Can I run into legal problems if something bad happens to an animal I’m pet sitting?
I want to know what I’m getting into when I look after my friend’s dog.
A dog gets spooked and jumps its leash. A cat eats something it shouldn’t have. An animal gets sick. Bad things can happen. But as long as you take reasonable care of the animal, you likely won’t run into legal trouble.
Taking care of someone else’s pet isn’t 100% free of legal risks, though. The animal might go missing or get run over by a car. Unfortunate incidents that involve pets are upsetting, even traumatic, for everyone involved. If an owner thinks you’ve done something wrong, there are three main ways they could seek to hold you responsible.
You could be sued for negligence
When we use the word negligence in everyday life, it usually means someone hasn’t been careful enough. Under the law, it has a more specific meaning. To make a claim of negligence against you, the owner would have to show all of these elements:
you owed them a duty of care (as their pet sitter),
you failed to meet a reasonable standard of care,
it was reasonably foreseeable that your actions would cause the injury or loss of the pet, and
your actions caused the injury or loss.
Here’s a case in BC where a dog owner was found negligent for the death of their neighbour’s dog. And here’s another BC case where a vet was not found negligent. Both cases discuss the elements of negligence in the context of a pet being harmed.
You could be sued for breach of contract
If your friend paid you to watch their pet, this could establish a contract. With this more formal kind of arrangement, there’s likely an implied term that you agreed to take care of their animal in a reasonable way. If you’re negligent in taking care of the animal, the owner could claim that you didn’t uphold your end of the deal. In other words, that you breached the contract. If you’re in the business of boarding, grooming or otherwise caring for pets, this could also apply.
If you’re successfully sued for negligence or breach of contract, then you may have to pay damages. This might include covering vet bills. If a pet dies or is lost, the damages will likely be limited to the “market value” of the animal. This is because pets are considered “property” under the law. There’s a very limited number of cases where courts have awarded damages for the owner’s pain or suffering or loss of companionship when a pet has died.
You could be charged with a crime
In extreme situations, you could be charged with the offence of animal cruelty. This could result in fines or even prison time. In this upsetting BC case, a woman who was looking after six dogs was sentenced to six months in prison. A professional dog walker, she left the dogs in her truck while she went shopping. All six dogs died of heat stroke. She didn’t do it intentionally, but the court found that it was “more than mere negligence.”
As well, be aware of local bylaws
There may be local animal control bylaws that may apply to you when you’re pet sitting. These vary depending on the municipality. For example, a bylaw may require you to keep the animal under control in public, or not let you bring the animal to certain public areas. Local governments can impose maximum penalties of fines up to $10,000 and six months imprisonment for bylaw breaches.
For more, check out this webinar, where lawyers answer common questions about pets and the law in British Columbia.