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Pennsylvania Animal Shelters, Rescues – Liability for a Dog Attack or Bite



Learn whether an animal shelter/rescue in PA can be held liable when an adopted dog attacks or bites

Last month, a Northeast Philadelphia mom and her two young children were attacked and bitten by a dog they’d recently adopted from a private animal rescue organization in Philadelphia. Click here to read more about that incident and also get tips for adopting a pet.

This recent case brings up an important issue, whether a private animal shelter or rescue organization could be held liable when an adopted dog attacks or bites someone. Under Pennsylvania negligence laws, the answer is yes.

In Pennsylvania, negligence is defined as doing something no ordinary, reasonable person would do, or failing to do something an ordinary, reasonable person would do. Let’s examine this principle in the context of a dog attack situation involving a dog adopted from a private animal shelter or rescue.

Liability for Negligence in Failing to Obtain Prior Dog Attack History

Young dogs who end up in a shelter or rescue organization often have prior aggressive tendencies or otherwise were abused. These types of factors are reasons dogs are given up to a shelter. Accordingly, shelters and rescues should make reasonable attempts to ascertain an adoptee dog’s history. If a history is unavailable, a temperament test conducted by a professional may be warranted. This is especially true when dealing with breeds that are considered risky, such as Pit Bull/Terriers, Dobermans, Rottweilers, and German Shepherds. Some insurance companies may even deny homeowners or renters insurance when the insured individual owns one of these breeds. Other breeds considered to be risky include Great Danes, Presa Canarios, and Alaskan Malamutes. Of course, not all dogs within a breed are aggressive. However, statistics show that a greater percentage of these breeds of dogs cause physical injuries during attacks and bites. One reason is the size of these dogs; they are some of the largest types of dogs.

Related: PA Dog Attacks-Reasonable Control

Temperament Testing

Oftentimes, it is difficult to obtain full, accurate histories of dogs in shelters and rescue organizations. That’s why it is critical to perform proper temperament testing. Many organizations conduct basic temperament tests in the actual shelter/rescue facility. Oftentimes, volunteers or part-time employees are conducting these tests. These tests are often incomplete. A shy, quiet dog in a shelter environment often displays completely different characteristics in other environments. For example, a dog which seems docile in a shelter may be more defensive or aggressive in a home environment, especially where young children are present. Conducting proper temperament testing decreases the risk of a mismatch and subsequent injuries from a dog bite or attack.

Providing Instructions

In addition, parents who adopt a dog from a shelter are often given no instructions on how to properly integrate the dog into the family environment. Many families are unaware of the importance of establishing a safe zone for the dog, somewhere the dog can retreat to, such as a designated crate or room. Simply throwing a shelter dog into the mix of a busy family with young children is often a recipe for disaster.

Here is a scenario which includes all the factors discussed above. A large, male German Shepherd is anonymously turned into a shelter in Philadelphia. The previous owner leaves a note that provides the vet’s name and states the family is moving, a common reason given for turning a dog over to a shelter. Shelter employees process the dog as usual. No one calls the vet to ascertain the dog’s history. It would have revealed that the dog previously bit a vet tech during a routine exam.

The dog is examined and must be neutered prior to being adopted. The dog is neutered and during the recovery process exhibits aggressive tendencies. The dog nips at caretakers and bares its teeth when approached. The shelter employees believe the aggression is related to stress from the medical procedure.

After several weeks, the dog heals and is placed in a pen with other dogs. It is docile and quiet in the pen, but when alone with employees, the dog exhibits erratic behavior, such as pacing, jumping, barking, etc. One of the volunteers is tasked with conducing a “temperament test.” It includes watching the dog with other dogs, engaging the dog by trying take a toy or food away, etc. It does not include mimicking real life situations, such as exposing the dog to the sound of children.

The dog is adopted by a couple with two young children and a baby. The family is told nothing about the dog’s history or erratic behavior. In addition, the family is not given any instructions on how to integrate the dog into the home. Days later, the dog bites one of the young children in the face causing serious injuries. 

Here, the shelter has committed negligence in failing to obtain the dog’s history, failing to conduct a temperament test, and failing to warn the family about the dog’s erratic behavior. Therefore, it would be held liable in a subsequent dog attack lawsuit and may be ordered to pay financial damages for the child’s physical injuries.

More: Pennsylvania & New Jersey Dog Attacks – What Are Your Legal Rights?

Dog Bite Injury Lawyers in Pennsylvania

Our lawyers have handled many dog bite injury cases in Pennsylvania, including cases in which breeders and dog handlers were held liable. Call for a free consultation. (877) 944-8396


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