Laws Regulating Rescue and Foster Care Programs for Companion Animals

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Brief Summary of the Laws Regulating Rescue and Foster Care Programs for Companion Animals
Kristen Pariser (2014)

As the popularity of companion animals in our society has increased, the number of households with pets has tripled since the 1970s. The role of our companion animals has changed over those past few decades and many Americans consider their pets to be part of the family. To take care of their pet’s essentials, Americans spent close to $56 billion last year on their pet’s food, vet care, supplies, grooming, and training needs. Although not all dogs and cats go to loving homes. Some animals become unwanted, stray or homeless, and end up in shelters. Pet overpopulation has become a problem and although shelters have worked to reduce euthanasia rates, other new methods began to spring up in the 1980s and 1990s in the form of rescue groups and foster homes.

Rescue groups and foster homes are non-profit organizations that began taking in unwanted animals with the goal of finding new, adoptive families. Rescue groups can be breed specific or may be general groups but are often managed by volunteers and funded through donations. Foster care homes are temporary placements for the animals awaiting adoption. These homes are also offered up by volunteers. Rescue groups may have a central facility with enclosures to house the animals or they may use a network of foster homes to place the animals. Rescue groups and foster care providers help to clear space in shelters, and help animals avoid euthanasia by providing additional time and care to the animals in need. Rescues and foster homes will provide medical care, training, and socialization for the animals while they wait for adoption.  

There are no national laws regulating pet rescues or foster care homes. Also, very few states define these terms in their statewide legislation. However, other general pet care facilities laws may apply to these groups. These laws may be on the state, county, or city level. To start a pet rescue or foster home, there may be licensing requirements, annual fees, record-keeping requirements, and inspections. In addition, these non-profit organizations should be aware of contractual issues, property claims involved with animals, and other laws that will impact their daily operations. Rescue and foster care programs will need to investigate their local and state laws concerning sterilization and vaccination requirements, laws on importing animals from across state lines, laws that limit the number of pets permitted on private property, zoning and nuisance laws, tethering restrictions, breed specific legislation, tort liability, and financial reimbursement for when they are involved in aiding animals during criminal animal cruelty cases.

Although there are few laws that directly regulate rescue and foster care groups, there are a small handful of laws that do. However, even with the laws in place, often there is a lack of enforcement. Issues with rescues or foster homes usually do not surface unless someone files a complaint. Until further legislation properly defines these groups and holds them to specific standards, those involved in managing rescue and foster care programs should work to hold themselves to high standards. Running an ethical non-profit is crucial to gaining and maintaining the public’s trust, which will ultimately allow these organizations to further their adoption goals.

Overview of the Laws Regulating Rescue and Foster Care Programs for Companion Animals
Kristen Pariser (2014)


The types of people who work in rescue and foster care programs are often very passionate and caring; running these organizations requires a lot of patience and access to resources. However, there has been a lack of regulations and oversight in monitoring these groups. Additional legislation defining these organizations and laws to require licensing and inspections will ensure all organizations are accountable to the animals they shelter.

Although there are few states that currently define these groups, other general laws on animal facilities may be able to be applied. The first step to becoming a rescue or a foster care provider is to be licensed. Because there is no national law regulating these organizations, the requirements will vary from one state to another, and even from one city to another. In some states, a rescue or foster home may be regulated like a commercial kennel or similar to a shelter. The organizations may be subject to inspections from the Department of Agriculture or they may opt to work under contract as an agent of the shelter. Some states will have no regulations and simply leave it up to the city or county to regulate permitting and enforcement of the rescue and foster groups.

Once the organization becomes licensed the group will need to acquire companion animals to begin their work saving and re-homing the animals. This can lead to issues because under the law animals are still considered property and can be the subject of contractual agreements. Disputes over ownership can happen. When this occurs a court will look to see if a valid contract was in place. Next, it will look at the terms of the contract and determine which party has breached those contract terms. Many shelters will contract with rescues and foster care providers and depending on how the contract is drafted, the shelter will either retain ownership of the animals or will transfer ownership over to the receiving party. A rescue group will also set up contractual agreements with their foster parent volunteers. Contracts with dog breeders can also become a problem if a rescue takes a dog surrendered by its owner when the animal should have been returned to the breeder according to its purchase contract.

Pet flipping is also becoming an animal welfare concern in the world of adoptions. Pet flipping is where someone finds a dog for adoption and then turns around and re-sells the animal for a profit. Rescue and foster groups are now considering revising pet adoption contracts to prohibit adopters from re-homing an animal once it is adopted. This as a practical matter could be difficult to enforce and retaining certain rights over the animal after it is sold can possibly leave a rescue or foster open to further liabilities.

The legal complexities however don’t just end with licensing and acquiring companion animals. Rescues and foster care providers must also abide by several other laws when operating their non-profit organization. A majority of the states have a spaying and neutering requirement that applies to both shelters and other releasing agencies. In addition, there has been a trend in animal rescue groups to travel across state lines and bring animals from high-kill shelters in the south to the north for fostering. Some northern states have instituted new laws and regulations in response, which may require quarantine, health certificates or additional veterinary inspections to help reduce the spread of contagious disease.

Many cities and counties may also have pet limit ordinances that limit how many pets an individual can keep at one given time. Courts have upheld these statutes as being constitutional, therefore, rescues that use foster homes will need to be sure that all volunteers abide by the statutes. In addition to pet limit laws, private nuisance and zoning laws can limit the number of animals that can be kept in residential zones. Rescues and fosters should also be aware of local tethering laws. Some cities may have anti-tether laws that prohibit tethering and others may permit it under limited circumstances. All rescue and foster volunteers should be sure to have the appropriate type of housing for securing the companion animals that they house.

