The Paperwork of Pet Ownership and What Determines Ownership of a Pet

Do you have a pet? Whether it’s a dog, cat, bird, gerbil or even a fish, you are in good company. In fact, around 85 million families in the United States own a pet, and pet owners spend over $66 million on their companions each year. Pet ownership in America is a serious business.

As a pet owner, you must keep track of many papers and documents throughout your pet’s life. Do you know what’s important to keep track of and when you will need it?  What papers will you need if your dog bites someone or if you get divorced from your spouse?

In this article, we will cover the basics of legal pet ownership, the types of documents you need to prove it, what you need in a custody battle over your pet, paperwork needed in an emergency, all the different types of pet paperwork, and how to keep track.


What Determines Ownership of a Dog?

You love your pet, but do you have the legal documentation to prove that he’s really yours? Would you be devastated to learn that you didn’t have the legal right to own your pet if someone else were to claim ownership? You might have to prove ownership of a pet in any one of the following situations:

  • Your pet gets lost and is found by someone else who’s not keen to return him
  • Your pet gets picked up by animal control officers or the animal shelter
  • You and your significant other decide to split, and both of you want to keep the pet
  • You pet hurts someone or someone claims that your pet attacked them

So how do you prove ownership of a pet? If you're a dog owner, when is a dog legally yours? When can you say, "This is my dog"? Most of the time, you can prove ownership of your best friend by following a few simple steps. Establish your ownership rights through the following:

  • Registration. Registration is not always mandatory. But even if it isn’t, you can prove ownership by properly registering your pet with local authorities.
  • Veterinary records. Keep your pet’s veterinary and vaccination records up to date and make sure you keep updated copies at the ready.
  • Microchipping. Consider microchipping your pet.
  • Tags. Keep a collar and up-to-date tags on your pet at all times.
  • A recent photo of your pet. Print off a recent photo of your pet. This can help get your pet home to you if she gets lost more quickly. It will also give you something you can give to the local animal shelters as you try to find your pet. Print a clear picture in a 5x7 or larger size for potential emergencies.
  • Adoption or purchase records. You view your pet as a member of the family, maybe even your best friend, but animal law views them as personal property. This means you may need proof of legal ownership. Proof of ownership can be as simple as your adoption record from the local shelter or as complex as the AKC registration record. Try to find something formal and have it notarized to avoid any concerns that may arise in the event of a dispute. If your pets are shared with someone — as in the case of roommates who should get a “house dog” — make sure "dog law" is on your side: Have something in writing that states who the owner or owners are.
  • Consider a pet agreement form. This form shows who is responsible for the pet’s care and ownership. It is a helpful form when a pet is owned by two (or more) non-married individuals.

How to Get Custody of a Pet

What if you find yourself in a divorce case with a pet custody dispute that your family law attorney has been unable to resolve out of court? What sorts of documents will courts look at to determine custody for the coveted companion?

Most courts in pet custody battles look at things like:

  • Whose name is on the purchase or adoption documents.
  • Who registered the pet.
  • Whose name is on the veterinary and microchip records.
  • Who has registered the pet.

If you find yourself in a situation where both pet parents’ names are on the records, or even if your name is not on the records at all, don’t give up.

Many courts have begun to look at things like who is the pet’s primary caretaker taking into account the best interest of the pet.

Courts may look at evidence that one person was always the one who walked the dog or took the dog to training, grooming, and vet appointments. Courts may consider evidence surrounding who spent more time at home with the pet when deciding a pet custody case.

These types of concerns fall under a pet’s registration and medical care. This is one of the areas where paperwork can be the biggest burden, but these tips you can manage the load a little better.

