Dog owner holding her pet close

What Determines Dog Ownership: How Courts Decide

Understanding who has ownership of a dog can be surprisingly difficult. Pet owners typically think of their dogs as members of the family, but in the eyes of the law, they’re viewed more like cars or household-assets.

If you’re going through a break-up, divorce, or you’re just looking to seize ownership of the family dog, it’s important to understand how ownership is established. The last thing that you want is to believe you’re the dog’s primary owner, only to experience the heartbreak of losing your best friend.

What the Courts Use to Determine Ownership

Dog at the side of a soldier
Dog at his owner’s side

In a court of law, a Judge will ultimately determine who has rightful ownership of your dog.

Dog Registration

The first thing a judge reviews is your dog’s registration documentation.

When you register and license your dog, the paperwork asks who the primary owner is. The person who submits this paperwork is typically recognized in court as the primary owner.

But why?

Well, a fee is paid for the licensing, and it shows an investment on the owner’s part. It also establishes the pet as property belonging to an individual.

When signing your name on the registration and licensing forms, you’re not only confirming ownership, but responsiblity for future licensing fees and any liabilities that occur because of the dog.

Veterinary Records

The second aspect that the court examines is veterinary records. When you first visit a veterinarian, the staff will ask who the pet owner is. A couple may sign their names to the medical documents, and for a court, this shows that both sides were interested in their pets’ wellbeing.

However, if only one person signs the document, the court sees that only one person was considered the pet’s primary owner.

If you want to ensure that the pet is yours, having your name added to any medical records is an excellent precautionary step.

Along with vet records, a court will also review vet bills. If you primarily paid the vet bills, then the court may decide in your favor. This shows that you had a monetary and emotional investment in the pet’s health.


A third aspect is microchipping. Many pet owners these days choose to have their dogs microchipped. The microchip enables vets and other animal organizations to scan the chip to determine who its owners are and where it belongs. Similar to when you first visit the vet, you’ll have to assign a name for an owner during the microchip process.

The court will look at that name to help them decide who the dog’s proper owner is.

Is the Dog a Purebred?

One last aspect that may concern your pet is its status as a purebred. If it is, you should register your pet with the American Kennel Club. During this registration process, you’ll again have to submit your name as the dog’s owner. The court will examine this name when determining legal ownership.

How Can You Transfer Ownership of a Dog?

Transfering ownership of a dog
A cute little dog wants to go outside to play with his owner

If you are the primary owner of a dog and you want to transfer ownership to someone else, there are a few steps that you’ll need to take.

First you need to establish that you are indeed the owner. You obviously can’t transfer ownership of a dog unless you’re the legal owner.

To establish this, you should download an ownership transfer form and sign it. The owner should also draft a bill of sale, which should include any microchip number. That bill of sale should then be given to the person who is taking ownership of the dog.

You’ll also need to contact the dog’s vet. The veterinarian will need to sign a letter that states who the new owner of the dog is. In that letter, the microchip number should also be included.

Finally, you’ll need the license as well as vaccination records that display the microchip number.

It should be noted that vet bills alone aren’t proof of dog ownership.

Depending on where the new owner is acquiring the dog — from you or a shelter, you may need to pay a transfer fee. In the case of a rescue or shelter, the fee can sometimes be waived.

There likely won’t be any extra fees for a simple transfer of ownership, e.g. from you to someone else.

If the previous owner died, then you’ll need a death certificate to prove it.

Are Dogs Considered Property?

Are dogs considered property?
Curious white dog at her owner’s side

When you buy a dog, it’s difficult to think of them as property like your car or house. Yet, in the eyes of the law, pets are considered property.

Someone who has been emotionally invested in their dog might face heartbreak if they weren’t the one who signed the registration form(s) or took them to the vet. While you may consider your pet an actual member of the family, they’re still considered property.

How Much Time Must Pass for a Dog to Be Considered Abandoned?

In cases where a dog is left at the vet’s office, for example, a certain amount of time can pass before it is considered abandoned. When that happens, the vet can place a lien on it. This allows them to sell the dog, euthanize it, or give it to a rescue or animal shelter.

If a vet places a lien on the dog, it has to wait between 10 and 20 days for the dog to be considered abandoned. After that period has passed, they’re within their rights to do what they need to do with the dog.

