Animal Companions: Three Legal Issues to Consider Before You Adopt

Companion animals can be wonderful additions to a home or family. They can provide everything from companionship and cuddles to protection and play. In fact, three in five U.S. households today have at least one companion animal, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. If you’re among them or looking to join their ranks, you’ll want to be sure you’re really ready.

Most people get that keeping companion animals is a big responsibility, starting when you first begin looking for that special animal and lasting through its lifetime. They understand there will be feeding, training and visits to the veterinarian. Often, however, people overlook the legal aspects of having companion animals.

If you live in Wisconsin, here are the top legal issues you’ll need to consider.

First, when looking for an animal to purchase and/or adopt, you need to be aware of two laws relating to how animals are cared for. The first is found under Chapter 951 and sets minimum standards for animal care, such as providing a certain level of shelter, food and drink and prohibiting mistreatment and harassment. It applies to owners, third-party caretakers, shelters, breeders, pet stores and day care facilities. (Note, it will also apply to you once you have a companion animal.) It’s a broad law that assures basic care for animals of all types, from cats, dogs and hamsters to horses and even snakes.

The second animal care standards law you need to be aware of is Chapter ATCP 16. Sometimes referred to as the puppy mill law), it heightens care standards for certain, specific dog breeders and shelters, including

  • Dog breeders selling at least 25 dogs a year, from more than 3 litters that they have bred
  • Dog breeding facilities from which at least 25 dogs a year are sold, from more than 3 litters
  • In-state dog dealers selling at least 25 dogs a year that they did not breed and raise
  • Out-of-state dog dealers who import at least 25 dogs a year into Wisconsin, regardless of whether they bred and raised them
  • Non-profit animal shelters and rescue groups sheltering/fostering at least 25 dogs a year
  • Animal control facilities that contract with a city, village, town or county.

Under Chapter ATCP 16, these entities now must be licensed, thus assuring satisfactory conditions at their facility, and they must have each animal certified by a veterinarian, provide vaccination records and wait until an animal is seven weeks old to sell it. Consumers need to be certain they’re buying from a compliant party.

There is no license or inspection required for pet owners, dog trainers, dog groomers, boarding kennels or anyone else outside the above list.

Second, you need to know the rules and laws that apply to your municipality as well as your community. Some developments have restrictive covenants that prohibit certain types of animals as pets, and often multiple-family and rental properties prohibit all kinds of animals. Additionally, you need to know and comply with animal licensing requirements in your city. It’s best to know all of that before you take the leap. Imagine coming home with your new Labrador puppy only to find he’s not allowed on your property.

Finally, be sure you understand your legal liability when it comes to your animal’s interactions with others. A dog that barks incessantly or bites neighbor children or a snake that slithers through your pipes to another residence could spell big legal trouble for you. You’ll want to understand the risks and take steps to avoid problems before you bring your animal home.

When you consider that it’s not uncommon for dogs to live 12 to 15 years (cats often live even longer), it’s clear this is a decision that takes careful thought. Weighing all the factors – from caretaking to legal responsibility – can help you prepare and give you peace of mind when you bring your new companion home.

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