Another issue that rescues and foster groups can run in to is breed specific legislation, which will prohibit owning and keeping certain breeds of dogs that have been deemed dangerous. Rescue groups wanting to help those breeds of dogs will have to operate outside of the city limits where breed specific legislation has been enacted.

Regardless of which dog breeds a rescue or foster group works with, it is important to have liability insurance. A majority of states have strict liability dog bite statutes, which mean that even if a rescue or foster volunteer does not intend for someone to get hurt, the owner or keeper of the dog will still be held liable for damages caused by the dog.

Lastly, animal rescues and foster care providers may be entitled to reimbursement costs when taking in and caring for sick or injured animals from cruelty situations. Authority for reimbursement can come either from state statute or a judge may order the defendant to pay restitution, even when the non-profit receives donations from the public.  

While a majority of states have not created regulatory regimes to define rescues and foster homes separately from shelters and kennels, other general laws will still apply to these groups. Rescues and fosters should follow the laws in their given jurisdiction and be aware that licensing requirements and inspections may apply. Other laws concerning contractual issues, ownership claims, sterilization and vaccination requirements, laws on importing animals from across state lines, laws that limit the number of pets permitted on private property, zoning and nuisance laws, tethering restrictions, breed specific legislation, tort liability, and financial reimbursement for when they are involved in aiding animals during criminal animal cruelty cases may impact the daily operations of these non-profits.

Related articles

Rescue Me: Legislating Cooperation Between Animal Control Authorities and Rescue Organizations, Rebecca J. Huss, 39 Conn. L. Rev. 2059 (2007).

Lost and Found: Humane Societies' Rights and Obligations Regarding Companion Animal Ownership, Patricia A. Bolen, Animal Legal & Historical Center (2005).

Related cases

Dutka v. Cassady, 2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1901 (unpublished). The “For the Love of Dogs – Rottweiler Rescue” had adopted out a dog to the defendants, the Cassady family. The family was in possession of the dog and while walking it unleashed in the neighborhood it attacked the plaintiff’s dog. The court also found at common law negligence that there is no duty of care arising from the knowledge of a dog’s dangerous propensities to warn the buyer of a dog. A rescue organization may be liable in other factual circumstances but it will not be liable in common law negligence for harm caused by a dog that it did not own, possess, harbor, or control under the facts alleged in this case.

Sixth Angel Shepherd Rescue, Inc. v. Bengal, 448 Fed. Appx. 252 (3d Cir. Pa. 2011) (unpublished). A lawsuit arose when a Pennsylvania dog rescue, Sixth Angel Shepherd Rescue, had contracted with a transporter to have several dogs from North Carolina brought to Pennsylvania. A tip to the Dog Law Enforcement suggested the vehicle and its contents were in poor condition, thus the dogs were intercepted, seized, and placed with the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PSPCA). Sixth Angel filed a lawsuit against PSPCA for state law conversion, seeking the return of three of their dogs. The court held that although Sixth Angel had made a poor selection in a contract transporter, it did not affect the rescue organization’s ownership of the dogs. By retaining possession of the dogs, the PSPCA was depriving Sixth Angel’s right to its property.

Take Me Home Rescue v. Luri, 146 Cal.Rptr.3d 461 (Cal.App. 2 Dist, 2012.). Defendant Luri appeals an injunction against her to return a foster dog that she failed to have spayed in accordance with an agreement between her and Take Me Home pet rescue organization. In finding that the trial court did not err in issuing the injunction, the court found that Take Me Home had a reasonable likelihood for success on the merits of its breach of contract claim because the original agreement was amended by a separate oral agreement that the dog would be spayed after recovering from a bout of mange. Further, in assessing the balance of harms, the court found that it favored Take Me Home. While Luri can either spay the dog or adopt a new one, the organization's "entire existence depends on its ability to place pets that it obtains from shelters in adoptive homes."

Wiederhold v. Derench, 2003 Conn. Super. LEXIS 1795, (Conn. Super. Ct. June 17, 2003) (unpublished). The owner bought a dog from a breeder and signed a contract that specifically stated she would agree to return the dog to the breeder if she could no longer care for it, and would not attempt to re-sell or re-home the dog. After the dog attacked another dog, the owner’s friend attempted to return the dog to the breeder. The breeder was busy on that particular day so the owner then sold the dog to the defendant dog breeder and co-chair of the Newfoundland Club of New England Rescue. The court found that the original breeder had not given up her contract rights.

Related laws

Colorado Pet Animal Care and Facilities Act, C.R.S.A. § 35-80-101 to 117.

Illinois definitions for “animal shelter” and “foster home,"  225 ILCS 605/2.

Pennsylvania laws regarding kennels, which includes "rescue network kennels," 3 P.S. § 459-206 et. seq.

Virginia definitions for “foster care provider" and “foster home," Va. Code. Ann. § 3.2-6500.

Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, FAQs for Rescue Groups and Shelters with links to Wisconsin's Dog Seller and Dog Facility Law,

Related Links

Web Center Links:

Breed-Specific Laws (BSL) Topical Introduction

State Spay & Netuer Laws Topical Introduction

External Links:

Fosterdogs Foster Care for Dogs Website - Page on laws affecting fostering -

Best Friends Animal Society - Managing Liability in Animal Rescue Organizations -

Humane Law Forum: Avoiding Adopter Roulette, Preventing adopters from rehoming pets into potentially unsuitable conditions, By Cherie Travis,

Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) - Sample Foster Care Agreement -

National Animal Interest Alliance (NAIA) - Ethical Issues Confront Purebred Rescue Groups, By Vicki DeGruy -

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