The Different Types of Pet Paperwork

  • Vaccination records
  • Medical records
  • Registration
  • Insurance
  • Estate plans

Vaccination Paperwork

First, make sure you have the necessary vaccination paperwork on hand to prove that your pet has been fully vaccinated. Consider these:

  • Have your rabies certificate or a qualified waiver form on hand. All dogs and cats should be vaccinated against fatal rabies, but you may be able to get a waiver if your vet determines that your dog or cat has a medical need that prevents them from receiving this particular vaccine. Keep proof of either the vaccination or the waiver on hand and readily accessible.
  • Keep records of other required vaccines. Yes, your vet has your vaccine records on hand, but if you need to board your pet or take them to a groomer, you are going to need to have the vaccine record as well. When your vet gives you those shot records, put them in a safe place.
  • Note your preventives and optional vaccines. While less critical than the vaccines required by law, note any preventive medications, like heartworm or flea protection, and optional vaccines that you choose to give your pet. Should your pet have a medical issue in the future, you’ll know clearly what they have and haven’t received.

Medical Records

Make sure you keep documents about your pet’s medical records. You never know when you'll need to change veterinarians or take your pet to an emergency provider, and those records will be vital. Here’s what you need to keep.

  • Make a file for all of your post-visit reports. Have a file for your pet, and stash your post-visit reports from the vet in it. This will give you something to pull if you ever need your pet’s medical records. It will also demonstrate that you’re a responsible pet owner. Remember, your vet may not be allowed to release these documents without your permission should another person need them, so keep your copies on hand.
  • Keep all records of surgeries. If your pet has surgery, make sure you note this in your file. Surgical records could become important if your dog or cat has future medical needs.
  • Record your pet’s medical needs. If your pet has any specific medical needs, such as an allergy or a special disability, make sure you have clear records of this in your pet’s medical records location. Again, this is important information for vets who may work with your pet in the future or for anyone who may pet sit for you.
  • Records of medications. Have records of your pet’s medications clearly listed in one place. This should include the medication and the required dose. This will make it easier for anyone who has to watch your pet as well as for any future veterinarians.
  • Consider using an app to make it easier to store your pet’s vital information. Apps like Dog Medical Agenda (Apple) and Pet Master Pro (Android) make it easier to store your pet’s medical care and data.


If you are required to register your pet, make sure you have the required proofs available! You could face heavy fines if you don’t have them when asked. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Check with your vet or county to see what the registration requirements in your area. Many counties require pets to be registered. They charge a small fee for the registration and give tags that show the pet is properly vaccinated. Almost every state and every county has some sort of registration requirement. This is how law enforcement officials can track down owners if a dog gets into trouble, or they think they may be dealing with a dangerous dog. Also, licensed pets are easier to return to their owners if they get loose.

  • Remember that the penalty for a nonlicensed pet is hefty. Some owners opt not to register their pets simply because they don’t think their pet is at risk. This is a potentially costly mistake. The fee for being caught with a pet that is without a license can be hundreds of dollars, and in some cities, this as a misdemeanor act in the eyes of the law.

  • Keep kennel club registration handy. If you register your pet with the AKC or another kennel club for showing, you will need to keep records of those registrations. While these are not required by law, they are required to show in these events.

  • Purchase your county license at the time of vaccination. This is the easiest way to register your pet. When you get your vaccinations each year, purchase your license at the same time.

  • Purchase your license from the county licensing department. If you cannot purchase your license directly from the vet, head to the city or county licensing department. You may be asked to show proof of vaccination, but you can purchase the license and tags from the office directly.

  • Keep the paperwork from the license and have your pet wear the tag. Your license will come with a paper form that you need to keep with your pet’s important paperwork. Also, clip the tag to your pet’s collar and have them wear it at all times.

  • Have your vet microchip your pet. A microchip is a small chip that contains your contact information. If your pet gets loose, this is the key to getting him back. All pets, even those that are primarily indoor pets, should be microchipped for their safety. Microchipping your pets makes them 2.5 times more likely to be returned to you should they get loose.

  • Update microchip information whenever your contact information changes. If you get a new phone number or move to a new home, update your microchip information. This is the only way someone who finds your pet will be able to contact you.

Service Dog Documentation

Service dogs need all of the documentation already discussed, as well as documentation to prove that they are, in fact, service animals. This documentation gives them access to areas dogs normally cannot go. Here’s what you need to know about service dog registration and documentation.

