Q. Someone asked me to take care of their dog while they went out of state looking for a job. Now they say they won’t be coming back, so I’ll have to figure out what to do with the dog. Meanwhile, the vet says he won’t treat her because I can’t prove she’s mine, and I know she is overdue for shots. How do I prove the dog is now mine, and can I sue the former owners for the expense of caring for her for the winter?
A. If you are in communication with the owner, or former owner, you could ask him or her to send you a “bill of sale,” which transfers the ownership of the dog to you, or to simply call the veterinarian to confirm transfer of ownership of the dog over the telephone.
If you are not in communication with the owner, or the owner will not contact the veterinarian or sign over the dog to you as the new owner, you could try informing the veterinarian that you are the keeper of the dog. As such, you are required under Maine law, to provide necessary veterinary care. The veterinarian is going to expect you to pay for the care provided unless the (former) owner is willing to pay the bill.
Before you figure out what to do with the dog — keep it, sell it, give it away, place or surrender the dog — you should obtain a written confirmation that the owner is surrendering the dog to you to preclude him or her from arguing later that you “stole” or disposed of the dog without permission.
Whether a lawsuit against the former owner for the expense of caring for the dog during the winter months is an option depends on the agreement you and the (former) owner had.
Ideally, there would have been a written contract for the care of the dog that includes authorization for veterinarian treatment, provisions for communications between the owner and you to set up a process for determining whether veterinary care is needed and, if so, who will pay for it.
In the absence of such a written agreement, you would have to prove in court that the owner violated whatever agreement you had. If it was agreed upon that the (former) owner pay you for the costs of care for the dog while in your care, you might be able to convince a court that you should be reimbursed. However, it is likely that your legal fees would be higher than the money you spent on the care of the dog in the wintertime.
Your situation is unfortunate, but your question may save other people from going through similar distress. People with pets, and everyone who might consider taking care of someone else’s pet should take note: Anytime an owner, or owner’s agent, leaves an animal in the care of another person, it is a good idea to execute a limited power of attorney for animal care to ensure that the caregiver, regardless of how temporary the owner’s absence is intended to be, will be able to obtain necessary veterinary care for the animal.
It is a good idea to consult an attorney to have such a document prepared. In addition, the animal’s regular veterinarian should be notified of the owner’s absence, if possible, and arrangements for consent to treatment and payment of possible billing charges should be made to cover emergencies or in the event the owner cannot be reached.
This column is a service of the Lawyer Referral and Information Service of the Maine State Bar Association. Its contents are a general response to the question and do not constitute legal advice. Questions are welcome. E-mail AAL@mainebar.org, describe your question and note you are a BDN reader. Written questions mailed to “Ask a Lawyer,” Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor, ME 04402-1329, will be forwarded to the LRIS.