Those of us who keep pets often entrust them to the care of others. If something happens to your pet while he is with someone else, what are your rights and responsibilities?
You expect that any caretaker of your pet will follow reasonable safety practices while handling your pet. So if you know your dog is fearful of strangers and may bite, you will be liable for injuries your petsitter might suffer. Licensed pet professionals (veterinarian, technician, groomer or kennel operator) probably cannot recover damages for dog bites or cat scratches because these normal behaviors of animals are part of the hazards of their work. You may be required to provide proof that your pet is vaccinated against rabies or has had a recent check up if your dog bites someone other than a professional and most states require a period of health observation after a bite. If your dog or cat mauls a person or carries a communciable disease, you can be held responsible for damages from those extreme conditions. Especially, if you know your pet to be prone to biting. This also might apply if your pet escapes from the caretaker. There may be less liability for you if the caretaker is negligent in some way that contributes to any mishaps.
Your licensed petsitter is required by Maryland law to notify you if no one is on the premises where your pet will stay at night. You should provide emergency contact information so that a caretaker can reach you or your representative in an emergency. You should be given clear information about what care is provided for the fees you pay. Will there be exercise off leash? Will there be a veterinarian on site? Who will pay vet bills if you disagree about the necessity of charges?
If you use an unlicensed caretaker, your responsibility is increased and his or hers is reduced. Is your pet staying in your home? Can your caretaker safely approach your house and maneuver through doorways, walkways? What if severe weather arrives while you are away?
Two recent cases are great examples of why these issues matter.
1. An dog left with an unlicensed care provider a few days each week begins to show behavior changes. She has a housetraining set back that leads the owner to ask questions. A neighbor of the petsitter tells teh owner that he often plays with her dog and has even had her over at his house because the petsitter keeps her crated most of the day and sometimes is harsh when training her. The owner decides to inquire if there are any remedies through Animal Control. For example, can this pet sitter be charged with cruelty? If the neighbor will testify that he witnessed cruel treatment, especially if the dog has injuries this may be an option.
The more likely remedy would be sueing the pet sitter for breach of contract. Money did exchange hands which proves there was an agreement even if it wasn't in writing. The owner has to prove what damages were incurred due to the petsitter's lack of care. Rather importantly, the dog, a lovely bully breed bitch, is pregnant! Again, there is no legal remedy through law enforcement for this lack of care but the owner may be able to sue the petsitter for the cost of caring for puppies after that expense is incurred.
2. A woman left her dog with her parents while she was in the hospital. As treatment was extended, her parents elected to relinquish the dog to the local shelter. When the owner was released from the hospital, she wanted to know if she could reclaim her dog. Had the dog still been in the shelter the owner could have shown proof of ownership and reclaimed her pet. If she could show that she had no way of knowing the dog was in the shelter, she may have been able to make a case for reduced fees to reclaim her dog. However, in the event that a shelter holds a pet and no owner comes forward in a reasonable amount if time, the shelter can transfer ownrship to another party. In this case, the dog had already been placed in a new home. Since the law considers those with custody of a dog to be owners in some cases, the parents had legally relinquished ownership. Again there may be a breach of contract even though there was nothing in writing. But since the owner was not compensating the caretakers, this might be harder to prove. If there were witnesses that the parents promised to care for the dog, the owner might be able to recoup both the estimated cost of replacing her pet and additional fees for pain and suffering. In any case, it would not result in a return of the dog. \
Most of us have left pets with caretakers and never had an issue. Someone who knows your pet and has your trust is invaluable in today's busy world of work and travel. In fact in many cases, petsitters are credited with saving the lives of pets entrusted to their care. As a responsible pet owner you should think about some of the things that can go wrong when you are away and prepare in advance to protect you and your pet. Talk to your petsitter about options and put it in writing if you have concerns. Disclose what you know about your dog's behavior so everyone is prepared for the needs of your companion while you are away.