  • Know whether your dog is truly a service dog. The ADA defines a service dog as a dog that has been individually trained to “do work or perform tasks” for a disabled individual. In order to be a service dog, your dog needs to be trained to help with a legitimate, documented disability.
  • Register your dog as a service dog with USA Service Dog Registration. This free service allows you to register your therapy, service, or emotional support dog. You will need the dog’s name, picture, and the address of the dog and handler to register.
  • Register with Service Dog Registration of America. Register service dogs with SDRA to get the necessary documentation to allow your dog access to areas dogs are not normally allowed.
  • Carry proof with you when you are out with your dog. When you register with SDRA or a similar organization, you will receive an ID for your dog as well as a certificate you can print proving your service dog’s status. Keep the ID with you to gain access to places you need to take your dog.
  • Know your rights with a service dog. The ADA titles II and III allow service animals the rights to accompany their owners anywhere they need to go, and companies or organizations are required to make accommodations for service dogs. These rights do not always apply to therapy or emotional support dogs. 

Potential problems

Being a responsible pet owner means treating your best friend with the proper care and love. It also means making sure other humans (and animals!) are safe and comfortable in your pet’s presence.

Make sure your dogs are kept indoors or in a securely fenced outside area, and bring them inside during inclement weather. You care about your pet’s well-being. And you don’t want to risk being in violation of animal cruelty laws, for your own sake as well as your pet’s. A strong, high fence will and some loving care will keep your dog from becoming a lost pet that may wind up at an animal shelter.

If your city or county has a leash law for dogs, obey it when you’re outdoors with your canine companion, and stay at a safe distance from pedestrians and other pets/wild animals. Be aware that other pet owners may not be as conscientious, and be on the lookout for lost dogs when you’re out with your pet.

If you live in a rural area, be on the lookout for wild animals (coyotes, deer, bears, mountain lions) that may venture into the outskirts of town. Sometimes, stray dogs become part of packs, so be aware of that possibility, too.

If your pet is designated a dangerous dog, you may have do deal with animal control officers or even face a court order to appear before a judge. A bench officer may be empowered to order the destruction of your pet, if it’s found to be an extremely dangerous dog, or you may face civil action and be forced to pay damages to an injured party.

If you find yourself ensnared in the legal system, don't be afraid to seek out legal advice on how to proceed.

Pet Insurance and Documentation

Pet insurance is not a new idea. In 1982, the first North American pet insurance policy was sold to one of the most famous dogs in the world — the dog that played Lassie. Since that time, the pet insurance industry has grown slowly, leaving many pet owners wondering if they need a policy or not.

Does your pet need insurance? Actually, the answer may surprise you. For both medical care and for insurance against theft or even death, you may want to consider insurance for your pet.


Medical Pet Insurance

When you get a pet, the costs of owning that pet are one of the last things you likely consider. Yet all it takes is one serious medical emergency to create high bills. Vet bills to hospitalize a dog or cat for 24 hours starts at $1,200, and emergency surgery for a large dog can easily cost $3,000 to $4,000. While you would never say “no” to life-saving medical care for your pet, these costs can add up.

Pet insurance can help. More than 25% of pet owners in many European countries have this coverage, yet in the United States only about 1% of pet owners do. Pet insurance helps cover some of the costs of veterinary treatment if your animal is injured, falls ill or is in an accident. Yet pet insurance is quite difficult to understand, and finding the right policy can be a challenge. This coverage is an important protection for pet owners. If you’re considering pet insurance, here’s what you need to know.

  • Decide what type of coverage you need. Not all pet insurance policies are created equal. Policies may include accident-only policies, which are limited to serious accidents; time-limited policies, which cover a period of time for any particular condition; maximum-benefit policies, which cover up to a certain amount per incident; and lifetime coverage, which covers any problems for the pet’s lifetime.

  • Check about pre-existing conditions. Most pet insurance policies don’t cover any medical condition a pet has before the policy is purchased. If your pet has such a condition, be sure to ask about this. It’s possible to still get a policy for other future needs with the understanding that the pre-existing condition will not be covered.

  • Choose a policy that balances low costs with a fairly low deductible. Pet insurance policies require pet owners to pay an amount toward their pet’s medical care before the insurance kicks in. You don’t want to pay a high premium for the insurance and find that there’s also a high deductible. Look for a policy that balances a lower cost and a lower deductible.

