Found a Stray? The Facts of Pet Ownership

By Jesse Boyce, Field Operations Manager/Humane Officer

“I’m not giving her up, she’s my dog now. I’ve had her for over 30 days,” the gentleman says after I identify the actual dog owner via an implanted microchip.

I already know the answer before I ask the question, but I ask anyway.

“Who told you that the dog becomes yours if you keep it for more than 30 days?”

“They did,” he says.

If I didn’t know better, I’d have sworn storm clouds were, in that moment, filling the horizon behind me.

They. It’s always “they.” Throughout the last couple of decades, I have yet to uncover the members of this secretive group that started the rumor – that finding a stray animal becomes your property, as long as you’ve had it for an increment of time. The amount is always in constants of three: 3 days, 3 weeks, 30 days, etc.

What follows is always a repetitive discussion. I explain the same thing in different words until the person I am speaking to comes to the realization that whatever “they” told them about pet ownership is not how it actually works.

Here’s how pet ownership works in the state of California:
Pets that can be legally owned are considered personal property. Your TV, your car, your clothes, your wallet, and everything else you own that is movable, is personal property. This includes your pet.

If you’re out walking and find a bag full of money, it doesn’t become yours after a certain period of time. The same goes for stray domestic animals.

The only legal way to take ownership of a stray domestic animal (thus preventing the original owner from reclaiming their pet, or claiming you stole it) is by adopting from an animal control agency or rescue organization that has taken the stray animal from an animal control agency after it has served a mandated stray holding period.

There are no laws to support any exceptions to this rule, and there is the potential for “your new pet” to end up with its rightful owner if the person demands it, and is willing to go to court.

I am by no means a lawyer, nor am I giving legal advice (property laws fall outside of animal control/pound services’ jurisdiction), but what I’ve seen and read regarding who gets to keep Fido, when it comes to civil court rulings, depends on if all reasonable efforts were made to locate the owner. “All reasonable efforts” could include, but may not be limited to, the following:

  • Posting in various online lost/found pet directories/forums like Facebook groups, Neighborhood apps, websites such as FindingRover, etc.
  • Making “found pet” posters and posting them around your neighborhood and the neighborhood where you found the stray animal.
  • Filing a found pet report with your local animal control agency and browsing through their lost pet logs.
  • Having the pet scanned for a microchip at a vet or a shelter. If a microchip is found, it is your obligation to deliver the pet to your local animal control agency to have them try to contact the owner and return the pet. You are able to adopt the pet if no owner comes forward and it serves the warranted stray holding period. This is the most sure-fire way to secure yourself as the pet’s owner!

If your local animal control agency refuses to take the pet and it has a registered microchip, attempt to contact all individuals registered with that chip by phone, mail and email (if listed). I’d also document if an animal control agency declined to take the animal from you. Something in writing or on a recording would be your best option.

In addition, I recommend keeping all bills associated with caring for the pet, as this may have the potential of allowing you to place a lien, a form of security interest granted over an item of property to secure debt payment, on the pet. The owner may be required to pay within a certain time frame or forfeit their rights to the pet.