The government has broad powers to pick up, impound, and sometimes destroy dogs when the animals are a threat, are running loose, or are being abused by their owners. Still, there are limits on those powers. In this article we'll discuss:
Officials may generally pick up any dogs that are running loose and out of their owners' sight, but the specific requirements vary depending on where you live.
In many states, authorities are required to seize unlicensed and loose dogs. In New York, for example, officers must impound any unidentified dog that is not on its owner's property. They're also required to impound all unlicensed dogs, even when those dogs are on their owners' property.
Just having a license for your dog doesn't mean it can never be seized. In New York, officers are required to impound even licensed dogs if:
It's important to act quickly if your dog has been impounded, because the authorities usually only keep animals for a short time. North Carolina, for example, requires a holding period of only 72 hours, after which shelters may euthanize impounded animals.
You can reduce the chance that your dog will be impounded—and make it easier to get an impounded dog back—by making sure it's licensed, that its vaccinations are up-to-date, and that it's wearing tags.
Owners who make sure their pets wear license tags are less likely to have them impounded. In Minnesota, for instance, both the police and private citizens are entitled to assume that a dog without a license tag is not licensed at all. The police are required to pick up unlicensed dogs, and private citizens are allowed to turn unlicensed dogs over to the authorities.
Remember, too, that animal control or police officers may end up harming or killing a dog once they're called upon to seize it. The law in Kentucky illustrates this kind of danger. Kentucky law enforcement and animal control officers are required to seize and impound any dog that does not have "legible identification" and is "running at large." If they're unable to seize the dog after making a reasonable effort to do so, the law authorizes them to humanely kill the animal. (We'll talk more below about what happens when the authorities kill people's pets.)
It's easier for shelters to return tagged (and chipped) dogs to their owners. According to California law, for example, shelters have to scan impounded dogs for identifying microchips and make "reasonable efforts" to contact their owners. On the other hand, if your dog can't be identified your only option will be to check with local shelters online, over the phone, or in person.
Shelters often keep licensed dogs longer. In Oregon, for instance, licensed dogs must be kept at least five days, while dogs without a license or ID tag only have to be kept two days.
It can be more expensive for owners to reclaim unlicensed dogs. Owners usually have to pay a fine to reclaim their dogs. The fine is often minimal, but it can be significant in some states. Some jurisdictions, like Harris County, Texas (where Houston is located), charge higher fees to pet owners whose animals are unlicensed, unvaccinated, or both. Many animal control agencies also charge owners a fee for each day their pet is impounded. Owners can be reunited with their pets more quickly, and therefore pay less money, by making sure their animals are chipped or tagged.
If you can't reclaim your dog quickly, you may lose it to a new owner. As we mentioned above, dogs that remain impounded for more than a few days are at risk of being euthanized. But even when that worst-case-scenario is avoided, it's possible your dog could be permanently adopted by someone else.
In a Georgia case, for example, a purebred dog was picked up wandering without a license or vaccination tag. The shelter kept it for nine days and then placed it for adoption. When the owner finally found out, he sued the shelter in an effort to get the dog back, or get compensation for its value. The court threw out his lawsuit, finding that the shelter had properly used its power to dispose of stray dogs.
State animal cruelty laws generally give officials the authority to take control of mistreated or neglected dogs. Typically, animal control officers need to apply for a warrant first, but some state laws allow seizures without warrants when the officers have probable cause to believe (or even just a reasonable suspicion) that the animals are in immediate danger of harm.
Either way, the owner should be notified of the seizure and should have the chance to fight the charges at a hearing. If the court orders temporary custody of the animal during the criminal proceedings, the owner will usually have to pay a bond to cover the costs of taking care of the dog. In some states, including Oklahoma, someone who's found guilty of animal cruelty will automatically lose ownership of the dog.
Under the dangerous-dog laws in many states, animal control officers may also impound a dog after determining that it's a risk to the public. A dog could be declared dangerous if it has bitten or attacked someone without provocation, behaved in a threatening way, or attacked other animals. These laws usually include provisions for ordering dangerous dogs euthanized in certain circumstances.
Because animals are considered property under the law, their owners have certain constitutional rights before they're taken away. These include:
In general, this means that:
When government agencies seize or kills dogs without following these guidelines, owners may be able to sue for violations of their constitutional rights. In a New York case, authorities took a dog into custody after it attacked another dog. Almost immediately following a dangerous-dog hearing, the hearing officer ordered the animal euthanized. The owner only learned of that decision in a phone call just before his dog was killed, and his attorney didn't receive official notice until three days later.
The owner sued the city, and a federal court found that officials had violated his right to due process by:
The court's legal analysis treated the dog as property that had been unfairly taken from its owner. But the court also noted that pets have unique personalities and can provide "invaluable love, friendship, and companionship," which makes them different from property that can simply be replaced.
Even when there's no constitutional violation, a court can still rule that the authorities were wrong to decide that a dog should be killed. For example, the Nebraska Supreme Court overruled a county court's order to euthanize a dog, finding the order was unreasonable in light of the evidence. In that case witnesses—including the dog's veterinarian and the county sheriff—had testified that they didn't think the dog was dangerous. The owners had also taken extraordinary steps (including installing a $20,000 six-foot-high fence) to prevent the dog from escaping the yard and hurting anyone.
When law enforcement officers come to a home to make an arrest or investigate a report of criminal activity, they often shoot dogs that lunge at the officers or just bark aggressively in response to the intrusion. Courts have consistently found that dog owners have a Fourth Amendment right not to have their animals killed unreasonably in these situations. Doing so violates the constitutional protection against unreasonable seizures.
But what's unreasonable? Many courts have found that killing a dog is reasonable only if it's unavoidable and the animal poses an immediate danger to the police officer.
In practice, though, judges tend to defer to law enforcement officers who testify that it was necessary to shoot a dog. For example, a federal appellate court ruled that Michigan police were justified in killing two pit bulls during a drug raid. The court relied upon the officers' testimony that the dogs were barking aggressively, and that one of the dogs lunged at the officers when they entered the house.
But that doesn't mean courts will always accept police officers' assertions that they had no choice but to kill someone's dogs. For example, another federal court found that police officers violated dog owners' Fourth Amendment rights by shooting their dogs, who were growling and advancing as the officers entered two different properties. The court rejected the officers' argument that they had no choice but to shoot the dogs. It pointed to the fact that the officers had known for a week that there would be guard dogs at the properties, but still didn't try to make a plan to either avoid the dogs or subdue them without killing them.
If your dog has been impounded, or accused of violent or threatening behavior, you can read more about your legal options. It may also be helpful to speak with a lawyer. If you believe your dog was seized or killed in violation of the law or your constitutional rights, an attorney experienced in animal law or civil rights law may be able to advise you on the best way to proceed. Learn more about suing the government for civil rights violations, and about how to make sure you choose the right attorney for your case.