When can the animal control authorities take away your pets?

**** The information written here is not legal advice and the author of this blog is not your lawyer.  These posts merely contain ideas to help you plan and organize your legal research and identify potentially helpful sources of law. ****

Municipal ordinances (source 1source 2) regulate pet licensing as well as pets’ outdoor behavior. In most places, the local animal control authority, a.k.a. “the dogcatcher”, will take away a pet only when it has been found unattended and unleashed walking around on the loose or because it has injured people or other animals. But they can also take pets away if they believe those pets are victims of cruelty or neglect. Keeping pets outside in extreme weather and feeding pets out of garbage cans might both be considered cruel or neglectful treatment.

If you truly are the owner of an animal, as evidenced by a license, you have a constitutional due process right to be informed of where your animal is being held and what you have to do to get that pet released.[i]  Ordinarily, cities have ordinances or animal control authorities have internal rules that dictate how that information is to be conveyed to pet owners. To make a successful due process claim, you have to prove that either the process delineated in the rules or ordinances wasn’t followed or else that the lack of such rules or ordinances denies you due process.

The most common way of tracing an animal’s owner is by using the contact information on the animal’s tag. If the pet owner became homeless after that tag was issued and the contact information no longer leads the shelter or animal control office to the right person, there is not always a second way of trying to track the owner down. Similarly, if the animal does not have identification, like a collar tag or microchip, etc… showing how to contact its owners, the animal control authority generally does not have a legal obligation to try to track down an owner; the resources necessary to reach out into the community trying to find out whether anyone is missing that animal just make it too expensive a practice for the law to make it mandatory.

Although the law does not specifically say so, common sense says that if the tag information is no longer correct or it is possible that the animal’s tag came off or someone in animal control doesn’t do a job right, pet owners have to take responsibility for contacting the local animal shelters when a pet is missing. If you don’t find the pet on your own, you might never get it back; the shelter could let someone adopt your pet or, worse, they might destroy it.

Violating some pet behavior laws will result in fines rather than confiscation of the pet. Failure to clean up after a pet or walking it without a leash or not preventing it from incessantly making noise are likely to result in a fine as penalty. Most of the time, pet owners are notified of these legal violations by getting a ticket, like a traffic ticket, in the mail. But, police officers can simply hand that ticket to someone who does not have a known mailing address. Even if you get a ticket (a.k.a. citation) that does not fully identify you by name and address and even if you cannot pay the fine, you still need to communicate with the animal control authority and possibly your local court, depending on how the pet ordinances are enforced in your town.

If you have not found a way to correct the lack of a leash or loud dog or other problem before going to court, it is appropriate to ask the court for help in obtaining a leash or other equipment that might be too expensive for you and which will put your pet in compliance with the law; sometimes animal courts have relationships with charitable organizations that can help with those sorts of matters. If the court is not able to intervene and help you equip for legal compliance, then ask them for the names of agencies that might help and, at the same time, ask if the court will consider dismissing the ticket against you if you return to court in a week or two with the leash or muzzle or pooper scooper that will prevent the offense from occurring again.


[i] Com. v. Gonzales, 588 A2d. 528, 535; 403 Pa. Super 157, 169 (Pa. Super. 1991); Clark v. Draper, 168 F.3d 1185, 1189-90 (Cir. 10, 1999).

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9 Replies to “When can the animal control authorities take away your pets?”

  1. A friend of mine had a Pitbull and there back yard open no fences but tie to a big chin on it somebody called animal control and they came out and took the dog and put it down never bite nobody never ran away one person called that’s it one time no bad report.

    1. Markello, was there a dog ordinance against pitbulls? Maybe the dog was severely sick? If you truley believe neither apply, then I’d take legal actions against the county your friends lives in.

      1. If we are being singled out and harrassed by animal control what can we do? I ordered their records and there is no proof there was ever even a complaint. But yet I have been fined for $250

  2. I got a ticket from these assholes because I left a dog in a car in a structure IN FEBRUARY while we had lunch and it’s “animal cruelty” there. Stupid law that needs to be changed or at least tweaked for time of year. I was told the weather could change drastically fast. Yeah (twirling finger in the air) whatever. That’s why these losers make 7 bucks an hour. They lack integrity too. I asked a supervisor a question and she just flat out lied to me to give me a hard time.

    1. Did you go to court regarding that ticket yet? If not, you should first review the local ordinance to see if you have a valid basis for arguing that you did not violate it. If you did violate it, or if the judge rules that you violated it even if you believe otherwise, you can ask for community service as your punishment instead of a fine that you cannot afford.

      1. It was some time ago, it’s already done. I don’t have any doubt I violated the letter of the law. The spirit of the law is questionable at best. The bothersome part after we got there was that the supervisor I spoke to flat out lied to my face. I asked if she knew if I could hire an attorney to appear for me since we were from out of the area. She said No when she knew otherwise. Well let’s just say she was either lacking in integrity of a Moron. Not really sure which. It put a damper on our trip over a stupid mutt who isn’t w/ us anymore. It was my daughter’s dog and from the get go I knew it was a bad idea. The moment it starts costing me money I knew the end was near.

  3. 1 202-479-3000 united states supreme court
    On 141 sycamore street of allentown Pennsylvania 18105 call the animal control shelter police on why they robbed Jose Hernandez cats and kitten I had as domestic pets ! I am mystery from Henderson Nevada.
    I had my rights taken away for no reason other than a crazy jealous neighbor across my block…call us 6105042436

  4. They took my dog! It’s so ridiculous. They offered me an option to return the dog to a relative, but when I requested my due process hearing, they took away the offer and said they were sending it to the district attorney to deal with. I didn’t do anything wrong! 3 dogs, in my yard, licensed, chipped, family for over a year. The puppy, at almost a year, started to try to make his spot in the pack dynamic and the 2 older dogs put him in his place. I discovered the issue when he was injured and got him medical attention and then separated the animals until a new resolve could be made. These dogs are great together when I am home. the issue only occurred when I wasn’t there. After surgery, I created an alternate barricade that didn’t hold and the neighbor called animal control. The puppy got some stitches opened up, but only needed some bandaging and I reinforced the barricade and got him back the next day. After a month of bliss and no issues, I had to go out of town and had a dog sitter stay at my home. She did great the 1st 2 days, but on the 3rd day, she left them unsupervised too long and there was a minimal encounter. No medical attention required whatsoever, and the dogs were separated into their respective areas, but the neighbor called again and BAM! 7 hours later Animal control took the puppy. I am doing everything I can to get him back, but they are mean and ignoring all my efforts. What can I do? He’s just a puppy and he’s stuck in a cage that’s too small for him and they are not walking him, giving him attention or affection or anything. I am at the animal shelter every day but can’t even touch him.

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