I recently attended the 20th Annual Education Conference of the American Veterinary Medical Law Association.  During one of the networking discussions between colleagues, one interesting topic related to the requirement of some animal shelters or rescues (collectively, “shelters”) that adopting families enter into “adoption” contracts before being permitted to “adopt” a pet.  Most professionals involved with this discussion agreed that these contracts can cause unintended liabilities to the shelters and be detrimental to the welfare of the animals.

For example, some contracts include language whereby the shelter and the adopting family agree that the shelter essentially retains ownership of the animal after it has been “adopted.”  This language is a mistake for a number of reasons.  First and most importantly, when an individual decides to “adopt” an animal, there should be a 100% commitment to own that animal for life.  Any contract that includes an easy out for the adopting family to return the animal, for any reason, sends the wrong message.  Second, from a legal perspective, animals are personal property and are either owned or not.  A contract that attempts to change the status of ownership by injecting the term “adopted” can be confusing, and, if challenged, the contract itself may be considered void, as legally unsound.  Third, attempts to retain ownership of an “adopted” animal by a shelter could expose that organization to liability if the care of the animal by the “adopter” is determined to be deficient.  For example, the shelter may be liable for injuries inflicted by the animal in the future, or may even be accused of animal cruelty if the “adoptor” does not take adequate care of the animal.  Attempts by shelters to mandate visitations of the animal after the “adoption” to ensure adequate care, may expose the inspectors to additional liability, if any injuries occur during such visits.  As another example, some contracts include language which mandates specific preventive medical care beyond the requirement to neuter the pet, such as requiring specific vaccinations.  This language should be modified to permit the veterinarian-of-record to make the proper determination, on a case-by-case basis.  As it pertains to vaccines, for instance, the veterinarian, with input from the adopting family, should determine what vaccinations are appropriate and recommended for each individual pet, in addition to those vaccinations required by law (e.g., rabies in certain species).  For a shelter to mandate certain vaccines seems highly improper – the needs of an animal are dependent upon where that animal lives, the conditions to which it is exposed  (which may change over time), and any underlying diseases or conditions that affect the animal’s immune system..

Pet “adoption” is a wonderful way for people to own an animal in need of a home.  However, the organizations involved in these adoptions should be cautious in their use of contracts that may not be legally binding, may expose them to unnecessary liabilities, or may be detrimental to the welfare of the animals that they are intended to protect.