Gina Calogero, Esq.
Jean Louise Finch aka Scout

A common scenario:

You found a stray dog/cat in terrible condition – fleas, malnutrition, matted fur. You put up flyers and posted them on Facebook but after days/weeks/months with no response, you decided to keep it.

Are you in the right? What if months or years later, someone who claims to be the owner contacts you? Are you obligated to give the pet back to them? Even if they are an irresponsible person who is incapable of caring for a pet?

A lost pet that is picked up by a local Animal Control Officer may be held at a publicly run shelter until the owner can be located within 7 days as required by law.  See N.J.S.A. 4:19-15.16. If you turn the animal over to the ACO, you should offer to foster the pet for the waiting period at your expense. They may allow you to do this to save public resources. If they won’t let you foster, make it clear to them that you want to adopt the animal if the owner does not surface within 7 days. Under the law, the shelter is required to hold the animal for 7 days unless it is unhealthy. Make sure you follow up with the shelter and the A.C.O. on the 6th and 7th days – do not assume they will remember to call you.

If you don’t bring the animal to a shelter but decide to keep it after reasonably diligent efforts to find the true owner, and someone comes knocking on your door demanding you turn the dog/cat over to them, what should you do?

First, you need to establish that this person is actually the owner and not an imposter. Is there a microchip ID? If so, a veterinarian can scan the chip and learn the name of the owner. If not, does this person have photographs of the animal with them, in their home? Do they have an adoption contract or a bill of sale? Does the name on the paperwork match the person’s photo identification? Make sure they have a credible claim of ownership before you even consider turning the animal over to them.

Whether you can ultimately keep the pet as your own depends on many factors. You don’t have the right to take a pet from its owner just because you are a better caretaker. If you have solid proof of abuse, neglect, or other cruelty, you should contact your local police department. They will put you in touch with the local Humane Law Enforcement Officer. The HLEO will conduct an investigation to find out whether the animal was in poor condition because its owner couldn’t take care of it, or because it was living outdoors on its own for a long time.  If the HLEO charges the owner with cruelty or neglect, you should ask if you can foster the animal pending a resolution of the charges, instead of having the animal kept at a shelter. Ultimately, the case will come before a judge and a possible outcome could be that the owner surrenders possession of the dog or cat. You can ask to adopt the animal permanently if that happens.

Another issue is how much time has passed since you tried to find the owner. What efforts did you make and how persistent were you in advertising the “found” pet?  Conversely, how hard did the owner try to find the lost pet? If months or years have gone by, you may have a credible case for equitable ownership of the animal through various legal theories known as waiver, estoppel, or laches.

If you find yourself in such a situation, you should call us at 973-744-2980 or fill out our online form and take care not to rely solely on self-help. Theft of a companion animal is a Third Degree Crime under N.J.S.A. 2C:20-2(b)(2)(b), which can carry a jail sentence between three to five years.