  • Purchase insurance before your pet is too old. Many insurance companies will not allow pets ages 8 and older to be covered, because they’re considered older animals. Purchase your insurance before your pet gets too old to qualify for coverage. If you do find insurance for an older pet, you can expect to pay more.

  • Research the cap on your insurance policy. Most policies will have a cap, but it may be per incident or it may be per calendar year. A policy that costs more, but only caps each year, may be more valuable than one that puts a cap on each individual incident.

  • Know that pet insurance isn’t just for dogs and cats. Though these furry companions may be the most commonly insured, pet insurance is available for exotic animals, birds, small mammals, and reptiles. However, finding these policies requires a little more digging.

  • Research exclusions. Before signing up for pet insurance, see what is excluded. Because pet insurance is not regulated, insurers can exclude anything they want. If your pet’s breed is prone to a specific health condition, that condition may be excluded for your breed. Choose a policy with as few exclusions as possible.

  • Choose the right type of reimbursement. Some insurance policies will reimburse you a percentage of your total bill, such as 90%, based on your vet’s itemized bill. Others will pay a set reimbursement amount for particular conditions that are covered. Both are valid options, so decide which you prefer. Remember with the reimbursement that is pre-set by the insurance provider, you may be left holding the bill if your vet charges more than what the insurance provider agrees to pay. In both cases, you will pay the bill upfront, then the insurance policy will reimburse you in the agreed-upon amount.

  • Find ways to get discounts. If you have more than one pet or if you have other forms of insurance through the insurance provider, you may be able to get multi-policy discounts.

  • Keep all paperwork for your policy handy. Know where it is, and present it when you visit the vet to ensure you get the right statements to submit for reimbursement. Your vet will be familiar with the different policies that are out there, so ask for help if you need it.

Additional Types of Insurance for Pets

In addition to medical coverage, consider these types of insurance for your pet.

  • Choose dental insurance. Your pet’s health and welfare is dependent on good dental care. Make sure you can afford it by having dental insurance. You can often add this to your medical insurance policy.
  • Consider the benefits of pet life insurance. Pets don’t have costly funeral expenses that need coverage, but for famous, costly, purebred, or rare pets, life insurance can help offset their monetary value when they pass away.
  • Purchase theft insurance if your pet is at high risk. Like life insurance, theft insurance is not typically needed for pets, but it is needed for show dogs, animal actors, famous pets (like Boo or Grumpy Cat) or extremely rare breeds of animals that are at higher risk for theft.
  • Travel insurance policies for pets are also available. Consider whether or not you will travel often with your pet. If so, you may wish to purchase travel insurance policies. These policies will cover emergency vet bills while traveling, cancellation costs if your pet is too ill to travel or dies while you are gone, loss of pets while traveling, and replacement documents if your pet’s papers are stolen while you are traveling.


Plans for an Emergency

After Hurricane Katrina, more than 100,000 pets were left homeless or ownerless as people had to flee the devastation of the massive storm and resulting flooding. While it’s hard to envision such a disaster happening to you, you need to be prepared. Here are the records and documents you should have on hand in the event of an emergency.

  • Think through your emergency preparedness plan. Plan for what you and your pets would do if faced with a serious emergency. Where would you take your pet? Where would you go? Is your emergency evacuation place pet-friendly? Think through these scenarios ahead of time to ensure everyone knows what needs to happen in an emergency.
  • Choose more than one pet-friendly emergency lodging option. If a close family member lives nearby, their home might be a great option if you have a house fire or similar localized emergency, but if you face a hurricane or tornado, you’re going to need to move a bit farther away. Find several emergency locations to ensure your pet and family are protected no matter what comes your way.
  • Write down your plan. Write down the parts of your emergency preparedness plan that relate to your pets. This will ensure no one forgets your animal companions should something disastrous happen.
  • Include emergency contact numbers. Have a list of your pet’s important contacts available to any pet sitters you may have. This includes the veterinarian, emergency veterinarian, and a trusted friend or family member who can be contacted if you’re not available. Keep this list posted somewhere obvious, like your refrigerator. Don’t forget the National Animal Poison Control Center number, which is 1-888-426-4435.


