I recently encountered this video of a conflict between neighbors over the roaming habits of a local cat, which got me thinking about cats and the law. In the clip, the long-haired dude threatens to call the police because his neighbor is guilty of “harboring a cat.”
Unsurprisingly, this “Cat Karen” is full of shit. There is no jurisdiction I can find where a cat choosing to wander into your yard would be considered “harboring a cat” on your part. Cats can walk around wherever they want. But I’m left with greater questions about the intersection between cats and the law. Can a cat owner be held legally responsible for things their cat does? Can you be forced to keep your cat inside? Do cats need licenses?
A general legal theory of domestic cats
There are no federal laws specifically aimed at house cats. Only three states—California, Maine, and Rhode Island—have “cat codes” that specifically cover felines, but those are mostly aimed at cat shelters and businesses, not individual owners. A few localities have ordinances that govern how house cats can be treated by owners—how many cats you can have, whether you have to spay or neuter them, etc.— but not many.
General laws about cruelty or neglect to animals apply of course, and there’s likely to be local ordinances about how the city deals with stray or feral cats, but for typical domestic cats, the law is largely silent.
Do cats need licenses?
Cats are almost always exempt from the kinds of “keep them leashed and under control” regulations that govern dogs and other animals. You don’t have to register them like dogs, or get any kind of license for them at all (except in Rhode Island.) A few municipalities have tried “you have to keep your cat inside” ordinances, but these have proven all but impossible to enforce—it’s like herding cats.
In a general sense, there is a societal understanding that cats don’t need such laws because they’re usually benign and somewhat autonomous. So if your cat likes hanging out in your neighbor’s yard, and you call the authorities to accuse them of stealing your cat, the law would basically respond:, “Cats! What are you gonna do?” And probably laugh at you.
This leaves felines legally free to do as they will. They are the gangsters of the domesticated animal kingdom. Unlike people, dogs, or donkeys, cats are free to trespass, shit in other people’s yards, and generally tear shit up. But those rare felines that want to attack people or damage property could still cause a legal headache for their owners.
For most purposes, cats are considered the personal property of their owners. If you’re a cat owner, you have the same responsibilities and liabilities regarding your cats as you do of anything else you own. But unlike most personal property, cats can’t be controlled, which can make things complicated.
Can I be sued if my cat attacks someone?
You will likely be in for a much tougher time if your dog bites someone than your cat. Dogs are way more dangerous than cats. It’s estimated that around 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs every year in the U.S., and about 800,000 of them go to the hospital. Only 400,000 cat bites happen annually, accounting for 66,000 hospital visits. The law, in a general sense, regards all dogs as potentially dangerous and spells out how they are to be controlled and managed. Unlike cats, who are seen as harmless until proven otherwise.
In some states, a dog bite is a “strict liability” situation. That is, it doesn’t matter if it’s a first offense; the owner is still on the hook because a dog biting someone is a foreseeable occurrence. In some states, dogs get a “free bite,” after which it’s considered clear that the dog is dangerous, and owners will generally be liable for future bites.
Cats bites are never a strict liability, and only in California is there the equivalent of a “free” unprovoked attack before an owner will be held responsible. Most other places in the country don’t address injury or damages specifically from cat attacks. But this doesn’t mean aggressive cats are free to attack at will, because other laws apply.
Negligence and dangerous cats
If you know your cat likes to attack people, you have a general legal responsibility to keep others safe from it, like you would have a responsibility to keep people safe from any dangerous possession. If your cat has a history of clawing and biting people, and you fail to warn a visitor to your home, that may be considered negligence, and you could be held responsible for injuries and damages. If you knowingly let your dangerous cat outside and it attacks someone, the same could apply.
Am I liable if my cat damages someone’s property?
When it comes to property damages—say your cat claws up your neighbor’s flower bed—general negligence laws would theoretically apply, but it would most likely be balanced against society’s tacit “They’re cats! They do things like that” understanding. Proving the “guilt” of a cat would be complicated anyway; maybe it was some other cat that dug up the hydrangeas? So how could an owner be held responsible? (This is how cats get away with so many adorable crimes.)
Can you be held responsible if your cat damages a rental property?
The exception to this general guideline: rental properties. Cats can cause a lot of damage to couches, walls, rugs, and everything else in a rented place, and you are in no way protected, as a tenant, by their cat-ness. Most leases spell out the fact that you will be held 100% responsible if your cat ruins the carpeting, and no appeal to the inherent wildness of felines if likely to help you claw your security deposit back.