.  When you apply for a license, this will also trigger the duty to estimate and pay your local business, professional and occupational license (BPOL) taxes.

8.         Comply with tax requirements.  Along with your BPOL taxes, make sure you have complied with other local tax requirements, such as business personal property taxes.  Of course, you also need to comply with state and federal taxes.  If you run a non-profit such as a rescue, make sure that you look into federal, state and local tax exemptions.  This is another time when you may want to seek help from a tax attorney or accountant.

9.         Get insurance.  Look into the many different insurance policies designed to protect your business, including insurance for general liability, professional liability and malpractice, umbrella liability, business property, business income and extra expense, animal bailee, equipment and commercial automobile coverage.  A good insurance broker can help you out here.

10.       Keep accurate and complete business records.  Generally, the privilege of obtaining a state or local license carries with it the state or locality’s right to audit your business and inspect your records.  Additionally, as mentioned above, certain businesses such as commercial dog breeders, animal shelters, pounds and rescues have their own obligations to maintain records and report information.  The importance of keeping accurate and complete records cannot be emphasized enough. 

Too many people think that they can start out on their own with a business such as dog walking, dog training or animal rescue without following these steps.  You can’t just wait until you have a solid clientele base before you worry about setting up and registering your business entity, getting insurance and a business license, and complying with these other requirements.  If you lack the resources to comply with these requirements prior to taking on your very first client, you should work for an established company for a while first before you take that leap. 

This post is not meant to be a full checklist of everything that is required for your particular business, but it is a great starting point to make sure that you have thought of the most important items to start up and protect your business.  Another great resource in thinking through whether you are ready to start your own business is the Virginia Department of Business Assistance’s Business One Stop Service.


Forgiveness, Redemption And Animal Cruelty: How Does It All Fit Together?

This afternoon, the civilian Army police officer, Keith Shepherd, went to trial for animal cruelty and discharging a weapon in public for shooting the Husky Bear-Bear at a Maryland dog park.  Anne Arundel County District Court Judge Pryal rejected Shepherd’s claim that he acted only to defend himself, his wife and his dog, finding that Bear-Bear never hurt anyone and didn’t even so much as bear his teeth during the incident.

Even though Judge Pryal found sufficient evidence to convict Shepherd of both counts, he gave Shepherd the benefit of “probation without judgment.”  Shepherd will have to complete 80 hours of community service and maintain good behavior for one year.  He also received a $500 fine on the animal cruelty count and a $1000 fine on the firearm count.  If he completes these conditions, his charges will be dismissed after one year.

As satisfying as it is that the authorities prosecuted Shepherd and prevailed at trial, I’m not sure many people will be satisfied with the sentence.  Quite frankly, the level of disparity in animal cruelty sentences is astounding.  For instance, a Virginia man who shot and killed his neighbor’s dog for barking recently received five years in prison for a combination of animal cruelty and skipping town for seven years between plea and sentencing.  As another example, an Illinois man recently received 20 months for shooting a neighbor dog who trespassed on his property.  Compare these sentences with Michael Vick’s 23 month sentence for dogfighting, involving not only the deaths of dogs but profiting financially from their deaths.

Later this evening, I had a wonderful opportunity, along with Dr. Ryan Fehr of the University of Maryland, to be a guest speaker with Baltimore radio station WEAA 88.9 FM’s Listen uP public affairs radio show.  The topic tonight was “The Politics of Forgiveness:  What Does it Take to Gain Redemption in our Society,” with the majority of the conversation exploring whether we should forgive Michael Vick and consider him to now be redeemed. 

Many of the listeners felt that Vick already paid his debt to society, that it was time to forgive him and give him a second chance.  As a former public defender, I am all for forgiveness and redemption.  But my take on this is that Vick is a highly paid and very public figure who committed heinous acts against defenseless animals, and profited financially from it.  Millions of dogs are sitting in shelters, and the percentage of those dogs that are pit bulls is rising every day.  There is plenty for Vick to do before he earns his redemption. 

Dr. Fehr added great insight about the science of forgiveness and redemption, and how much whether we can identify with the person who wronged us factors in to whether we can forgive.  But animal cruelty crimes are not directed towards any one of us.  Instead, they are directed against helpless animals.  We domesticated dogs and cats over thousands of years, making them dependent on us.  Because companion animals depend on us, we have the responsibility to stand up for them.  This fact, plus Vick’s highly visible and public status, means that Vick has a long way to go before he earns forgiveness and redemption.

