Brief Survey of Laws Impacting Pet Ownership
By Nicole Balaci,
Attorney at Mc Kenna Long, Aldridge
Millions of compassionate pet owners provide their pets with food, love, and shelter. However, many unfortunate pets suffer from neglect and abuse; proponents of pet restrictions argue that restrictions are necessary to address such issues. Although pet restrictions may be aimed at irresponsible pet owners, such restrictions consequentially exact a heavy toll on compassionate pet owners as well. Violations of pet restrictions may result in citations, fines, other penalties, and even confiscation of pets.
Pet restrictions have become some of the most common exercise of municipal authority. This overview of pet restrictions outlines the most common restrictions on pets, including the following: the number of pets one is allowed to own; the imposition of mandatory sterilization of pets; dangerous/vicious dog laws; breed restrictions; and criminal penalties stemming from violations. In general, pet restrictions regulate a pet owner’s behavior inside and outside the home theoretically attempting to provide a corresponding benefit to public safety and welfare.
The most common articulation of a pet ownership restriction appears as a numerical restriction on the number of pets one can keep. Such limits vary between communities. In general, these limits do not take into account whether the pet owner has the space, time, and money to keep many pets. Even a pet owner who lives on private, fenced acreage in a rural area, and takes excellent care of his pets, can violate such limits.
The following list identifies a sampling of animal control laws in various communities that impose numerical restrictions:
- City of Sausalito, California: Limitation on Number of Dogs (Municipal Code, Section 6.04.116). It is unlawful for any person to keep more than three dogs which are over the age of four months on any lot, premises, dwelling, building, structure, boat or living accommodation.
- City of Beverly Hills, California: Walking Dogs (Municipal Code, Section 5-2-204). It is unlawful for any person owning, controlling, or having in their care or custody, whether upon a leash or not, upon any public street, alley, or public place or upon any unenclosed land or property, four or more dogs at any one time.
- City of Louisville, Kentucky: Number of Dogs on Residentially Used Property (Ordinance No. 233, Section 91.030). It is unlawful to keep more than three dogs (excluding puppies) outdoors on an individual tract, lot or parcel, or dwelling unit which is .5 acres or less and has a residence. It is unlawful to keep more than seven dogs (excluding puppies) outdoors on an individual tract, lot or parcel, or dwelling unit which is more than .5 acres but less than 2 acres and has a residence.
- City of Fort Wayne, Indiana: Kennel/Cattery Permits (Code of Ordinances, Section 91.054). It is unlawful to keep on residential property more than five dogs, seven cats, or seven dogs and cats in total.
When individuals have challenged the constitutionality of municipal ordinances, restrictions on the number of pets are commonly upheld. For example, at issue in a Supreme Court of South Dakota case was a city ordinance that limited households to four adult cats and four dogs, only two of which could weigh over 25 pounds. The South Dakota Supreme Court upheld the ordinance, finding that the ordinance was sufficiently related to the purpose of protecting public health and safety and thus did not unreasonably exceed the city’s regulatory authority.
Many municipalities enacting pet limit laws (including some identified above) allow pet owners who have more than the allowable number of pets to apply for an “exemption” permit. However, exemption permits may present pet owners with the difficult choice of not seeking a permit and violating the law, or applying for a permit and risking exposure and confiscation of their pets if denied.
Another pet restriction that has become increasingly common is mandatory sterilization. In general, such restrictions require animal shelters to have all animals spayed or neutered prior to adoption or within 30 days thereafter.
The following list identifies a sampling of mandatory sterilization laws in various communities:
- City of New York, New York: Sterilization required (Administrative Code, Section 17-804). No shelter for homeless animals shall release a dog or cat to a person claiming ownership, or to a person adopting such dog or cat, unless such dog or cat has been sterilized.
- City of Bellevue, Washington: Mandatory spaying and neutering (City Code, Section 8.04.025). No person shall own any cat or dog over the age of six months that has not been spayed or neutered unless the person holds an unaltered animal license for the animal. Any dog or cat over the age of six months adopted from an animal shelter in the city shall be spayed or neutered before transfer to owner.
