|Declaring an Animal Abandoned|
By: Barbara J. Ahern, Esq., NYSVMS Board Legal Counsel
Every veterinarian has had the unfortunate experience of having an animal owner refuse to pick up an animal after leaving it with them for veterinary care or for boarding. It is particularly frustrating for the veterinarian to spend time caring for a sick animal, only to have the owner fail to show up to claim the animal and to pay the veterinary bill.
The law allows a veterinarian to treat such animals as abandoned animals. In so doing, it tries to balance the rights of the veterinarian against the rights of the animal owner. It provides a procedure for the veterinarian to follow to ensure that the veterinary practice will not become a de facto animal shelter for unclaimed animals. At the same time, it requires two notifications to the animal owner to give them every opportunity to claim the animal before it is put up for adoption or euthanized.
A veterinarian who has an unclaimed animal and an unpaid bill for veterinary services also has an opportunity to establish a lien upon the animal for the unpaid bill. However, the law requires the veterinarian to choose whether she wants to use the lien mechanism to obtain payment for outstanding veterinary bills, or whether it is more important to simply find a method of removing the animal from the veterinary hospital or boarding facility where it continues to incur expenses that may never be paid.
If the veterinarian chooses to pursue the lien to obtain payment for the veterinary bill for services, an extensive procedure defined in section 202 of the NY Lien Law must be followed. This procedure starts with notification to the owner of the amount due to the veterinarian (including an itemized statement), the due date of the debt, and other pertinent information.
After a lien on the animal is established, if the bill remains unpaid the animal can be sold to satisfy the debt. Notice of a public sale (required for an animal valued over $100) must be published twice in the newspaper; notice of a private sale (permitted for an animal valued under $100) must be posted at a veterinarian's office. A private sale cannot be held until six months have passed from the final payment date. Perfecting and then satisfying a lien is a cumbersome procedure, and is rarely worthwhile unless you have a very valuable animal and a very large veterinary bill.
If the veterinarian chooses instead to take the course of action that will allow him or her to remove the animal from the facility and have no further liability for it, the provisions in the Agriculture and Markets Law that pertain to abandoned animals will apply. Under these provisions, a registered letter must be sent to the last known address of the person who left the animal in the custody of the veterinarian.
The law assumes that this person is the owner of the animal. If veterinary records show that the owner is another person, the veterinarian would be well advised to send the required notification to the owner shown in his records, although that notification is not required by the law.
This notification should summarize the circumstances under which the animal has come to be unclaimed at the veterinary facility. For example: "On October 3 you brought your cat, Frankie, to the office for a bath and flea treatment, and said that you would pick him up the next day. You did not pick him up that day, as promised, and you have not responded to repeated messages we have left on your answering machine."
It is very important for the notification to reference the section of law dealing with abandoned animals, and to notify the owner that the animal will be considered abandoned under the law if they fail to respond to the notification.
One way to do it: "Under section 331 of the NY Agriculture and Markets Law, if you do not pick up Frankie within 10 days (or 20 days) of receiving this letter, your cat will be deemed abandoned, and will be taken to a neighborhood animal shelter, where it may be put up for adoption or euthanized."
However you phrase it, your letter should clearly notify the owner that failure to reclaim their animal within the stated period of time will result in the animal being taken to a shelter or other facility where it may be adopted out or euthanized.
If the "abandoned" animal was originally left at your veterinary facility for a specific period of time, you are required to give the owner 10 days after receipt of notification to claim the animal. If the animal was originally left with you for an unspecified period of time, you are required to give the owner 20 days after receipt of notification to claim the animal.
Keeping an accurate count of the days is important. You start counting the days on the day the notification is received not on the day you sent it. It is important to watch for the registered mail return receipt, which will indicate the day the notification was delivered to the addressee. Keep this verification of delivery in your file in case there is any question over your having given the owner the required number of days to reclaim their animal.
Once you start the procedure to declare an animal "abandoned," you waive your ability to establish a lien on the animal for any amount due for treatment, care or boarding. That means that if the owner comes to the veterinary hospital to claim their animal after receiving your letter but cannot pay your bill for services or the full amount of the bill, you are not entitled to retain the animal until the bill is paid. The owner is still liable for any amounts left unpaid, but you may have to start collection procedures to recover the amount due.
Courts in this state have held that a communication from a veterinarian that attempts to both collect money owed for veterinary care and serve as notification that the animal will be deemed abandoned if unclaimed is insufficient notice under the abandoned animal law. You should, therefore, keep your attempts to collect your fee to a separate communication.
If the owner does not claim the animal within 10 or 20 days after receiving your notification that the animal will be deemed abandoned, you can deliver the animal to any humane society or SPCA that has facilities for the care and disposition of animals. If your city, town or village has a contract with an animal pound or other facility used to shelter stray dogs and cats, the abandoned animal may be delivered to that type of facility as well.
A second notification is required to be sent to the person who left the animal in your custody on the day you deliver the animal to a shelter, SPCA, pound or other facility. That notification must notify them of the name and address of the place where you have taken the animal. If you continue your recitation of the requirements of the law and your fulfillment of those obligations, you will eliminate future problems.
For example: "You did not respond to my October 20 letter informing you that your cat, Frankie, would be deemed "abandoned" if you did not claim him within ten days of receipt of that letter. Under Sections 331 and 332 of the NY Agriculture and Markets Law, Frankie has now been deemed 'abandoned,' and has been delivered to the Neighborhood Animal Shelter, at 333 Shady Lane, Anytown, New York 11111. Under section 332 of the Agriculture and Markets Law, an abandoned animal delivered to an animal shelter or SPCA can be put up for adoption or euthanized five days after the animal is delivered to the shelter."
If you go through this procedure and deliver the "abandoned" animal to a shelter, SPCA, pound or other facility, you must inform them that the animal is an abandoned animal to let them know that they must wait five days before putting the animal up for adoption or euthanizing it.
Veterinarians seeking to provide for the future well-being of an animal whose owner doesn't seem to want it may be tempted to short-circuit the provisions of the law by "adopting" the animal out from the veterinary office instead of taking it to a shelter or SPCA for adoption. This practice is not recommended.
While lawsuits against veterinarians for loss of an animal are not common, you protect yourself from any such legal threat only by carefully following every step of the procedure required by the Agriculture and Markets Law.
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