UPDATE (12/16/10):  With the Philadelphia Eagles getting closer to the Superbowl, Michael Vick is back in the news.  In an interview earlier this week, he was candid in saying that he would likely still be dogfighting had he not gotten caught.  About the role he would play, he was much less candid, saying  he would still be involved, but only “from a distance.”  Other reports center around Vick’s public talks about dogfighting.  Steve Dale did a great job in his post yesterday of exploring whether these talks are truly voluntary, or are just carefully orchestrated media events.  Most of the hubub revolves around Vick claiming that he would really like to get a dog, because his kids keep asking for one.  The judge who sentenced him ordered that he could not keep companion animals.  I think that was a wise move.  He’s still got a long road to prove himself in my book.  Allowing him to go back to football and his livelihood is one thing.  But trusting him with a companion animal is another thing altogether.

UPDATE (12/20/10):  Seems the debate of whether Vick should be able to get a pet is still raging.  Compare Steve Dale’s recent comments with HSUS President Wayne Pacelle’s recent post on the topic.


Read All About It! Great News On Anti Crush Video And Shock Collar Legislation!

It has already been a great week, with very positive news regarding two pressing issues — crush videos and electronic collars. 

In Cleaning Up The Mess After United States v. Stevens:  Amended H.R. 5566, I recently talked about how previous federal legislation designed to combat “crush videos” ended up being struck down by the United States Supreme Court.  The House immediately introduced a bill to fix the problem, which the Senate tweaked.  The next step was reconciling the differences between the House bill and the Senate amendments.

Just yesterday, the House made a resolution to pass Amended H.R. 5566, but wanted one minor change regarding how to punish attempt or conspiracy under the new law.  That means the Senate will have to take a look at the House’s proposed change before the bill goes to the White House.  Considering there was a surge of crush videos in the market after the Stevens ruling, this process needs to come to a full resolution soon.  But at least things are continuing to move along.

In Get A Grip!  Does An Electronic Collar Count As  A Leash Under The Leash Laws?  Should It?, I discussed a local leash law, and whether a shock collar would qualify as a leash.  Of course, this begs the question of whether you should use a shock collar at all! 

Today, an appellate court in Wales upheld legislation banning the use of shock collars.  The law was passed in March, but was challenged by Petsafe Ltd., a pet product manufacturer, and the Electronic Collar Manufacturers Association.

Here’s to two definite steps in the right direction!

UPDATE (Nov. 20, 2010):  Here’s to rounding out this week with a huge victory in the Senate!  Just yesterday, the Senate just gave unanimous consent to pass the changes the House wanted in Amended H.R. 5566, and it is on its way to the White House to be signed into law!


So How Many Companion Animals Can I Have?

There has been a surge of cases involving animal rescuers turned hoarders, and Virginia is no exception.  Recent cases have revealed hundreds of animals on a single person’s property, or dozens and dozens of animals living in a single townhouse.  People who criticize this type of animal hoarder need only point to often atrocious conditions that the animals live in and suffer through.  Nonetheless, these hoarders often have loyal supporters, who think they are saints whose “hearts are in the right places.”

But this begs the question of how many animals the law allows a person to have.  Once you take on a certain number of animals, you are limited by the type of housing you have, as well as the amount of time and money that you have to dedicate to your companion animals.  As the saying goes in The Little Prince, “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”

First and foremost, Virginia law requires you to provide adequate food, water, shelter, space, exercise, care and veterinary care for each companion animal.  [For more on this, see my previous post, So What Are My Responsibilities as a Pet Owner?]

Foster homes for rescues are governed by Virginia Code Section 3.2-6550, which sets a fifty-animal limits for foster homes.  [Shockingly, the penalty for violating this law is only a $250 civil fine!]  If you are a foster, be aware that you do not automatically have the right to keep up to fifty animals in your home.  You still need to comply with zoning laws and other laws in your local jurisdiction, which will likely have a much more stringent limit on the number of animals you can keep.

Take a look at these examples.  Arlington County and the City of Alexandria allow residents to have three dogs, but require a kennel license for any additional dogs.  If you would like more information, consult Section 2-12 of the Arlington County Code and Section 5-7-57 of the City of Alexandria CodeFairfax County residents can have two dogs on any sized lot, and additional dogs based on minimum lot sizes.  But Article 20 of Fairfax County’s Zoning Ordinance will start to consider your property as a kennel if “dogs are kept in numbers greater than ten (10) per 40,000 square feet,” or if the lot constitutes a “place or establishment in which dogs are kept, trained, boarded or handled for a fee.”  Prince William County requires kennel licenses for households with more than four dogs.


Get A Grip! Does An Electronic Collar Count As A Leash Under The Leash Laws? Should It?

Last Saturday was a gorgeous fall day, one of the last of the year here in the DC metro area nice enough to sit outside.   So I decided to celebrate by spending part of the afternoon sitting outside a coffee shop in Old Town Alexandria with Boomer.

