Stray Animals: Ownership and Regulations

January 29, 2021Zihao Yu


According to the definition in Cambridge Dictionary or Merriam-Webster of stray, stray (noun.) is “a domestic animal that is wandering at large or is lost” or “a pet that no longer has a home or cannot find its home:”, and stray (adj.) is “having strayed or escaped from a proper or intended place.” A stray animal is a domestic animal who has escaped from his/her owner or has been abandoned. The law with regard to stray animal covers the ownership distribution, animal control, and animal shelter.

For instance, Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada, has the Stray Animal Act. California, the US, has the AB-2791 Stray animals: impoundment: puppies: kittens (Assembly Bill No. 2791 CHAPTER 194). Ohio has Chapter 951: ANIMALS RUNNING AT LARGE; STRAYS. Brazilian City of Sao Paulo has the Sao Paulo State Law n. 12.916, concerning stray dogs and cats.

The law has a variety of expression for stray animals, such as “dogs, cats, and ferrets running at large,” “any dog not having a tag or plate on a collar about its neck or on a harness on its body as provided by law or which is not confined or controlled,” or “any unlicensed dog found running at large or found upon any public highway, street, alley, court, place, square, or grounds, or upon any unfenced lot, or not within a sufficient enclosure.” The common definition is “an animal running at large without license, collar or harness, or tag.”

Definitions of stray dogs are inherently problematic and judgments regarding when a dog is considered to be a stray vary from country to country and may be subject to local and national regulations. Indeed any dog, found unaccompanied by a responsible person in a public place may, in some countries, be considered as stray and collected accordingly. Conversely, at the other end of the scale, unwanted dogs; dogs, whose owners have revoked all caregiving responsibilities, may, if they survive for long enough, be able to reproduce and rear young. The relationship between cats and their caretakers is intrinsically different to dogs, although the same set of associations may apply but to varying degrees (Table 1). Indeed cats can and will change lifestyles during their lifespan.

Learn more information here.

"STRAY CATS" by Neal. is licensed under CC BY 2.0


It does not have an easy legal answer if the companion animal runs away without any tags. Unlike cruelty laws or impound laws, nor the state appears to directly address the issue of lost pets in its statutory code. Indeed, while many states define dogs and cats as the personal property of their owners by statute, these states exclude domestic animals from their lost property statutes. This is ironic considering the understood value we place upon companion animals in our society and the level of regulation states apply to animals.

The common law (the law that developed as a result of court decisions) generally holds that a finder of lost property has rights superior to anyone else in the property, except the true owner. Dogs and other companion animals are considered the personal property of their owners. Thus, the short legal answer to the question above provides that if a rightful owner finds his or her dog, he or she then can assert ownership. The reality that a court may consider other factors, such as how long the person who finds the dog has cared for it, the efforts that have been made by the original owner, and the relative "value" each party has invested in the dog in terms of veterinary or other care.

One important distinction must be made first when considering this legal question; that is, what is the status of the "finder?" Is the person who finds the dog an agent of the state (i.e., a local sheriff, animal control officer, or other law enforcement agent) or is the person a private party?  The answer to this question will determine both the procedure for dealing with a lost pet and, most significantly, the time frame an owner has to recover his or her pet.  In this discussion, both the status of a lost dog when the finder is a private individual and when the finder is a state agency will be addressed. Read more here.

When losing the animals, the owners still have the rights to the animal. Every pet owner knows that a pet is a treasured member of the family, but pets are considered property under the law. No one may maliciously harm or steal your pet without facing legal action. Rights as a pet owner also apply if the dog is lost and picked up by local authorities. Learn more here.

Delaware defines a “keeper” of a stray cat as any person who has possession of or control over the animal and has fed the cat for three or more consecutive days. 3 Del. C. § 8217. The statute further defines “keepers” as “owners.”

At the same time, the level of control exercised by feral cat keepers and caretakers is often significantly less than the control exercised by an owner of a domestic housecat. Someone who cares for a feral cat is likely to limit her activity to feeding, watering, and in some cases spaying or neutering the animal. She is unlikely to provide shelter or regular veterinary care, and she would presumably be less likely to assert ownership over the cat or try to keep it from straying. And a feral cat, generally speaking, is less likely to be tame than a domestic housecat. Therefore, feral cats do not quite fit within the common understanding of domestic cat ownership.

In another case, a New York state trial court held that a store owner could be liable for personal injuries caused by a stray or feral cat in the store. Fiori v. Conway Org. , 746 N.Y.S.2d 747, 750 (N.Y. App. Div. Dec. 14, 2001). In Fiori, a customer sued a store owner after the customer was attacked by a cat that had taken up residence in the store and was being fed by store employees. The plaintiff argued that the store owner was liable under a common law negligence theory for breaching his duty to provide a safe environment for customers. The court accepted the plaintiff's claim that the aggressive tendencies of stray and feral cats pose certain risks that domestic housecats do not, especially when they are cornered by humans. It could be foreseeable, then, that a stray or feral cat in a store could injure customers who came on the premises. Based on these unique risks, the court articulated a limited exception to the general rule that the negligence standard does not apply to injuries caused by domestic animals, holding that the store owner could be liable for failing to maintain safe premises for his customers.

Generally speaking, lost pet disputes arise when a pet wanders away from home and is killed, injured, or adopted. The original owner of the pet wants it back or wants compensation for injury. The person who found or adopted the pet thinks their conduct was justified and they do not owe anything to the original owner. The law arbitrates such disputes and the outcome will depend on the state, the parties involved, and the particular facts of the case.

