What Exactly Determines the Ownership of a Dog

Pet Love


May 18, 2020

The topic of dog ownership is an interesting one. The general idea is that whoever the dog is currently living with, is the owner. From a legal standpoint, though, the truth is not so straightforward. There are several factors to consider when determining true effectual ownership of a dog.

What follows is a basic overview of the main legal factors in determining dog ownership. It should be evident that this article is not a substitute for legal counsel, and the laws vary by country. For the purposes of this article, we will be looking at United States law. However, you should always consult a lawyer before taking any action.  

What Determines Dog Ownership

This is something that most people don’t think about until they need to. Seen most often during relationship breakups, divorces, and other family disputes, this is when true legal dog ownership really matters. It’s is also when lines can start to blur, because different people may fulfill different ownership roles in caring for the dog.

In general, a court judge will decide on ownership based on several factors. The most important thing to remember when dealing with dog ownership law is that the law sees dogs as personal property, not as members of a house or family.

While viewing our furry friends as property may be difficult, it’s vital when making a case for legal ownership of a dog. Here are the main points that a court will consider when ruling on legal ownership of a dog:   

  • The dog’s registered license

Obviously, the number one determinant of dog ownership is the actual license papers. The name on those papers will specify the de-facto owner of the dog. The act of filing a license and paying the fee demonstrates a willingness to “claim” the dog.   

  • Veterinary Records

Failing a valid registered license, or if there are other unforeseen circumstances, a judge can also take veterinary records into consideration. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, a court order can unseal veterinary records, which can be used to determine ownership. The logic behind this is that the person who is actively taking care of the dog can be deemed its owner.   

  • Microchip Data

While an ID collar can be easily removed or altered, a microchip tag is nowhere near as easy to tamper with. While not entirely immune to sabotage, when all else fails, the data stored within the tag can identify at least the last-known owner of the dog. In fact, in some parts of the world such as Scotland and England, it is required by law that all pets be microchipped

Currently, nine states require animal shelters and clinics to scan for microchips in any lost pets they encounter. Hopefully, this requirement will increase and make returning lost pets to their owner easier.   

  • Historical Evidence

If none of the above is available, the court will usually fall back on historical evidence. In the case of a dog, this usually means photos or videos of the animal with its owner.   

  • Other Factors

All of the information above is taken into legal consideration when determining ownership of a dog. However, this isn’t the whole story, either. Even though pets are considered property, the court may also take living conditions into consideration. The Canine Journal notes that a court can consider factors such as evidence of abuse or neglect, as well as financial capabilities. The party better able to care for the needs of the dog (such as vaccines, veterinary care, etc.) is preferred in these cases. After all, there is little point in ruling that a dog stays with someone who’s unable to care for or would likely abandon them.  

How to Safe-Guard Dog Ownership

Knowing all of this then, how can you safeguard your rights to ownership of your dog? There are a few ways, and it all depends on your specific circumstances. While it’s impossible to cover every conceivable scenario, we will cover the basics. Again, always consult your legal representative.   

  • Take care of the basics first

The first steps you should take are to do the things mentioned earlier in this article! Register your dog license, and get your precious pup microchipped. Depending on your state law, these things are required anyway, but you’d be surprised how many people try to avoid the fees and ignore the law. Not only does ignoring the law result in fines and other penalties, but it also makes proving your ownership much more difficult when the need arises.

Additionally, even if you aren’t one to saturate social media with pictures of your pooch, take a few snapshots just to establish a record. It will come in handy to prove ownership, and also if your dog ever gets lost.   

  • Consider a contract

As mentioned earlier, many dog ownership disputes stem from relationship issues such as a breakup or divorce. In these unfortunate scenarios, a dog ownership contract can make things clear and indisputable from a legal standpoint. While it may sound silly, during times when emotions are already running high, this can be one less thing to battle over. As mentioned at the beginning, since pets are treated as personal property, any legal contract specifying ownership will be legally binding in a court of law.

For this to be fully legal, have a qualified legal professional draw up the contract and cover all of the necessary bases. Also, make sure that all concerned parties sign the contract. A signature means agreement, so if someone’s signature is absent, they are not bound by the contract! 

The Emotional Controversy

Because we tend to form such close bonds with our dogs, it can be emotionally distressing to think of them no different than a piece of furniture or other property. However, when thinking in legal terms, such a perspective is required to do things properly. Taking the necessary steps ahead of time, before a dispute arises can save us a lot of heartaches later on. No one wants to be required to fight for the right to care for their dog, and certainly, no one wants to lose ownership altogether!

In recent years, there has been some progress made in changing the law to see pets as family members rather than merely property. One interesting case from Florida involved ex-spouses petitioning a court for joint custody of their dog. This went on for a while because it was so unusual, and the Florida court granted alternating-month custody to the wife. This is the exception to the rule, however. While there have been certain advances in the legal status of dogs regarding ownership, one should not expect this to happen every time. Basic ownership law still applies, and you should still be prepared for the cold label of “property” being applied in dog ownership disputes.  


When deciding what determines dog ownership, you need to think more like a member of the bar, and less as a member of the family. It may be painful at the time, but it will end-up sparing you a lot more pain should a challenge of ownership arise.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to evidence and circumstances. Hopefully, you will never need to enter a courtroom to prove the ownership of your four-legged buddy. If you do, though, we hope the information here has been useful to you.