Q: As I’m sure you know, since you write for the paper, there has been a lot of coverage over the past month about some guy who allegedly poisons cats, as well as letters to the editor from people whose cats have gone missing. The numerous online comments to these articles and letters range from, “the guy should be hung,” to “hey, if a urine-making cat comes into my yard it’s dead.” Many commenters have pointed out how inconsiderate it is for pet owners to allow their cats to roam into neighboring yards to go to the bathroom, irritate other pets like dogs which are properly kenneled, and generally interfere with the surrounding neighbors’ use of their property. After a heated debate with my girlfriends over this firebrand issue, we decided to jointly write you and ask what the law actually says about pet owners allowing their cats free reign of the neighborhood. We’d also like to know what a homeowner can do, legally, if they don’t want to let cats in their yard. Sign us: Hoping to Stay Friends!
A: Dear HSF:
Oh boy, here we go! I try so hard to stay away from pet issues because every time anything “pet” comes up, my Monday email is stuffed with “Jones, you animal loving (insert explicative)” and “Jones, you animal hating (insert explicative).” And I’m a sensitive guy!
But after reading your email, I went back and counted. Since July 8, 2014, I’ve received 49 emails on the subject, not counting yours. So here goes.
Let me start with a disclosure: I own a cat. Well, more accurately, my wife owns a cat. I tolerate a cat. But Oliver is a house cat and wouldn’t know what to do if he found himself somewhere without a ceiling.
You would think pet law would be an easy legal subject. Far from it. While there are some communities in California that have attempted to implement local ordinances against allowing any pet to be unconfined, they typically haven’t worked since, as a practical matter, they’re unenforceable. Statewide there is no such law.
Every jurisdiction I know of has a leash law for dogs, but the justifiable argument is dogs bite. So the issue is one of public safety. Obviously that’s a hard argument to make with a domestic cat.
Taking the current news articles first, some guy is accused of trapping cats in his backyard and allegedly feeding them poison, probably antifreeze. That’s got to be a gruesome way to die. Likely you and your friends can agree that’s wrong and should be illegal. And it is.
California Penal Code Section 596 says: “Every person who, without the consent of the owner, willfully administers poison to any animal, the property of another, or exposes any poisonous substance, with the intent that the same shall be taken or swallowed by any such animal, is guilty of a misdemeanor.”
So poisoning is out. There are some exceptions, but they pertain to ranchers and the like, not to suburban homeowners.
By the way, there is a similar section forbidding someone from shooting the cat, not to mention that in every city in Solano County it’s illegal to discharge a firearm or even a BB gun.
So what about the cat owner?
I know of no law, state or local, that forbids a cat owner from allowing their pet to run free. Having said that, there are also no laws that give any special protections to pet owners. Cats are personal property (Legally it’s true! No letters please!) just like, for example, a baseball.
If Dad is teaching little Johnny next door the finer points of batting and Johnny becomes a quicker study than was anticipated, your broken window is the responsibility of the neighbor. Put another way, your neighbor was negligent and, although he’s certainly not going to go to jail, he is financially responsible to you for the damage he caused.
Same with a cat.
If the homeowner allows the cat into your yard and the cat relieves himself on your plants, either killing the plants or causing such a stink that in interferes with your enjoyment of your property, you have a civil lawsuit. In theory, even if the cat causes no damage, you have a suit for trespass that would allow you to go to court seeking a restraining order (not against the cat since most of them can’t read), but against the owner.
Many emails asked if the owner can trap the cat in a Havahart-type trap, one that doesn’t harm the animal, and take it to the animal shelter. Yes, probably.
Here’s the thing – Let’s get back to that baseball.
Let’s say the ball falls harmlessly on your grass and you find it the next day. Let’s also assume you know exactly who the ball belongs to. Can you throw it away? Nope.
You can leave it where it is and see if the owner wants to come get it. Or you can toss it back over the fence. But you have an obligation to make a “reasonable” attempt to notify the true owner. It’s the same with the cat.
If you took it to the shelter and told them exactly who the cat belonged to, I’d surmise you’d be within your rights. Or if you came back from the shelter and told your neighbor what you’d done with the cat, you’d be OK.
But if you just whisk the cat away, the law says you would have “converted” the neighbor’s personal property to your own. In other words, that’s theft. Theft gives rise to both criminal and civil liability.
So that’s about it. It’s criminal to kill your neighbor’s cat. An owner that lets their cat run wild could have civil liability for nuisance, trespass and property damage. And if you safely want to remove the cat from your yard, you need to make a reasonable effort to make sure the owner can retrieve the cat if he wants to.
That’s the law.
As you and your friends continue to debate its wisdom, the best I can do is direct you to your city and county elected officials who have the power enact local animal control ordinances.
Tim Jones is a real estate attorney in Fairfield. If you have any real estate questions you would like to have answered in this column you can contact him at [email protected]