Along came a resident with a gorgeous German Shepherd.  She placed her dog in a down stay, which he held remarkably well, while she ducked into the store for a cup of coffee.  When she came out, I saw her showing the remote control for her Shepherd’s electronic collar to the women at the table next to me, explaining that the electronic collar “counted” as physical restraint under Alexandria’s leash laws.  [Sidenote:  Boomer was being a very good little pup (on leash of course), getting lots and lots of treats while he sat calmly between the Shepherd and two other large dogs.]

My curiosity was peaked.  I’ve never used electronic collars or invisible fences, and I’ve heard too much regarding the downsides of both to care to try them.  I made a mental note to check Alexandria’s leash law to see if an electronic collar would really “count.”

Fast forward to this weekend, when I had the pleasure of attending Dr. Sophia Yin’s Seminar, The Many Faces of Fear and Aggression, sponsored by Dream Dog Productions.  [Sidenote:  Very appropriate topics for me and Sophie, who of course did not come with me to the coffee shop!]

Dr. Yin has done a remarkable job putting together hundreds of photos and videos to make various training concepts like counter-conditioning, desensitization, negative punishment and positive punishment really come alive.  One of the most fascinating parts to watch was Dr. Yin using an electronic collar and a prong collar.  She explained the many pitfalls of punishment, which can occur even if you use punishment the way you are supposed to, by using (1) perfect timing, (2) a correct and continuous rate (catching the bad behavior each and every time it occurs), and (3) a high enough amount of force that the dog doesn’t just become habituated.

At one point, Dr. Yin showed videos of her with a leash attached to a chain link fence, demonstrating the force needed to use a prong collar effectively.  When she lets owners considering a prong collar try to pull on the leash, it is remarkable how far off they are with their amount of force.  When Dr. Yin tries an electronic collar, even with her perfect sense of timing, rate and amount of force, it has the unintended consequence of only serving to confuse the dog.  No wonder she and many others have abandoned the use of forceful, punishment-based training long ago.

With all of Dr. Yin’s experience, even she was unable to communicate what she wanted the dog to learn using an electronic collar.  Part of this is that punishment methods do nothing to tell the dog what kind of good behavior he could do instead of the bad behavior.  Considering all of this, how is the average dog owner supposed to use an electronic collar effectively?

Even if the average dog owner could master the electronic collar with no ill side effects on the dog, would the law allow it?  What has muddied these waters is the fact that Blacksburg, Virginia has recently passed a leash law specifically allowing “remote control collar systems” to be added to the leash options.  So what about Alexandria?

To start, Virginia Code Section 3.2-6539 allows each locality to adopt its own ordinance requiring dogs to “be kept on a leash or otherwise restrained.”   Alexandria has chosen to institute its own leash law, Section 5-7-35 of the City of Alexandria Code.  With very limited exceptions for being on private property or in dog parks, Alexandria requires a dog to be

“…secured by a leash, lead or other means of physical restraint which leash, lead or other means of physical restraint is not harmful or injurious to the dog and which is held by a responsible person capable of physically restraining the dog.”

I doubt that the remote control for the electronic collar would qualify as a “leash, lead or other means of physical restraint” being “held” by the owner.   Even if you make it over that hurdle, after seeing Dr. Yin’s presentation, I have to ask whether an electronic collar is “harmful or injurious to the dog.”  Also, the Alexandria ordinance says nothing about remote collar control systems, whereas Blacksburg felt the need to include that explicitly in its leash law.

Taking all of this into consideration, I would think an electronic collar does not “count” as a leash under Alexandria’s leash laws.  Even if it did, owners should think long and hard about the well-being of their dogs and the relationship between them and the dogs before using electronic collars, and other equipment such as invisible fences and prong collars.

FYI, Alexandria recently adopted an anti-tethering ordinance (Section 5-7-36.1), which will hopefully inspire other jurisdictions to do the same.  For more on the anti-tethering ordinance and requirements of dog owners, take a look at my earlier post, So What Are My Responsibilities As  A Dog Owner?

UPDATE (11/17/2011):  The question of whether an electronic collar would count under Alexandria’s leash law has been determined once and for all.  Congratulations to the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria and Alexandria’s Animal Control Officers for taking up the charge and successfully introducing a law clarifying that shock collars will not qualify as leashes or “physical restraint!”  


New Virginia Supreme Court Case Upholds Animal Cruelty Conviction For Failure To Provide Emergency Veterinary Care: Sullivan v. Commonwealth

As Bridgette Berbes drove along Interstate 81 in Augusta County, Virginia at lunchtime, she saw a horse covered with a purple blanket and lying in a pasture along the highway.  This struck Berbes as odd because it was a warm April day, and the temperature was in the upper 70’s.  Berbes ran some errands, then drove past the same spot where the horse was still lying in the same place.

