How Long Before a Stray Dog Is Legally Yours?

How Long Before a Stray Dog Is Legally Yours

It’s heartbreaking to find a stray dog, and then hand it over without ever knowing what happened to it. There’s often a temptation to keep the stray dog, but just what is the legality of that depending on what state you live in?

What I’ve done in this guide is look at a range of states in the US including Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas, and Washington State.

Scroll down, because the laws on whether you can keep a dog if you found it will be different depending on whether you are, but here’s a generic answer first.

How long it takes before a stray dog is legally yours will depends on the state laws in your area. In some states, it can take only three days before you’re given legal ownership of a stray dog. And in other states, you may have to wait for as long as 90 days.

Here’s a quick state by state guide showing the ones I researched.

How long before a stray dog is legally yours in…

Please note, the days stated below should be checked yourself as laws change all the time. The data in this table was supplied by a third party, and could have errors.

StateHow long before the stray dogs is legally yours
Arizona90 days
Arkansas90 days
California90 days
Colorado90 days
Florida90 days
Georgia90 days
North Carolina90 days
Oklahoma90 days
Texas14 days
Washington State30 days

Found a stray dog? Here’s how long you will wait before it becomes legally yours

Not one, two…. but 3.1 million!

That’s the estimated number of dogs in the US that find themselves in shelters every year. That includes both dogs surrendered to shelters by their owners for personal reasons, and stray dogs brought in by kind strangers.

Millions of strays roam the streets day and night. Chances are, you’ve encountered a stray dog countless times while going about your business.

Some strays even show up on your property.

If you’ve badly wished to own a dog, bumping into a helpless stray can make you think the universe has conspired to fulfill your dog parenthood desires. All you’d want to do at that moment is take them in so they can have a loving home forever by your side.

Well, that may be the humane thing to do. But the law doesn’t work like that.

You see, dogs are often considered personal property. That stray wandering in your yard might be someone else’s lost canine companion.

If you keep them and the rightful owner finds them miraculously, you can be accused of theft — even if you had the purest intentions taking the dog.

By starting things off on the right footing, you’ll avoid getting caught up in legal problems.

Also, the dog might have a zoonotic disease — like the deadly rabies. So, it’s not safe for you to take them home before knowing whether they are in good shape health-wise.

Almost all states require you to involve the authorities before making a stray dog your furry companion. You must report the lost-and-found stray dog to a local shelter or reach out to a local animal control officer.

This law exists so that rightful owners have an opportunity to reunite with their missing dog.

What if I told you roughly 710,000 stray dogs in shelters reunite with their families yearly?  Yep, you read that right!

When you decide to keep a stray dog or rescued dog without engaging the authorities first, somebody out there may be miserable because of your decision.

stray dog
The stray dog could become yours providing it’s done legally (

You can even stop by a local veterinary clinic if you aren’t sure how to contact the authorities.

If the authorities or shelter don’t find the stray dog’s owner (after doing all they can to trace the owner), they will gather your details and transfer ownership to you. You must let them know your interest in adopting the stray so that you’re given priority when they put the dog up for adoption.

The laws in your area will determine how long it will take for you to be the dog’s legal caregiver.

In some states, you may have to wait for three days. In other areas, you will wait anywhere between five to seven days. For instance:

  • In South Carolina, the shelter or animal control officers will hold the dog for five days, awaiting the rightful owner to claim it. If five days lapse and no one comes to pick up the dog, you’ll be given legal ownership.
  • In Alabama, it takes seven days for you to be given legal ownership of a stray dog if the rightful owner doesn’t claim it.
  • In Texas, you’ll have to wait three days to be given the legal rights to care for a stray.

You can find the stray dog holding period of different states here. But the bottom line is, it depends on where you’re at.

The shelter or animal authority officer you’ll engage will give you the exact time frame it will take for you to be given legal custody of the dog.

Not all states have these laws. Depending on your area, the authorities you contact can tell you to stay with the do. But on one condition — you should spread the word about his missing status for a specific duration.

They will ask you to put up flyers and posts online to try and connect the dog with its owner before making yourself the official caregiver.

While it may seem like forever, the holding period is a blessing in disguise.

At least you’ll get a chance to dog-proof your home and get the necessary dog supplies before bringing your adopted stray dog home. When the big day arrives, you’ll be all set.

What to do (and what not to do) if you find a stray dog

Approach them with caution

Strays are often quite overwhelmed by their new surroundings. They are also scared and suspicious of anyone who comes near them.

This can make them snap at you even though you mean well.

To avoid getting attacked, be careful when approaching them. If they bark or growl with each step you make, don’t get any closer.

But if they seem pretty calm as you walk towards them, speak to them in soothing tones so they can feel comfortable around you.

And if the poor dog walks away yet your heart is still set on adopting it given a chance, reach out to the shelter or an animal control officer immediately so that you can give them the dog’s description and location.

This will help them track it down sooner, and you’ll be able to see the dog again.

Confirm if they have an ID

Before speaking to the authorities, check whether the stray dog has an identification collar.

If they have a collar, ring the contact provided to organize with the owner how they can pick up their dog.

In case the dog has no physical identification, you can take them to the nearest vet, who will check whether they’ve been microchipped.

If the microchip is there, the vet will contact the owners. But if the dog lacks it, the vet will ask you to reach out to the local authorities to know the way forward.

Unable to head to the vet? Don’t worry — you can simply contact the authorities. They will scan for the microchip (as well as do some medical checks) once the dog is in their custody.

Remember this…

Adopting stray dog comes with huge responsibilities — just as with every other dog. You should be ready to care for them and meet all their basic needs (which means new financial commitments).

But on the positive side, they will pay you back with unconditional love and unwavering loyalty.

Worth it if you ask me.


Can I keep a dog if I found it?

No, you can’t. As discussed earlier, you must involve local animal control officers or animal shelter personnel first to help reconnect the dog with the owner.

How long is a stray hold in South Carolina?

Five days. A stray dog taken up by a shelter or animal control officer in South Carolina will stay under their custody for five days before being given up for adoption (or euthanized if the dog is seriously ill).

Are dogs considered property in Alabama?

Yes, that’s right. Dogs in Alabama (as well as other states) are considered personal property.

How long do you have to claim a lost dog in Texas?

The state laws in Texas give you only three working days to claim a lost dog.


Ever wondered how long it would take for you to become the legal owner of a stray dog you found and fell head-over-heels at first sight…

Well, you’re not alone.

Unfortunately though, it’s never as cut and dry as I’ve outlined here today and the laws will often change so pleased contact your local authorities for conformation.

They will be able to tell you how long it takes before a stray dog legally becomes yours where you live.

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Image of stray dog in header from

Marc Aaron

I write about the things we've learned about owning dogs, the adventures we have, and any advice and tips we've picked up along the way.

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