- City of Richmond, Virginia: Spaying or neutering prior to adoption (City Code, Section 10-60). All dogs and cats that come into the care of the city animal shelter and subsequently become available for adoption shall be spayed or neutered prior to releasing custody of such animals for adoption.
- State of Arkansas: Sterilization of impounded dogs and cats (Arkansas Code, Section 20-19-103). It is unlawful for any pound, shelter, or humane organization supported by public funds to release any dog or cat which has not been sterilized to a new owner.
- City of Riverside, California: Mandatory spay/neuter for dogs and cots adopted from City animal shelter (Municipal Code, Section 8.04.130). It is unlawful for any person adopting a dog or cat to fail to have such animal spayed or neutered within 60 days of the date such dog or cat reached the age of four months. All dogs and cats over the age four months placed for adoption from the City animal shelter shall be spayed or neutered before being placed in the custody of the adoptive owner.
Although the majority of mandatory sterilization laws relate to animals adopted from shelters, various communities are considering legislation that would mandate sterilization for all pets. For example, California has been in the spotlight for controversial mandatory pet sterilization legislation that would provide for mandatory sterilization of puppies and kittens. In addition, Palm Beach County, Florida is also considering mandatory sterilization. According to proponents of mandatory sterilization, such legislation is aimed at addressing the issue of pet overpopulation.
Dangerous dog laws seek to reduce the threat dangerous dogs pose to the public. The majority of states and many municipalities have enacted dangerous and/or potentially dangerous dog laws. Such laws determine whether a dog is dangerous or potentially dangerous and impose ownership regulations based on the particular dog’s prior conduct. The basis for classifying a dog as potentially dangerous or dangerous varies among communities. In some communities, for example, a dog that threatens a person but does not inflict actual physical injury is classified as potentially dangerous, whereas in other communities, the dog would be classified as dangerous.
The following list identifies a sampling of laws defining dangerous and/or potentially dangerous dogs:
- City of San Francisco, California: Under Section 42 of the City Code, a vicious and dangerous dog is defined as any dog that when unprovoked inflicts bites or attacks a human being or domestic animal, or in a vicious or terrorizing manner, approaches any person in apparent attitude of attack upon the streets, sidewalks, or any public grounds or places; any dog with a known propensity, tendency or disposition to attack unprovoked, to cause injury or to otherwise endanger the safety of human beings or domestic animals; any dog which engages in, or is found to have been trained to engage in, exhibitions of dog fighting; or any dog at large found to attack, menace, chase, display threatening or aggressive behavior or otherwise threaten or endanger the safety of any domestic animal or person.
- State of California: Under Section 31602 of the California Food and Agricultural Code, a potentially dangerous dog is defined as any dog which, when unprovoked, on two separate occasions within the prior 36-month period, engages in any behavior that requires a defensive action by any person to prevent bodily injury when the person and the dog are off the property of the owner of the dog; or any dog which, when unprovoked, bites a person causing a less severe injury; any dog which, when unprovoked, on two separate occasions within the prior 36-month period, has killed, seriously bitten, inflicted injury, or otherwise caused injury attacking a domestic animal off the property of the owner of the dog. Under Section 31603, a vicious dog is defined as any dog which, when unprovoked, in an aggressive manner, inflicts severe injury on or kills a human being; or any dog previously determined to be and currently listed as a potentially dangerous dog which, after its owner or keeper has been notified of this determination, continues the behavior described in the section defining a potentially dangerous dog.
- City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Under Section 10-101 of the City Code, a vicious dog is defined as any animal (except a government-owned animal used for law enforcement) which poses an imminent danger to humans or to domesticated animals, or which has been found to have a history of bites or attacks on humans or domesticated animals.
