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How Long Before A Stray Dog Is Legally Yours?

How Long Before A Stray Dog Is Legally Yours?

It Depends On Your State’s “Stray Hold” Laws

How long it takes before a stray dog can be considered to be legally yours is dictated by what is commonly referred to as Stray Hold” Laws.

Stray Hold laws are laws that require animal shelters, rescue organizations, and other animal control bodies to hold stray animals for a stipulated duration before they can be legally released for adoption or put down.    

The holding period varies from one state to another—can be as short as 48 hours to as long as 2 weeks (or even 90 days).  

As a quick guide, here is an overview of holding periods for a few states:

StateHolding period
Hawaii 48 hours
North Carolina72 hours
Texas3 days
Kentucky, Minnesota, New York, South Carolina, Utah,5 days
California, Alabama, Connecticut7 days

Take a look at the holding period for other states in the US in this article.

During the holding period, the respective state’s animal control agencies will attempt to trace the legal owners of the stray animals by checking their ID tags, scanning their microchips, and putting adverts in local newspapers and social media pages.

In case the legal owners don’t come out during the holding period, the animals are put for adoption or released to interested rescue organizations.

Many states also give the person who found the stray animal a chance to adopt the animal themselves.  

And this is where you come in if you want the stray dog you’ve found to be legally yours.

Key Takeaway: Depending on your state’s stray hold laws, it takes 48 hours to 2 weeks before a stray dog can be legally yours.

States Without Stray Hold Regulations

What if your state doesn’t have specific holding period rules? How long does it take for a stray dog to be legally yours in such states?

Sure, not all states have stray animal holding period regulations.

If you happen to be in such a state, you need to check with concerned authorities if there are other regulations that you may need to follow or what you can do next.

You can either call them or do an online search on their website to find out the exact requirements for dealing with the found stray dog.

Most likely, you will be asked to turn the dog over to nearby animal control authorities or pet shelters, which are given the responsibility and authority to find the legal owner.

Some states may also give you permission to hang on the dog—but with certain conditions like finding the owner or spreading the word in your neighborhood about the missing dog for a stipulated duration.

Keeping a Stray Dog Legally

First things first… Remember that you cannot just pick and own a stray dog: it is outright illegal and unethical!

When you meet a dog that doesn’t seem to have a home, your loving self will want to pick it up and take them home.

You cannot wait to give them a bath, feed them, groom them, and give them a name.

Well, if you love pets, that’s definitely what you will think and do if you find a stray dog. Unfortunately, the law doesn’t work like that!

Dogs are considered as personal property in most jurisdictions. So, the stray dog that you want to keep as your new pet might be someone else’s canine companion.

And being a personal property, if the owner miraculously finds you with the dog, you can be sued for theft—even if you had pure intentions of caring for the dog.  

Common sense should further guide your decision to keep a stray dog without legal consent from relevant authorities.

See, if the stray dog is healthy and well-fed, there is a high chance that somebody somewhere is desperately looking for it.

Again, just keeping the dog without doing some due diligence with respect to his legal owner or its health can put the dog’s life in danger.

If the dog was on medication or had a medical condition, for instance, not being given timely and the right medical care could easily cost them their life.

The best thing to do immediately you find a stray dog is to Involve the Authorities

Almost all jurisdictions in the US require you to contact authorities before a stray dog can be considered to be legally yours.

So, the best thing to do when you find a stray (…and if you want it to become yours legally) is to report the dog to your state’s animal control authorities.

This way, the authorities will advise on what to do next to make the dog legally yours or the exact duration it will take for you to be given legal custody of the stray dog.

Essentially, the regulation exists to enable the rightful owners to find and reunite with their missing canine companions.

See, it is estimated that a whopping 710,000 stray dogs reunite with their families annually in the US.

This implies that if you decide to keep a stray dog without engaging the relevant authorities first, you are unknowingly making the life of a fellow dog owner miserable.  

Also read: If You Feed A Stray Dog, Is It Legally Yours?

Finding the Legal Dog Owner

If your state’s animal authority doesn’t direct you to turn the dog to a local animal control agency or shelter, they will ask you to try all means to find the owner within a given duration.

If that’s the case, where do you begin? What steps should you take to locate the owner of the stray dog?

