Sources Dog Law in Virginia

By Charles Michael Fulton, Attorney at Law

To help readers be knowledgeable and responsible pet parents, this article focuses on the source of laws relating to dogs in the Commonwealth of Virginia.  It provides you the tools to check the laws that pertain to your particular city or county. 

Generally, state laws can either come from the state, in Virginia’s case the Commonwealth, or the local government, in Virginia’s case the city or county. The Commonwealth of Virginia, however, applies Dillon’s Rule to questions of the power of cities and counties. This means that cities and counties do not have the power to enact a law unless the Commonwealth expressly grants that power. Clay W. Writ, Dillon’s Rule, 24 Va. Town and City 28,  n.p. (1989). For this reason, the Commonwealth is the source of most laws in Virginia.

Note that the citations at the end of the majority of the sentence below are the title followed by the section number for the particular section that contains the cited law in the Code of Virginia, which you can find on the internet.

Standards of Care

Source: State Law

In Virginia, an owner must provide a companion animal, including a dog, with adequate food; adequate water; adequate shelter that is clean; adequate space, exercise, care, treatment, and transportation; and vet care when necessary to prevent suffering or the transmission of disease. Va. Code Ann. § 3.2-6503 (2018). Failure to meet these minimum standards is, for the first offense, a criminal misdemeanor subject to a fine of up to $250.00. Va. Code Ann. §§ 3.2-6503(B); 18.2-11(d) (2018). Punishment for subsequent violations increase up to both a fine of up to $1,000.00 and six months in jail for failure to provide adequate food, water, shelter, or vet care. Va. Code Ann. §§ 3.2-6503(B); 18.2-11(b)

Required Vaccinations

Source: State Law, Possibly City/County Ordinance in Some Cases

All dogs and cats over four months old in the commonwealth must be vaccinated against rabies. Va. Code Ann. § 3.2-6521 (2018). There does not appear to be any other vaccinations required by law. Cities and counties, however, do have the authority to adopt additional regulations to prevent the spread of rabies. Va. Code Ann. § 3.2-6525 (2018). Therefore, it is important to review the local ordinance for the city or county in which you live for any other requirements to prevent the spread of rabies.

Dog Licenses

Source: State Law

All dogs over four months old in the commonwealth must be licensed. Va. Code Ann. § 3.2-6524(a) (2018). A dog must be vaccinated against rabies to get a license. Va. Code Ann.§ 3.2-6524(b) (2018). Dog licenses must be attached to a “substantial collar” when the dog is “run[ning] or roam[ing] at large,” unless the dog is lawfully hunting, competing in a dog show, confined, or “under the immediate control of its owner.” Va. Code Ann. § 3.2-6531 (2018). If you lose a license, you have to apply for a replacement license “at once,” and the replacement license cannot cost more than a dollar. Va. Code Ann. § 3.2-6532 (2018). If your dog isn’t displaying its license, the Commonwealth will presume that the dog is unlicensed, and the owner has the burden to prove otherwise. Va. Code Ann. § 3.2-6533 (2018).

Note that a lot of the phrases above, such as immediate control of owner and at once in the case of replacing a lost license, are not defined in the relevant law. This means that it is up to a Virginia court to determine whether an owner is in immediate control of a dog or if the owner replaced a lost license in sufficient time to satisfy the law. Courts generally interpret undefined phrases by asking how a reasonable person would define them. So, when trying to figure it out, just make sure your definition is reasonable.

Leash Laws

Source: City/County Ordinance

Leash laws are one of the few areas that the Commonwealth has granted authority to cities and counties to decide whether or not to have them. See Va. Code Ann. § 3.2-6539 (2018). For example, Fairfax County makes it a criminal misdemeanor to let your dog off the leash unless it is in an area designated by the county or the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority as an off-leash park, and certain other circumstances, like when the dog is engaged in lawful hunting activity. Fairfax Co., Va. Code of Ordinances § 41.1-2-4(a) (2018). Notably, violating this simple ordinance can lead to a criminal record. So, if you have a security clearance, it’s a good idea to strictly abide by the leash law when you are in Fairfax County. ND

Charles Michael Fulton is an attorney licensed to practice in Virginia and the District of Columbia. His areas of practice include animal law, consumer protection law, and landlord/tenant law.