Stealing a Pet in Pennsylvania – Is It Theft or Kidnapping?


I recently read a few articles online that New Mexico police filed criminal charges against a suspected serial dog kidnapper after a dog owner chased the dognapper’s car and observed two kidnapped pit bulls being thrown from the moving vehicle. The suspect was charged with Animal Cruelty, False Imprisonment, and Burglary. The Burglary charge must be based upon allegations that the dognapper actually entered into a dog owner’s residence without permission or consent with the intent to steal the dogs.  In Pennsylvania, a charge of Burglary is a felony and quite possibly would result in a sentence that included jail time and a lengthy probation or parole sentence.

The suspect is well known to police as she was a frequent caller and reporter of perceived animal abuse, but, when the police investigated the reports, they found that the animals were in fact properly fed and housed. The police stated that they suspected the woman may have been responsible but didn’t have sufficient evidence until the recent flight and dog toss from the car window. The suspected dognapper has retained a criminal defense lawyer, and, through her lawyer, the suspect denies any wrong doing. A “friend” of the suspect actually claims that the local police and animal care officials are part of an overall conspiracy that allows animal cruelty in the area and are simply targeting the suspect because of her animal relief efforts.

Animals are Property, Not People

Many people think of their family pet as a member of the family, and some people might even like their pet more than members of their family. While family pets may hold a special place in the hearts of their owners, in the eyes of the law, pets are still considered to be property. This issue rarely arises in criminal court. A criminal defendant that injures an animal is not charged with assault like they would if the victim were a person. Instead, the criminal defendant is charged with animal cruelty. For the woman that decided to steal the family dog, the act is a theft and not kidnapping. The severity of the theft charge is based upon the value of the animal. And, in determining “value,” it is the monetary value of the animal, not the value of “priceless” that a family would place on the family pet. Since our family pet is a mutt that was adopted from PAWS, the theft offense would be relatively minor, but the loss to our family would be great.

The property versus people issue does arise in civil law more often when spouses divorce or couples separate. Both parties often fight over the family pet and want to exercise visitation rights, but the courts will not force such arrangements as animals are property and not people. As property, a judge is required to order that one side or the other takes possession and ownership of the animal. Splitting parties can agree to allow visitation and share animals, but they are not able to petition a court to force such an arrangement.