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Pet Law:
Your Rights and Responsibilities

We hear so many stories in the news lately about what happens when pet ownership goes horribly wrong – from children being injured, to household pets being removed by authorities.

Below are some common questions and tips about your rights and responsibilities as a pet owner.

My neighbor already had two cats and a dog when we moved into our house. She now just brought in three more stray cats. I know she means well, but the property is really starting to look awful and the smell in the summer is just horrendous. Is there anything my wife and I can do?

Depending on where you live, your neighbor may be in violation of ordinances which limit the number of animals - The City of Pittsburgh, for example, limits a household to 5 pets – that’s five cats, five dogs or any combination of up to five animals. In addition to this, she could receive a nuisance violation for allowing the animals to create excessive noise, produce excessive odors or unsanitary conditions. You should certainly contact the local police in your municipality and let them know of the situation.

We just brought our new dog home. We’re not planning on ever letting him run alone in our yard and really don’t plan on taking him out in the neighborhood for walks much. Do we still need to license him?

You definitely do. It doesn’t matter whether or not your pet will be a house pet only or one that you’re taking to the local dog–park every week – the requirement is the same. Both the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County have requirements that all dogs be licensed and there are fees for doing so. The fees will be cheaper if the dog has been spayed or neutered. You will have to fill out an application, provide proof of rabies vaccinations and proof that the animal has been spayed or neutered as well. In the event that your dog is NOT licensed, you will have to pay a fine of up to $300.00. It’s much cheaper to just get the license, and now you are also able to get a lifetime license for your dog as well which is done with tattooing or microchipping – much more economical and convenient.

Yesterday our family dog pushed past me while I opened our door and got loose. Unfortunately he bit one of the children in the neighborhood. The little boy’s injuries aren’t severe – a couple of stitches, but what are my responsibilities from this point?

First and foremost you are responsible for keeping your dog under control and not allowing it to run at large. That being said, you are responsible for any damage your pet does in harming someone else. If the victim has a severe injury (one which results in broken bones or lacerations that would disfigure someone or require cosmetic surgery), you would be liable for all expenses including medical expenses and other damages as well. In this case, it appears that this is a non–severely injured victim, you would be responsible for all medical costs. The victim only has to prove that you are the owner of the dog. In addition to this, a complaint may be filed with the local magistrate to have your dog earmarked as a dangerous dog. If the magistrate then finds your dog is dangerous, you will have to register your dog annually, pay a registration fee, confine the dog and/or muzzle it, keep a minimum of liability insurance and other requirements as well.

Something else to keep in mind as well is that usually when taking out a homeowner’s insurance policy the carrier will ask if you have a dog and what kind of dog it is. If you have a dog which can typically be considered a “riskier breed”, or a dog which is registered as a dangerous dog, that may result in higher insurance premiums. Regardless, you must still disclose the type of dog you have.

If your dog injures someone they can make a claim against your homeowner’s policy as well. Making sure that you have notified the insurance company of the specific type of dog you have increases the likelihood that the loss will be covered.

I took my cat to the vet last month for what appeared to be a simple surgery. Unfortunately the vet misdiagnosed the condition, and the cat passed away last week. I am devastated, as is my family. Can we sue the vet for malpractice?

In the majority of states including Pennsylvania, pets are viewed as personal property. It takes a specific statute and act by the legislature to classify pets as companions for them to be covered by any statute which could give rise to a civil or malpractice claim. As such you would only be entitled to recover your out of pocket expenses, and the market value of the pet – what someone else would pay for the identical pet of the same age, breed and condition. Unfortunately in most cases, your pet is priceless to you, but may have a very low market value making recovery very difficult. This is the same approach that would be taken if your dog would be injured or killed by another person or animal as well.

You may file a complaint against the vet with the Department of State (the agency that issues veterinary licenses) by either going to their website or calling them to have a complaint form mailed out to you.

My daughter’s new puppy is a runner – every chance she gets, she makes a run for it. What do I need to do in the event the dog is lost or runs away?

The first 24–48 hours are the most critical when you lose your pet. State law requires that animal control facilities only hold a stray or lost dog without a current license for a limited amount of time, and Pennsylvania law has no such waiting period for cats – they can be euthanized immediately. So you must have a current license for either the county or the city. Also if you can financially afford it, consider  microchipping your pet as well.

As always, for any questions regarding pet laws or for a referral to an attorney practicing in that field, contact the Allegheny County Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service at (412) 261–5555 or visit them online at www.pittsburghlawyerfinder.org.