- District of Columbia: Under Section 8-1901 of the Code, a dangerous dog is defined as any dog that has bitten or attacked a person or domestic animal without provocation or in a menacing manner, approaches without provocation any person or domestic animal as if to attack, or has demonstrated a propensity to attack without provocation or otherwise to endanger the safety of human beings or domestic animals.
- City of New York, New York: Under Section 17-342 of the New York City Administrative Code, a dangerous dog is defined as any dog that when unprovoked, approaches, or menaces any person in a dangerous or terrorizing manner, or in an apparent attitude of attack, upon the streets, sidewalks, or any public grounds or places; or any dog with a known propensity, tendency or disposition to attack when unprovoked, to cause injury or to otherwise endanger the safety of human beings or domestic animals; or any dog which bites, inflicts injury, assaults or otherwise attacks a human being or domestic animal without provocation on public or private property; or any dog owned or harbored primarily or in part for the purpose of dog fighting or any dog trained for dog fighting.
- City of Louisville, Kentucky: Under Section 91.001 (Ordinance No. 233), a potentially dangerous dog is defined as any dog which, when unprovoked, in an aggressive manner bites, scratches, or bruises any person; any unrestrained dog which, when unprovoked, bites, injures, or kills another domestic pet or livestock while that animal is restrained; or any dog which is declared to be a potentially dangerous dog. Under the same section, a dangerous dog is defined as any dog which, when unprovoked, in an aggressive manner commits a severe attack on any person or inflicts death or serious injury to any person; any dog which maims or kills domestic pets or livestock when not under restraint; any dog which is used in the commission of a crime; any dog which is declared to be a dangerous dog; or any dog owned primarily for the purpose of fighting or harming other animals (except dogs used for hunting).
In addition to defining potentially dangerous and dangerous dogs, dangerous dog laws regulate what will become of a dangerous dog and its owner. These laws differ widely in how they do all of those things. They might provide that a dangerous dog may be killed on the spot, may be seized and killed after notice to the owner and an opportunity to be heard, or may have conditions imposed regarding its confinement and appearances on public property.
The following list identifies a sampling of laws regulating dangerous dogs and their owners after the dogs have been deemed to be dangerous:
- State of California: Under Section 3342 of the Civil Code, the owner of a dog is liable for damages suffered by any person who is bitten by the dog, regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owner’s knowledge of such viciousness. Under 3342.5, the owner of any dog that has bitten a human being shall have the duty to take reasonable steps to remove any danger presented to other persons from bites by the animal. Further, any person, the district attorney, or city attorney may bring an action against the owner of the animal if the same dog has bitten a human being two or more times. Under Section 31646 of the Food and Agricultural Code, the owner of a dog determined to be a “vicious dog” may be prohibited from owning, possessing, controlling, or having custody of any dog for a period of up to three years when it is found that ownership or possession of a dog by that person would create a significant threat to the public healthy, safety, and welfare.
- The District of Columbia: Under Section 8-1904 of the Code, the owner of a dangerous dog must post a clearly visible warning sign on the premises with a conspicuous warning symbol, carry a minimum of $50,000 in liability insurance, and pay an annual registration fee.
- City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Under Section 10-104 of the City Code, vicious animals may be seized by any police officer or any authorized animal control officer and may be humanely destroyed at the discretion of the Department of Public Health after a reasonable effort has been made to notify the owner. Under Section 10-104.2, no person shall bring any vicious animal into any city playground.
City of Bartlesville, Oklahoma: Under Section 3-77 of the Municipal Code, owners must keep potentially dangerous or dangerous dogs muzzled, on a six-foot leash or enclosed in a pen with a warning sign on their property, obtain a special fluorescent collar bearing a code number issued by the police, and carry a minimum of $50,000 in liability insurance.
Breed-specific laws regulate or ban ownership of particular breeds typically providing that ownership of a target breed is prima facie evidence of ownership of a vicious or dangerous dog.