In one type of dispute, someone takes care of a lost pet and refuses to give it up when the owner discovers its whereabouts. Another type of dispute is one where a party kills or injures a lost pet and the original owner sues for money damages. The final type of dispute worthy of discussion involves the relationship between the adopter of a lost pet and third parties. Read more here.

More case law please see here.

"Stray Dog" by courtney_80 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Animal Control and Treatment

Rabies is a virus that is usually transmitted through the bite of a rabid animal, although it can also be transmitted through aerosolization. Vaccination programs, the elimination of stray animals, and strict quarantine procedures have reduced the number of rabies infections in the developed world, although it remains a serious concern in underdeveloped countries, accounting for almost 33 000 deaths per year (Baer, 1998; Bleck and Rupprecht, 2000; Murray et al., 2002, 2013). For additional information see

In order to avoid rabies, it is required to avoid feeding or handling wild or stray animals. For more information on animal bite prevention see here.

According to one source, the law in Texas prohibiting cruelty to animals did not specifically protect feral cats until 2007. Jeremy Masten, Note, Don’t Feed the Animals: Queso’s Law and How the Texas Legislature Abandoned Stray Animals, a Comment on H.B.2328 and the New Tex. Penal Code § 42.092, 60 Baylor L. Rev. 964, 973–74 (Fall 2008). As a result, many criminal defendants who were arrested on animal cruelty charges were acquitted because their alleged crimes had been committed against feral animals. Arguably, the Texas statute already protected feral cats, since it protected “domesticated animals.” However, the failure to explicitly include feral animals in the definition of domesticated animals apparently compelled an interpretation — at least in the minds of many jurors and legislators — that those animals were excluded from the law's protection.

State or local laws affect how stray cats and dogs are treated and disposed of when they are turned into a public animal control center. Some of these animals are owner drop-offs from individuals who no longer want or can no longer keep their cat or dog. But more often, animals come into an animal control facility because they are reported as strays — roaming at large — in the community.

Once animals come into an animal control facility and have been checked for identifying tags or microchips, they are assessed for health and temperament and are generally warehoused until a statutory waiting period expires. This waiting period, typically between 3-10 days, is the minimum time an animal control facility must keep animals before they can consider their disposition. This gives owners whose dogs or cats have run away an opportunity to reclaim their animals.

Animal control facilities are generally overcrowded, however, and are eager to dispose of stray animals coming through their doors. The general policy, therefore, is that once animals have been kept for the minimum waiting period without being redeemed, they are free to be disposed of as seen fit. Disposition can mean adoption, sale, transfer, or even euthanasia. Many animal control facilities have their own adoption facilities or work with a local shelter or rescue group to facilitate the process.

More to see here.

In India, here are some very important laws for street animals in India that people should be aware of. It is not illegal to feed stray animals, to poison stray animals, to cause harm to stray animals, to deliberately starve street dogs or take away their shelter, and to display stray monkeys as means of entertainment. Government issues IDs to people who feed stray animals. It is against the law to relocate stray animals from their territory. Capturing them against their will is against the law. Proper documentation is required for the buying/sale of cattle. Read more here.

Holding period laws are state requirements that determine how long an impounded animal must be “held” before it is able to be released or euthanized. Typically, these laws give owners anywhere between three and ten days to redeem the animal before the animal can be placed for adoption, sold, or euthanized. The majority of states require a holding period of three to five days. In all of the states withholding laws, the decision of what happens to the animal after the holding period has passed is left solely up to the animal shelter or organization that has impounded the animal. For example, the Arizona A.R.S. § 11-1013 is for dogs and cats considered to be stray animals, and California’s West's Ann. Cal. Food & Agric.Code § 31752 (Cats) and West's Ann. Cal. Food & Agric. Code § 31108 (Dogs)  are for stray cats and dogs. In Maine, 7 M.R.S.A. § 3913, the law applies if the dog is considered to be a stray dog (roaming at large) and it does not apply to dogs that are “obviously abandoned.”

Responding shelters were asked to identify the types of medical services they had in place to offer animals within the shelter (Table 4.8). Almost all of the shelters always document all medical care, assess the health of the animals at intake, and provide core vaccines and parasite prevention in accordance with best practice guidelines. Most also provide rabies vaccination, necessary grooming, use modified live viruses, and have emergency medical and disease response plans in place. The provision of basic vaccines and parasite prevention assures that the chances of disease transmission in the shelter will be minimized.

Some animal medical issues such as rabies, parasites, and leptospirosis can also be transmitted to humans, thus vaccinations help protect public health. Outbreaks of disease in shelters are common for a variety of reasons including the intake of stray animals, transfer programs from areas with high rates of diseases such as parvo, and the need to admit animals from hoarding situations where their health status can be compromised. DACC’s emergency medical plan led to national recognition by leaders in shelter medicine for their handling of an emerging pneumovirus contagion in 2016. More to see here.


People raise domestic animals as companions and should bear the responsibility of raising them. Due to the negligence of the owner, the abandoned or lost animals became stray animals. The treatment of the stray animals shall be humane and ensure the minimum level of care of the animal welfare. After all, it is not all their fault.


Read more:The Animal Law Resource Center provides the Model Law for stray dogs as the Act to Prevent Dogs from Running At Large;Lost and Found: Humane Societies' Rights and Obligations Regarding Companion Animal Ownership
For more questions and answers, please check the Q&A on Lost Pets by Christopher A. Berry here or Frequently Asked Questions on Local Dog Laws by Rebecca F. Wisch here.

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