Around 7:00 PM that same day, Berbes returned to the same place and found that the horse had not moved.  Berbes called her mother, asking her to call Terry Sullivan, the owner of the property, to tell Sullivan Berbes intended to go on the property to take a look at the horse.  Berbes found the horse to be so weak and thin that it could not lift its head off the ground to reach hay, grain and water that was placed on the ground behind it.  The horse was a 20-year old mare named “Dip.”

Animal Control Officer Gary Webb responded to a phone call about a downed horse and met with Sullivan and Berbes in the field by Dip.  Dip had been down about thirty hours by that point.  Berbes asked Sullivan to give her the horse, and Sullivan agreed provided that Berbes assumed responsibility for any vet costs.  Officer Webb prepared a “Surrender Statement by Owner” document that Sullivan signed.

Berbes called a veterinarian named Dr. Scott Reiners, who arrived at the scene and examined the horse.  Dr. Reiners found the horse unresponsive, very dehydrated and emaciated.  Dr. Reiners had to administer 22 liters of intravenous fluids to Dip as she lay in the field because she could not lift her head to drink water.  Dr. Reiner placed Dip on a continuous IV drip, transported her to his hospital and gave her drugs and six more liters of fluids.  Despite this care, Dip died later that night.  In Dr. Reiners’ opinion, Dip was in need of emergency care long before his arrival.

Sullivan was charged with animal cruelty based on her lack of care for Dip.  Sullivan was the president and executive director of Fern Leigh Equine Foundation, Inc., a non-profit that cared for homeless horses on Sullivan’s farm.  The foundation’s purpose was to care for horses until homes could be found for them.  Approximately 35 horses were being cared for on Sullivan’s property at the time of trial.

At the trial, two other veterinarians testified.  Dr. David Brown performed a postmortem exam of Dip, finding her to be emaciated and her ribs prominent.  In his opinion, Dip’s condition developed over a period of time, likely weeks.  Dip was suffering from several disease processes affecting her intestines, liver, kidneys, lungs as heart, and she was infested with intestinal parasites.  Dip became unable to absorb sufficient nutrition, which led to her emaciated and weak condition.

The second vet, Dr. William Hunter, testified that Sullivan called him on the same day Berbes went onto Sullivan’s property.  Sullivan said that she had a horse down, and thought she had been down about two days.  This surprised Dr. Hunter, because most horse owners would call him immediately if they found a horse down, and he had never known a horse to live after being down a day or two, even with medical treatment.  Sullivan told Dr. Hunter that she didn’t know anything was wrong with Dip, but when she removed the blanket, Dip had just wasted away.  Sullivan asked Dr. Hunter if Dip should be euthanized, and Dr. Hunter said the prognosis was poor, but that he could not recommend euthanasia until he examined the horse.  Dr. Hunter was willing to go see Dip, but Sullivan told him she could handle it. 

Sullivan claimed that after she talked to Dr. Hunter, she called a friend to bring his shotgun to euthanize Dip, but the friend was unable to come until the next day.  By that point in time, Dip had already been moved to Dr. Reiner’s hospital.

The statute at the time, Virginia Code Section 3.1-796.122 [currently Code Section 3.2-6570], stated that “[a]ny person who . . . (ii) deprives any animal of necessary food, drink, shelter or emergency veterinary treatment . . . shall be guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor.”  At Sullivan’s trial, the Augusta County Circuit Court found Sullivan guilty of animal cruelty for failing to provide Dip adequate emergency veterinary care.  The court sentenced her to twelve months in jail with six months suspended conditioned on good behavior and no possession of horses for 24 months.

Sullivan appealed to the Court of Appeals, which affirmed Sullivan’s conviction.  Judge McClanahan was the sole dissenter.  He concluded that Sullivan had provided food and water.  Regarding emergency veterinary treatment, he cited the statutory definition [currently found in Virginia Code Section 3.2-6500], “veterinary treatment to stabilize a life-threatening condition, alleviate suffering, prevent further disease transmission, or prevent further disease progression.”  He construed the statute to say emergency veterinary care is only required if it would produce specific positive results in the horse’s condition.  Judge McClanahan felt there was no evidence regarding what treatment could stabilize a life-threatening condition or alleviate suffering, and that there was no evidence that Dip was actually suffering. 

The Virginia Supreme Court had no problem finding that Sullivan deprived Dip of necessary emergency veterinary treatment.   The justices concluded that, at the very least, emergency care was immediately necessary to alleviate Dip’s suffering during a period of 30 to 48 hours before her death.

Sullivan has the right to file a Petition for Rehearing, but based on the Virginia Supreme Court’s straightforward and unwavering opinion affirming her conviction, it is highly unlikely the Court would reverse itself.

UPDATE:  As expected, the Virginia Supreme Court has refused Sullivan’s Petition for Rehearing on January 21, 2011.  Conviction stands!