Stuck between a rock and a hard place: Legal dilemmas in shelters

Let’s face it: shelter medicine is evolving. As sheltering systems improve and the bar is raised for animal welfare organizations, what was once acceptable for sheltering 10 or 20 years ago is no longer in vogue. While shelters are not as heavily policed as some other industries, shelters can easily find themselves in a complex legal situation. While shelters may be more likely to be the victims of bad social media campaigns than a government audit, the implications of the latter being much more serious.

Shelters are governed not only by federal law, but by state and local ordinances. It is important to know that many organizations are involved, from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to the state pharmacy boards. As inter-state transport and shelter cooperation increase, it is especially important to know the differences in state regulations. To look up local and federal laws, try Michigan State’s wonderful website:

Perhaps the most important laws to follow are those relating to the DEA and controlled drugs. The DEA enforces federal law regarding controlled substances in an attempt to reduce human abuse. Shelters can hold limited DEA licenses or use a veterinarian’s personal DEA license. Neglected log books, security or reporting errors can have serious consequences. If you haven’t recently reviewed the regulations, head on over to for more information.

Less serious, but equally important legal issues can arrive from the community and social dilemmas. Have you ever had someone surrender or request euthanasia of a pet which was not theirs? Make sure that your surrender forms encompass transfer of ownership and family issues with a statement such as “I am the sole and exclusive owner of (animal’s name). I am signing for myself, my spouse, heirs, etc.” The same is true of adoptions for dangerous or ill animals, foster care and rescue groups.

Remember, there is no way to completely stop a lawsuit from occurring, but you can mitigate the risk of prosecution with a good defensive paper trail. Organizations should consider getting professional legal services to ensure that their “fine print” is up to date. Contracts can be a good first step, but don’t forget to engage in the conversation. Many lawsuits are due to poor communication, rather than true malpractice or negligence.

Knowing What’s Out There: a guide to guidelines and state law

CG-Slider-Animals-TextWe often receive questions from shelters that delve into realms of state law, animal guidelines and best practices. There can be a number of situations that arise creating concern whether a shelter is not only law abiding but also providing the most humane care possible. For instance the question is often asked as to what lay people (non-licensed veterinary technicians, veterinary assistants, volunteers) are allowed to do in terms of vaccines and medical treatment. Another popular query is what, if any, legal requirements there are for transporting animals across state lines. Of course it’s impossible to keep it all straight while managing day to day adventures within the shelter. So the best advice is simply knowing when to ask questions and then finding answers through local and state law, and animal welfare organizations.

New York State

Legal jargon is difficult at best to wade through. Also interpretation can vary from person to person. For example, terminology such as ‘under direct supervision’ vs. ‘under supervision’ could mean the difference between a veterinarian needing to be present in the shelter at the time of administration of an oral dewormer versus a written deworming protocol developed by the shelter veterinarian. Laws pertaining to shelters can fall under different departments (Agriculture and Markets, Public Health, Education) so finding them all in one spot can sometimes be difficult. The link for Laws of New York under New York State Legislature has a search engine which can be helpful. I searched the word veterinarian and this is what came upThe New York State Animal Protection Foundation has a really convenient app that allows you to look up NYS laws from your smartphone. Of course county legislation should not be overlooked in terms of stray hold, seizures etc. Click here to access the Tompkins County codes.

Other States

We strongly suggest investigating your local and state laws to provide the most accurate information. However, a helpful and interesting website on a federal level provided by Michigan State University College of Law is the Animal Legal and Historical Center.  It provides full text cases, statutes and comprehensive explanations.


There’s often the expectation of a law in place to address specifics on themes like housing and transport. When in fact there are only guidelines and best practices. So when not covered by law, it’s recommended these guidelines are followed to provide the most safe and humane care possible. They have been developed by experts in the field and they are incredibly helpful.

Association of Shelter Veterinarians provides Standards of Care Guidelines and Spay Neuter Guidelines. As a shelter, we strongly urge you to read these if you have not already.

The National Federation of Humane Societies  provides best practices for transport and euthanasia.

Ultimately finding the answers will take some work. But hopefully these links will give some idea on where to start.