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Animal Law in Virginia

Animal Law Attorney | Charlottesville, Virginia

Leila B. Higgins-Fleishman – Civil Litigation Attorney

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Animal Ownership Disputes:

What happens when your ex takes the dog when they leave? How do you get your furry family member back? The law in Virginia treats animals as property, except in the case of divorce. In divorce proceedings, you can negotiate visitation with your family pet as part of the proceedings.

But what happens if you were never married? If you are the animal’s rightful owner under the law, you can file a warrant in detinue for the return of your companion, within 2 years of the wrongful taking. If you can show that the other party willfully and wantonly kept your companion from you, you may be entitled to monetary damages, as well as the return of your pet (or, if the return is not possible, the value of the pet).

Proving the animal’s value, your ownership interests, and whether the taking qualifies as “willful and wanton” can be complex and difficult for people to do on their own. An attorney can help you determine your property interests, and how best to prove that you are the rightful owner.  An attorney may also be able to contact the other party and broker an agreement for either the return of your companion or compensation, without the need to go to court.

Dangerous or Vicious Dog:

How does Virginia treat dog bites?

Breed: Virginia does not recognize any breed of dog as more dangerous than another, and the breed of your dog is not dispositive of its dangerousness. However, its breed may be used along with other evidence to establish that it is dangerous.

Defense of Bites: If your dog bites someone or another animal, it isn’t guaranteed that they will be found to be a dangerous dog. There are several defenses under Virginia law, including that the dog was defending you or your property, or if the dog was defending itself.

Dangerous Dog: The first time a dog bites a person or animal, if the injury is minor, the owner will get a summons to a dangerous dog proceeding. These are civil proceedings, meaning the owner is not entitled to court appointed counsel. If a dog is found to be dangerous, the owner must then take several precautions, including either keeping the dog inside or behind a fence it cannot jump, registering the dog on a dangerous dog registry, keeping the dog muzzled when not on your property, notifying animal control if the dog escapes or is sold, and notifying animal control if you move. Failing to comply with these requirements can result in a criminal charge. Once a dog has been declared dangerous, if it bites or attacks another person or animal, its owner can be charged with a criminal offense.

Vicious Dog: A second dangerous dog offense, or sufficiently serious first offense can result in the dog being found to be vicious. When a dog is found to be vicious, Virginia law requires that it be put down, and the owner must pay restitution to whoever was bitten. While still civil, vicious dog proceedings are similar to criminal proceedings in that the Commonwealth must prove that the dog is vicious beyond a reasonable doubt. A finding that the dog is vicious can be appealed within ten days, without any appeal bond required.

If you are facing dangerous or vicious dog proceedings, an attorney can help you  to figure out if you have a defense, and navigate the proceedings to make the best use of your defense. An attorney may also be able to help you mitigate the damages you must pay.


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We have three offices conveniently located in Charlottesville, Palmyra (Across from Food Lion), and Harrisonburg, Virginia.

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