Your Estate Plan and Your Pet

Finally, make sure your estate plan arranges for the care and ownership if your pet. While your goal is to outlive your pet, this doesn’t always happen. Some pets, like parrots, routinely outlive their owners, leaving the owner’s family to decide what to do with the pet.

If you don’t outline your wishes, your companion could end up in a shelter. If your pet is older, the chance of a successful adoption are slim, leaving your companion to suffer in a shelter or, worse, be put down. The ASPCA estimates that as many as 31% of shelter dogs are euthanized, and the numbers for cats aren’t any better.

While that is a sad reality, the good news is that you can keep this from happening to your pet through a carefully outlined estate plan. If you make provisions in your estate plan for your pets and their care, you can be secure in knowing you’re doing all you can to protect them, even after you’re gone. Here are some things to consider.

  • Start planning early. Sure, you may think you have plenty of time, but no one knows what is going to happen in the future. Include provisions in your estate plan at the time you take custody of your pet to make sure everything’s in order.
  • Name your pet in your will. Make sure your pet and your wishes for that pet are included in your will. This is the very minimum you can do to protect your pet in your estate plan. However, the will is considered the least protective estate planning document, so you’re probably going to want to do a bit more.
  • Consider a pet trust. A pet trust is an excellent way to provide for the ongoing care of your pet after you’re gone. You can create a trust and fund it from your estate, then ensure that your pet is properly cared for, with adequate funding for that care.
  • Name your caretaker in the trust. Your trust is a vehicle to name your intended caretaker for your pet. Carefully consider finding someone who will give your pets the love you wish them to receive.
  • Ask the caretaker’s permission. Before naming someone as the caretaker for your pets, make sure they are willing to assume this role. Have a frank discussion with them about what it would entail and whether they’d be willing to take on that responsibility.
  • Name the trustee. The trustee is tasked with making financial decisions for your pet. It can be the caretaker, but you are also allowed to name someone else. The trustee is able to pay for veterinary expenses and ongoing care. Sometimes the trust will also pay the caregiver a stipend, which the trustee will dispense.
  • Fund the trust. To fund a trust, multiply your pet’s estimated remaining lifespan by your estimated yearly expenses, including food and veterinary care. Then add a bit more for end-of-life medical needs. Make sure your estate has enough to cover these costs.
  • Write a Letter of Final Wishes. Your pet trust will outline what you want for custody and care for your pet after you are gone, but it may take a while for the courts to confirm this and give the pet to your designated caretaker, especially if that caretaker lives far away. To speed the process, write a Letter of Final Wishes. Such a document can be easily accessed by your family members and outlines the person you wish to take possession of your pets immediately after your death until the terms in the trust are enforced.
  • Make the pet’s medical needs clear. In the Letter of Final Wishes, outline the pet’s normal diet, veterinarian contact information, medications and any special needs. This will ensure that early caretaker is able to do the job well.
  • If you can’t find a caretaker, consider a charitable organization for help. Groups like North Shore Animal League America offer programs that will take in pets when their owners die and provide them with safe homes until they can be adopted. If you can’t find a willing caretaker, find a program like this. Remember, the no-kill shelters in your area may not have openings, and a pampered pet is going to struggle in a shelter environment.
  • Leave a lump sum to the person inheriting your pets. If you aren’t going to create a pet trust, consider leaving the person who will get your pets a lump sum from your estate to help with pet care costs. This will ensure that your pet is not a burden to her new caretaker.

Paperwork and Pets Can Be Overwhelming, but It Is Well Worth the Effort

Yes, managing all of the paperwork that comes with pet ownership is overwhelming, but it is a task worth undertaking. From estate planning to basic medical records, it is up to you to keep these things organized and accessible, but it is a task worth taking on. When you do the work to manage your pet’s paperwork and records, you give yourself peace of mind knowing that you are doing all you can to ensure your pet will enjoy a long, healthy life. Take the steps in this guide to heart and start making changes now to ensure that you have the paperwork, records and reports in place to properly protect your pets.