Animals are legally considered personal property, so a Pet Adoption Agreement is often just a Purchase Agreement under a different name. However, some pet shelters and rescue organizations use Adoption Contracts that make a distinction, and specify that the shelter retains legal ownership of the pet even after transfer. These clauses give shelters the ability to take pets back from an adoptive home, generally if certain minimum conditions aren’t maintained.
Adopters should read their adoption paperwork closely, and understand exactly what their rights and the shelter’s rights are before signing the contract. Some specific things to look for in a clause retaining pet ownership include:
Occasionally, such clauses are accompanied by a right for the shelter to conduct periodic inspections, which an adopter may find overly intrusive. A single inspection before or at the time of adoption is typical, but ensure that you understand the frequency and expectations of additional inspections before signing a contract. “Failing” in the eyes of the inspector may entitle the shelter to revert the adoption and take the pet back, so the contract should be clear about the inspection criteria and volume.
If the adoption agreement permits the shelter to reclaim your pet or conduct inspections, it should also limit those to a limited period of time. If you are not comfortable surrendering a pet you have homed for 6 months, ensure that a contract you sign does not permit a shelter to reclaim the pet after that length of time.
There are also a few reasons an ownership retention clause may be undesirable for an animal shelter. Such a clause may subject the shelter to liability in the event that the pet injures someone or is mistreated. A court may also find the clause unenforceable, viewing the transfer of an animal to another person in exchange for money to simply be a legal transaction, despite any contract that attempts to reclassify a it as something else.
Consult a lawyer for assistance if any language in a Pet Adoption Contract confuses you. Alternatively, you are free to refuse to sign and look for a pet from a different organization. Signing a legal document you’re not fully comfortable with can lead to ongoing and long-term frustrations, which should not mark the start of a new relationship with a pet.