Depending on what state you’re in, this length of time may be longer or shorter. Local pet laws may also determine what a vet can do with a dog after it has been considered abandoned.

It’s actually illegal to abandon a dog. You can be hit with some unpleasant fines, which can sometimes be as high as $500. You’ll also be charged with a simple misdemeanor.

To avoid this, you should ensure that you are legally transferring your dog’s ownership to someone else.

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Can Animal Control Take Your Dog Away?

If your dog bites another person, animal control may be called to take the dog away. If your dog isn’t licensed, animal control will almost definitely take the dog away.

Animal control can take your dog away even if it isn’t doing anything harmful. For instance, if your dog doesn’t have a license it shouldn’t be outside. Otherwise — believe it or not — in some states it’s viewed as a wild animal and can be seized.

In certain states, if animal control cannot seize your dog, officers are given the right to terminate the dog on the spot. This is typically done if your dog presents itself as a danger.

Once the dog is taken, you have five days to claim it. Otherwise, the shelter can terminate the dog. In some cases, rescues and other shelters may be able to seize your dog to save its life. However, if animal control takes your dog, then you must pick him up.

Final Thoughts

The bottom line: be proactive and take action. If your dog means a lot to you, follow the guidance above and ensure, in the eyes of the law, you’re the legal owner.

"If you think dogs can’t count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and then give him only two."
-- Phil Pastoret

7 thoughts on “What Determines Dog Ownership: How Courts Decide”

  1. Hi my co-worker got a dog for her grandpa from an individual that rescues stray dogs and finds them homes. This dog was found in January in the snows with a bad ear infection. My co-worker and her grandpa took the dog to a vet, that vet scanned the dog for a chip and was told there was no information on the chip. My co-workers grandpa was also told that the dog had an ear infection. The grandpa paid for treatment and medication. They then returned to their home and the ear infection had not resolved so the grandpa took the dog to another vet. This vet scanned the dog again and it turns out the microchip actually had the owners information. The previous owner now wishes to claim the dog. The dog in question has been fed, taken care and given medical attention by the grandpa since January 2020 does previous owner still have a right to the dog?

    1. Me and my partner have separated and have two dogs. They’re both registered in the vets in my name and I’ve paid for there medical records since day one. She’s trying to say she has a claim to him as it’s hers and gone as far as to cancel a vet appointment for him to try set her own up. Is she allowed to just take him or can him keep him as I don’t want to separate them. They’ve been together since birth and need each other

  2. I would say yes. The first vet either did not scan and said he but the dog was chipped. There could be many reasons why the dog was lost. Return the dog and have the people pay for your vet visits.

  3. A registered non-profit organization receives dogs from kill shelters in other states, rehabbing them and then putting them up for adoption. This process is all done legally. Some of the dogs go up for adoption in a few months, some are pregnant and must have litters, whelp pups, etc and are be with the group for many months, some have serious behavior or health problems and are with the group for 2 years or more. My question is: Who legally owns the dogs between the time that they are turned over to this organization and the time that they are adopted? Is their ownership in the name of the organization?

  4. A friend of mines dog went missing after a house fire, the dog was missing for just under a year, when they finally found it a shelter had sold him to another family. The dog was trained in show and had numerous titles, and the new owners have even admitted there is no mistaking its the same dog, yet are refusing to give him back, would the law side with my friend?

  5. My son broke off his relationship and the girlfriend moved out. Feeling guilty, he allowed her to continue seeing the dog for emotional support. They “shared” the dog for almost a year. Now, he’s in a new relationship and planning to move to another state. He told the Ex, and she has decided to keep the dog, stating that the dog is better off with her. She had a lawyer draw up a contract for him to sign giving up all ownership of the dog. Of course, he refused. Now, he has filed to take her to court. The dog was a gift to my son from us and the Ex for Christmas. Everything, i.e. license, vet records, microchip, AKC papers, are ALL in his name only. With the current pandemic, court cases are taking extra long. I’m considering asking friends and family to write statements affirming that the dog belongs to him. Any advice?

  6. My girlfriend and I have been together for almost 4 years.
    She’s amazing, but truthfully, if we ever broke up and I had to give up my dog to her, I’d lose my mind. I had no idea dog ownership was so involved.
    The next time we go to the vet, I’m paying! 😉

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