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From Leash Laws to Dog Bites: Your Legal Responsibilities as a Dog Owner

June 14, 2021

According to the Virginia Department of Health Animal Contact and Human Health Statistics, more than 4.7 million people are bitten by dogs each year in the United States. Approximately 39% of these bites occur outside the dog’s home. [1] Any dog of any breed may bite. There is no way to know if a dog is a biter by only their breed, size, or age. As a dog owner, it is your responsibility to follow the law, not only for the safety of others, but also for the safety of your own pet. Virginia has several laws in place to prevent these types of situations.

Virginia’s leash laws

In Virginia, there is no statewide law regarding leashing your dog, however the law does allow for localities to adopt ordinances requiring a leash or restraint to prevent dogs from running at large[2]. For example, in Chesapeake it is unlawful for your dog to be loose outside of your property and not in your immediate physical control. Physical control means confinement by a fence, chain or leash.

You can search for other cities’ local ordinances at https://library.municode.com/va  for more information. 

What happens if your dog does get loose?  

It depends. Is this the first time your dog got out? Did your dog destroy someone else’s property? Did your dog get into a scuffle with the neighborhood cat? Has this happened before? Did your dog bite someone else’s pet or a person?

Your dog’s behavior while outside of your property dictates the severity of the outcome.  

At Large

In most cities, a violation of running at large is a Class 4 misdemeanor.[3] A Class 4 misdemeanor is a criminal offense and the punishment is a fine not to exceed $250.[4]

Nuisance

If this is a habitual issue, you may be charged with a more serious offense, such as nuisance. This is not a statewide charge, but a local ordinance enacted by some cities. For example, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, and Norfolk all have local ordinances on preventing your pet from becoming a nuisance, however Portsmouth does not. In Virginia Beach, three or more violations of their at-large ordinance within 12 months is deemed a nuisance.[5] In Chesapeake, “habitually running at large” constitutes a nuisance.[6] In both cities, your pet faces confinement, removal, or disposal, including euthanasia, if deemed a nuisance. As the owner, you too face repercussions including, but not limited to, fines and fees.

If your dog attacked another animal, you may be charged with nuisance, and in some cities you face heightened punishment for this type of nuisance. A nuisance violation involving an attack in Chesapeake is a class 1 misdemeanor.[7] A class 1 misdemeanor is the highest level of misdemeanor, and you face up to 12 months in jail and up to a $2,500 fine.[8]

Dangerous Dog

If your dog bit, attacked, or injured a dog, cat, or person, then your dog may also be charged with dangerous dog.[9] There are several exceptions to dangerous dog including, the following:

  • No serious injury to the dog or cat that was attacked;
  • Both animals have the same owner;
  • The attack happened on the owner’s property;
  • Only a single nip or bite with minor injury to a person occurred;
  • The dog was engaged in lawful hunting;
  • The person was committing a crime on your property (including trespassing);
  • The person was provoking, tormenting, or physically abusing your dog or can be shown to have repeatedly provoked, tormented, abused, or assaulted your dog at other times.;
  • The dog was responding to pain or injury or was protecting itself, its kennel, its offspring, a person, or its owner's or custodian's property; or
  • If the court determines, based on the totality of the evidence before it, or for other good cause, that the dog is not dangerous or a threat to the community.

If your dog is charged as dangerous, then your dog will be confined by animal control until your court hearing. You may be permitted to confine your dog at home if you follow certain conditions placed upon you by animal control.

If the judge does find your dog to be dangerous, you may be ordered to pay for medical or physical damages. You will also have to follow several requirements, including:

  • Registering your dog as dangerous, including annual renewals;
  • Neutering or spaying your dog;
  • Confining your dog on your property indoors or in a securely enclosed and locked structure of sufficient height and design to prevent its escape or direct contact with or entry by minors, adults, or other animals;
  • When off your property, keeing your dog on a leash and muzzle;
  • Posting clearly visible signs warning both minors and adults of the presence of a dangerous dog on the property;
  • Microchipping your dog; and
  • Obtaining and maintaining at least $100,000 in liability insurance coverage that covers animal bites.

Vicious Dog

If your dog kills a person, inflicts serious injury to a person, or continues exhibiting behavior that caused the dog to be deemed dangerous, the dog can be charged as vicious. "Serious injury" means an injury having a reasonable potential to cause death or any injury other than a sprain or strain, including serious disfigurement, serious impairment of health, or serious impairment of bodily function and requiring significant medical attention. There are several exceptions to vicious dog including:

  • The person was committing a crime on your property (including trespassing);
  • The person was provoking, tormenting, or physically abusing your dog or can be shown to have repeatedly provoked, tormented, abused, or assaulted the animal at other times; or
  • The dog was responding to pain or injury or was protecting itself, its kennel, its offspring, a person, or its owner's or custodian's property.

If your dog is charged as vicious, animal control will seize and impound your dog until your court hearing. As the owner or custodian, you may be charged with a class 6 felony if the care, control, or containment of the dog was gross, wanton, and culpable as to show a reckless disregard to others.[10] A class 6 felony is the lowest level of felony, and you could face up to 5 years in prison and up to a $2,500 fine.[11]

If the judge does find your dog to be vicious, you may be ordered to pay for medical or physical damages and your dog will be euthanized.

How can we prevent harmful encounters and charges from happening?

Accidents do happen, however most of these situations are preventable. As a pet owner, it is our responsibility to ensure our pets are controlled properly. Be sure to utilize an appropriate fitting collar and/or harness and leash when outside. Check your fence for repairs, or if you have a dog who likes to jump or dig, seek electronic fence options. Be proactive and spay or neuter and microchip your pet. According to the Virginia Department of Health, an unneutered dog is 3 times more likely to bite.[12] Contact local organizations, such as Animal Resources of Tidewater (ART)[13], or your local animal control for assistance. Local organizations like ART provide financial assistance as well as assistance with re-homing your pet, if necessary.  

If you need assistance with navigating animal law related issues, it’s prudent to contact an attorney with experience in these matters.

Amanda Newins is a Pender & Coward attorney focusing her practice on animal law, criminal law, and civil litigation.

[1] https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/environmental-epidemiology/statistics/

[2] Virginia Code Ann. 3.2-6538, Virginia Code Ann. 3.2-6539

[3] Chesapeake Ordinance Sec. 10-42, Virginia Beach Ordinance Sec. 5-530, Norfolk Ordinance Sec. 6.1-79

[4] Virginia Code Ann. 18.2-11

[5] Virginia Beach Ordinance Sec. 5-533

[6] Chesapeake Ordinance Sec. 10-45(6)

[7] Chesapeake Ordinance Sec. 10-45(4)

[8] Virginia Code Ann. 18.2-11

[9] Virginia Code Ann. 3.2-6540

[10] Virginia Code Ann. 3.2-6540.1

[11] Virginia Code Ann. 18.2-10

[12] https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/environmental-epidemiology/statistics/

[13] https://artanimals.org/

 

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