Breed-specific laws may be either the primary means of regulating dangerous dogs or supplemental to existing state or local dangerous dog laws. Currently, Ohio has the only breed-specific state law, imposing dangerous dog regulations on all dogs belonging to “a breed that is commonly known as a pit bull dog.” Under Section 955.11 of the Ohio Code, the “ownership, keeping, or harboring of such a breed of dog shall be prima-facie evidence of the ownership, keeping, or harboring of a vicious dog.”
Though most states permit local legislatures to regulate dogs in any manner deemed necessary to protect the public--resulting in breed-specific enactments in several cities--a number of states have passed laws that expressly forbid breed-based local regulations bans. For example, under Section 31683 of the California Food and Agricultural Code, it is illegal for California cities and counties to enact laws based on breed. As further example, under Section 4-46 of the Oklahoma Statutes, local, municipal and county authorities cannot enact breed specific regulations of potentially dangerous or dangerous dogs.
However, a recent court decision in favor of the City of Denver, which successfully challenged the Colorado state law prohibiting breed-specific legislation, may call into question a state’s ability to proscribe breed-based bans. Although the Colorado state law prohibited local governments from regulating dangerous dogs by specific breeds, the City of Denver claimed authority to enact a pit bull ban ordinance. The court agreed with the City and upheld the pit bull ban ordinance as constitutional.
In communities where laws do regulate dogs based on breed, restrictions are similar to those imposed on dangerous dogs and may include the following: dogs must be registered; dogs must be kept muzzled and on a lead when in public places; dogs must be spayed and/or neutered. In addition, dog owners may be required to carry canine liability insurance in some minimum amount, such as $50,000.00.
In general, pet owners are generally financially liable in tort for any injury their pets inflict, either under the relevant dangerous dog statute or a negligence theory. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the dangerous dog, some states have enacted legislation enabling the state to criminally charge the owner of a dangerous dog that seriously injures or fatally attacks a person.
The following list identifies certain states that impose criminal liability on pet owners:
- State of Florida: Under Section 767.13 of the Florida Statutes, if a dog that has previously been declared dangerous attacks or bites a person or a domestic animal without provocation, the owner is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year imprisonment or a $1000 fine. If a dog that has not been declared dangerous attacks and causes severe injury to or death of any human, and if the owner of the dog had prior knowledge of the dog’s dangerous propensities, yet demonstrated a reckless disregard for such propensities, the owner is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days imprisonment or a $500 fine. If a dog that has previously been declared dangerous attacks and causes severe injury to or death of any human, the owner is guilty of a felony punishable by up to five years imprisonment or a $5,000 fine.
- State of Michigan: Under Section 287.323 of the Statute, if a dangerous animal fatally attacks a person, the state may charge the owner with involuntary manslaughter, punishable by up to a 15 year imprisonment, a fine of up to $7,5000, or both. If a dangerous animal attacks a person and causes serious injury other than death, the state may charge the owner with a felony (punishable by up to a four year imprisonment), a fine of up to $2,000, and/or community service. If an animal previously adjudicated to be a dangerous animal attacks or bites a person and causes an injury that is not a serious injury, the state may charge the owner with a misdemeanor (punishable by up to 90 days imprisonment), a fine of between $250 and $500, and/or community service. If the owner of any animal that is previously adjudicated to be a dangerous animal allows the animal to run at large, the state may charge the owner with a misdemeanor (punishable by up to 90 days imprisonment), a fine of between $250 and $500, and/or community service.
- State of California: Under Section 399 of the California Penal Code, a person who knowingly keeps a dangerous dog may be prosecuted for a felony if the dog kills any human being as a result of negligence or letting it run loose and may be prosecuted for a felony or misdemeanor if the dog causes serious bodily injury to another person as a result of negligence or letting it run loose.
Legislation restricting pet ownership must balance the need to promote public welfare with the rights of compassionate and responsible pet owners. Prior to enacting such legislation, lawmakers should evaluate the practical effects of any proposed law by analyzing objective factors that include statistical evidence, enforcement costs and available resources. Otherwise, regardless of the legislative intent behind any such pet restrictions, compassionate and responsible pet owners may be forbidden from providing care for their pets.