Getting a Dog: Legal Considerations

Before you get a dog, learn the legal requirements in your area for licensing, spaying or neutering your pet, and vaccinations.

By , Attorney (University of Denver Sturm College of Law)

If you're thinking about getting a dog, you should first learn the legal requirements for where you live, including licensing, spay-neuter, and vaccination laws. You need to know about these dog laws so you can become a responsible owner.

It's also a good idea to consider whether you should buy optional pet insurance.

Do I Need to Get a Dog License?

In many areas of the country, you must license your dog. Typically, a dog license costs around $10 to $20 per year, more if the dog isn't spayed or neutered. If you get caught without a license, you'll probably have to pay a fine. Also, licensed dogs are more easily returned to their owners if animal control impounds them.

To find out the licensing requirements where you live, check with your city government or local humane society.

Spay-Neuter Laws

This country has millions of unwanted pets. The number is staggering, and so are the problems they create. Stray dogs can spread disease, bite people, attack livestock and pets, and cause traffic accidents.

Some of the ways that states and municipalities attack the problem of pet overpopulation are:

  • by imposing spay-neuter laws for animals adopted from shelters or rescue organizations, and
  • requiring owners with unaltered pets to buy a special permit.

Animals Adopted from Shelters or Rescue Organizations

Many state statutes require shelters and animal rescue organizations to sterilize all animals before releasing them for adoption. If a dog isn't sterilized before it's released for adoption, the new owner might have to sign a contract agreeing to spay or neuter the animal and put down a deposit, which can be reclaimed after spaying or neutering.

In Colorado, for instance, state law requires a licensed veterinarian to sterilize an animal before adoption or the adopter has to sign an agreement agreeing to sterilize the animal within 90 days and pay a deposit fee to the shelter or rescue. The deposit is refunded when the adopter provides proof that the sterilization procedure was completed. If the adopter fails to provide proof of sterilization, the deposit is forfeited and the animal shelter or pet rescue may reclaim the animal from the prospective owner.

Mandatory Spay-Neuter Laws

Some states and municipalities have laws that require pets to be spayed or neutered unless the owner acquires a special permit.

  • Denver, Colorado requires dogs over six months old to be sterilized unless their owners buy a permit each year.
  • Fort Wayne, Indiana requires a breeder's permit for people who intentionally or accidentally allow their dog to breed.
  • San Mateo County, California requires all dogs over six months old to be spayed or neutered, unless the owner gets either a license to keep an unaltered dog or a license and permit for breeding. (Though not all cities in San Mateo County allow breeding and breeder permits.)

Groups opposed to mandatory spay-neuter laws; however, point out that some cities have experienced a decline in pet licensing after enacting such laws, apparently because owners don't want to pay the higher fee for unsterilized animals.

Required Vaccinations for Your Dog

Many states have laws that require dogs to be vaccinated against rabies, a rare but not unheard of disease in domestic animals. Other states delegate regulation of rabies vaccines to local governments such as counties. And in some states, a rabies vaccination is a requirement for importing a dog into the state.​ For instance, if you want to take your dog to Hawaii, the dog must have received at least two rabies vaccinations, the most recent one not less than 90 days before arriving in Hawaii, and a blood sample, identified by the microchip ID number, must have been tested for rabies antibodies 120 days to 36 months before the dog arrives in the state.

Usually, you must have proof that your dog has an up-to-date rabies vaccination to get a dog license. Vaccines that last for three years are available for dogs more than four months old, making compliance easy. Many cities offer low-cost vaccinations at permanent clinics or special one-day clinics where owners merely have to show up to get pets vaccinated.

Other core vaccines, which usually aren't legally required, but are highly recommended, include vaccines for: canine parvovirus, canine distemper virus, and canine adenovirus (hepatitis).

Health Insurance for Dogs

While not legally required, something to consider is whether you should buy health insurance for your pet. Surgery or other procedures can cost thousands. So, one reason for getting insurance is that it reduces the chances that you'll have to put a dollar value on the life of your pet. That unhappy task can arise if you are forced to choose between paying for the sophisticated and costly procedures now available—laser treatment, CAT scans, chemotherapy—or euthanizing a dog that might be saved.

The amount of the premium typically depends on the coverage you choose, where you live, and the dog's age. Certain costs are generally not covered: congenital or hereditary defects, vaccinations, elective procedures, flea and heartworm prevention, teeth cleaning, and conditions present before the policy's effective date. Before you sign up, read the actual policy carefully and be sure you understand all the fine print.

Learning More

To learn more about getting and keeping a dog, like how many dogs you can keep and leash laws, see Nolo's Neighborhood Dogs and Buying Pets topic areas.

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