Full Title Name:  Brief Summary of Local and State Dog Laws

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Rebecca F. Wisch Place of Publication:  Michigan State University College of Law Publish Year:  2004 Primary Citation:  Animal Legal & Historical Center

This summary examines the nature and authority of state and local dog laws. It also describes the general subjects included in dog laws, such as loose dogs and impoundment procedures. The concept of preemption of local laws is also defined.


"What are my state's Dog Laws?"

If the number of laws affecting dogs is any reflection of the importance we place on them in society, then quite clearly dogs are significant.  In all reality, the number and breadth of dog laws reflects more of an emphasis on protecting people and property from harm.   Dogs, like any other form of property in the legal system, may be regulated to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the people.

The ability to regulate dogs stems from the “police power” a state enjoys to enact laws for the protection of its citizens.   This authority allows states to make laws that deal with the health and general well-being of its citizens.   This authority is then either directly given to local municipalities (cities, towns, and counties) or is given by implication (the state provides in its laws that the power of a city to regulate is not restricted).   In any event, the power to regulate domestic animals like dogs is usually unlimited.

One of the primary limitations on dog regulations by a local government is state law.   This concept, known as preemption, provides that a higher law (state or federal) preempts, or trumps, the local law dealing with the same subject.   Sometimes laws may concurrently regulate a subject, or both laws may regulate the same subject without any conflict.   However, the problem arises when a local unit tries to regulate some aspect that state law has either said is only a state matter.   A court will then invalidate the local law because it attempts to regulate an exclusive state area.   With dogs, this occurs most frequently when a local government makes laws in a subject that is heavily regulated, such as the procedures involving dangerous dogs or health measures dealing with rabid dogs.   States will give great deference, or respect, to lower laws because local laws are important in dealing with issues particular to a municipality.   It would be difficult for a state to try to regulate all the different municipalities with the various issues each faces.

Local dog laws, often called ordinances, involve a variety of subjects, including licensing, vaccination, leash laws, the number of dogs a person may keep, and procedures for impounding dogs.   Some states even mandate, or require, local governments to make ordinances for licensing of dogs or other dog matters.  It is subject of impounding dogs that usually brings the most controversy, as owners face the potential loss of a beloved family pet.

Dogs may be impounded under law for a variety of reasons.  The most common reason a dog is impounded is because it is found running loose.  Some states allow animal control officers to destroy loose dogs, especially if there is a concern that the dog is dangerous or rabid.  Most of the time, a local dog pound or animal shelter will impound a dog for five to seven days after notifying its owner.  If the owner does not retrieve his or her dog, the dog may then be placed for adoption, sold for research, or humanely euthanized.  Be sure to check your specific state law for details or contact an attorney.

Prior to this fate, most states provide that owners are entitled to receive notice of their dogs' impoundment.  This may take the form of a written notice that is mailed to the owner or a notice that is published at the animal control facility.  However, if a dog is found without dog tags or other form of identification, it is difficult to discover the owner, let alone send notice to him or her.

If a state fails to provide adequate notice before a dog is destroyed, the owner may have a claim in court.  But, it is important to keep in mind that dogs are viewed as property and, as such, damages (compensation, or payment, to correct a legal wrong) may be limited.  Also, courts are sometimes unwilling to second-guess the validity of a local law or the actions of a local law enforcement officer.  Generally, laws that dealing with impoundment and destruction of dogs must at least give a person notice of the action and an opportunity to be heard.

Local ordinances and state laws dealing with dogs attempt to strike a balance between protecting people and respecting owners' rights.  There even seems to be a greater movement by the courts in recognizing the rights of owners.  It must be remembered that a community's police powers are broad in dealing with dogs in part because an owner can control only so much of a dog's behavior.  Citizens can become involved to ensure that local governments create ordinances that attempt meet the needs of all its "citizens," human and animal.


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