Owners have certain responsibilities for their animals, whether they are pets or livestock. For instance, a dog that has bitten a neighbor on more than one occasion may be declared dangerous by a judge and ordered to be confined in the home or behind a fence. Also, local ordinances may determine whether you may keep chickens or other livestock in your backyard. This article focuses on neighbor animal disputes, beginning with the legal history of such disputes.
See FindLaw's Neighbors section for related articles and resources.
In the old courts of England, the owner was held strictly liable for any damages to person or property done by his livestock straying onto the property of another. The mere fact that they strayed and damaged crops, other livestock, or personal property was sufficient to hold the owner liable for the injuries inflicted by cattle, sheep, goats, and horses.
This strict liability position made sense in the confines of a small island such as England, but in the United States with herds of livestock wandering over vast expanses of land, a different process developed. The legislatures enacted statutes which provided that livestock were free to wander and that the owner was not responsible for damage inflicted by those livestock unless they entered land enclosed by a legal fence. These became known as open range laws.
Some years later, certain states reversed the open range laws and required the owners of livestock to fence in their livestock. This position was similar to the common law position, only instead of strict liability, the livestock owner could be held liable only upon a showing that the livestock escaped due to the owner's negligence.
Dogs or other animals inflicting bites, scratches, or other injuries may make their owners both civilly and criminally liable for such behavior. In some jurisdictions, an animal can be declared dangerous by a court and a judge may order the animal be confined or destroyed. States differ on the threshold for liability, however. For instance, some states hold owners strictly liable if they're dog bites an individual. But in other states, the owner must have known (or should have known) that the dog was dangerous or unpredictable.
See Dog Bites and Animal Attack Overview for additional information.
If the issue is that the neighbor has too many pets, the neighbor could be in violation of a zoning, health code, or noise ordinance. Also, the welfare of the pets may be called into question, especially if they live in unsanitary conditions or don't receive adequate food, water, or medical care. It's best to speak with an attorney to determine how to proceed if a neighbor has too many pets.