Do You have Rights to a Pet You have been Pet-Sitting for months?
I get asked ALL THE TIME whether or not a person has the right to keep, own, give away, etc. a dog or cat they have been "pet-sitting" for months or longer.
Usually the story is a friend or family member gave this person a dog or cat to "watch" for an unspecified period of time. Sometimes money or food is given in the beginning for the upkeep and maintenance of the animal, but eventually that stops. Often, no money or food was given at any point during the pet-sitting term to the pet-sitter. After many weeks or even months have passed without the owner paying money for care and maintenance or even coming to see the animal, the pet-sitter gets frustrated and wants to know when this "sitting" is going to end. Usually the owner is not reachable because they moved, are in jail, or in a homeless shelter; even if the original owner is reachable, this person usually asks for more time without giving a definite deadline.
In other situations, the pet-sitter grows attached and eventually the true owner finally calls or texts out of the blue and says, "hey, I'm coming to get Spot" and the pet-sitter panics because they fell in love with the animal and provided months of good care. They know the original owner is a deadbeat, or is homeless, or is simply irresponsible, or has some other situation that makes the pet-sitter afraid to give the pet that he/she fell in love with back to the original owner.
In either scenario, the pet-sitter HAS NO RIGHT TO GIVE AWAY OR KEEP THE PET. Unless you can prove the original owner gave you the pet, or made comments that amount to ABANDONING the pet (i.e., "You can keep the dog, I don't care," or, "I can't take care of Spot, any more."), you have no right to keep, euthanize, or give away the pet.
You can always offer to BUY the pet from the original owner - but MAKE SURE YOU GET THE TRANSACTION IN WRITING! You don't want to give the original owner money, just to have him/her turn around and sue you to get the animal back. Then you're out the pet plus the cash.
If you can't prove the pet was gifted or sold to you, the only right you have is the right to reimbursement for out-of-pocket costs incurred while watching or "pet-sitting" the animal. You can claim boarding costs, if you can provide a reasonable and reasoned calculation for boarding the animal. You are entitled to food, veterinary care, and any other out of pocket costs related to the care and maintenance of the animal. You can even sue for these costs before the owner comes back for the pet.
In Colorado, the abandoned property statute says that a true owner loses rights to property that has been abandoned after 5 years have passed without the person coming to claim the property. Since animals are property in Colorado (and almost everywhere around the USA), you will have to use the abandoned property statute to determine severance of ownership rights. Five years is a very long time in the life of a dog (that's 35 dog years!!), so it's best to usually try to make sure you set out the start and end date of any pet-sitting terms from the start and include your monthly fees, as well. Otherwise, you may end up caring for a dog or cat that you very likely will not be able to keep.
If you are in this situation, or are in the middle of a breached contract for pet-sitting, call an experience animal lawyer today for help with your specific situation.