Well, here are a few ideas:

  • Find the microchip (if any) at the vet and have the owner know that you have their pet.
  • Put up notices around the community and in the local newspapers. Yes, you may have to make posters and hang them around the neighborhood.
  • Ask neighbors or residents of areas where you found the stray dog if they can recognize the dog or if they know the owner.  
  • Post on various forums – Facebook groups, sites like,, and related apps.
  • Get on the animal control agency and browse its pet logs to see if anyone is looking for their dog.
  • Contact local vets, groomers, dog walkers, and other pet-related businesses to see if they can recognize the dog.
  • Check on Craigslist. Many people run to Craigslist to post details of missing pets. Check under pets and lost & found sections to see if there is a matching/relevant lost ad. You can also post the details of the dog in the mentioned sections.

If no one comes forth to claim the dog, involve the authorities. Meanwhile, keep all the documents showing you are taking care of the pet.

The law requires the owner to claim and pay up within an allocated time frame. If they don’t, you can claim the dog as your own.

Other Important Things to Do If You Find and Want to Keep a Stray a Dog

1. Prioritize Safety Above Everything Else

There are multiple risks associated with approaching or attempting to catch a stray dog.

To begin with, the dog might display aggression or possess an injury that could trigger defensive behavior or an attack driven by fear.

Catching a stray dog may also cause it to flee even farther or lead to a potentially dangerous aggressive encounter for both you and the dog.

In a nutshell, don’t just walk over to your new canine friend and grab them. They might attack, run away in fear, or just overwhelm you.

Instead, approach with caution and see if the poor animal is willing to accept your advances. Woo the dog by giving them a treat or being extremely kind around them.

To be absolutely safe, contact your local animal control agency to handle any stray dog you encounter.

You should also be aware of neurological issues like stumbling, twitching, or excessive drooling, or any symptoms that resemble potential signs of diseases such as rabies, distemper, or brucellosis.

Finally, if you must care for an unfamiliar dog, ensure it is kept separate from other pets or animals to prevent potential cross-contamination of diseases or parasites that the dog may carry.

2. Some animal shelters may refuse to take in the stray dog

Although it doesn’t happen often, animal shelters sometimes refuse the responsibility of taking in strays.

The work of caring for extra dogs and locating the owner can be too much for them to handle.

 In such a case, prepare a statement showing that Animal Control wasn’t willing to help you.

Additionally, keep all the bills incurred when taking care of the pet. In case the owner claims the dog later on and makes a suit, you can present a stronger case and get to keep the dog.

Related Post: How to Prove Ownership of a Dog

3. Put First Rights on the stray dog

If your local authority ask you to turn the stray to a nearby shelter or dog rescue center to give them time to trace the owner, consider placing First Rights on the dog. This will allow you to be placed at the top of the list when the dog will be up for adoption.

 Remember to also show up bright and early to claim the dog on the first day it is put up for adoption. This falls within the range of 8-9 AM.

4. Are you really ready to take care of the dog?

Assuming responsibility for a dog is a big commitment.

If you’ve never had a dog before, it’s essential to reflect on whether you have the time, financial means, and patience to provide proper care for a dog.

But if you genuinely feel prepared for the responsibility and your efforts to locate the dog’s rightful owner have yielded no fruits, follow the mentioned steps to ensure that you keep the dog legally.

If anything, everybody reading this post is interested in seeing that a stray dog finds a great home, and if you fulfill the necessary criteria, that loving home could be yours.

Owner has resurfaced after I have legally adopted a stray dog: What Can I do?

Although it is rare, there are instances when the original owner may turn up after you’ve adopted the dog (Perhaps your state’s holding period wasn’t long enough for the owner to find the pet).

What can you do in such a case?

Well, if you contacted your state authorities the moment you bumped into the stray dog, followed all the requirements, and adopted the dog legally, you should now be the legal owner of the dog. As such, you have a solid legal claim to the dog.

If Morgan v. Kropua case is anything to go by, you have an upper hand in winning a potential legal ownership challenge in court of law.

To increase your chances of winning such legal challenges, ensure that you document all your attempts to locate the owners.

Maintain duplicates of the notices you placed in your neighborhood or social media about the stray dog, along with copies of receipts for any veterinary expenses and food expenditures.

Your actions during the holding period and your capacity to substantiate them through well-kept records will serve as your defense, demonstrating your rightful claim to ownership of the dog you found.

Final Thoughts

Stray dogs need love and protection like their counterparts who are already owned.

 If you encounter one and feel you can take over taking care of them, don’t let anything hold you back.

The procedure of legally adopting them may take a lot from you but it will be all worth it in the end.

 Just find out the laws that govern the legal adoption of strays in your state and follow them to the end.

This way, we can all ensure that stray dogs are given the best opportunity to live happy and healthy lives while respecting the efforts and legal rights of their original owners.


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