Disclaimer: I am not an attorney, and the content of this article is for informational purposes only. It should not be construed as legal advice. If you have specific legal questions or concerns, please consult with a licensed attorney in Illinois.

When you think of Chicago, images of skyscrapers, bustling streets, and deep-dish pizza likely come to mind. Perhaps you think of the iconic Bean sculpture in Millennium Park or historic Wrigley Field. With so much going on, it’s easy for people to overlook a common problem occurring in plain site: the situation with stray dogs. 

Chicago animal shelters are packed, and they are euthanizing dogs at all-time-high rates. If you find a stray dog in Chicago or anywhere in Illinois, it may be tempting to skip the shelter and keep it or foster it yourself. But this raises important questions about the legalities surrounding these animals. How does the city handle stray dogs, and what are your responsibilities if you find one? More importantly, how long before a stray dog is legally yours in Illinois? 

How Long Before A Stray Dog Is Legally Yours In Illinois?

In Illinois, animal control is required to make contact with the owner of any impounded stray dog within 24 hours of being impounded. After that, they are held for at least 7 days before they can be adopted out. 

However, that doesn’t mean that you can find and keep a stray dog in Illinois and claim legal ownership after just one week. There are two major factors you also need to consider.

First, note that these rules are specific to animal control services and rescue organizations, not individuals. At the state level, Illinois does not specify what your legal rights or obligations are if an individual finds a stray dog.

Instead, Illinois delegates the responsibility of creating and enforcing animal control regulations to the counties. Therefore, you will need to look at your local county ordinances to determine how long before a stray dog is legally yours in Illinois.

Second, dogs are property in Illinois. This is true of most states. Therefore, we’ll need to look more closely at Illinois property laws. This will help us get a better understanding of your obligations when you find a stray dog.

Because they are considered property, failing to follow the proper channels to reunite the stray dog with their owner could be considered theft.

Fun Fact! Illinois is one of the best states in the US to be a dog, according to a study by the Animal Legal Defense Fund. Stray dogs in Alabama and strays in Idaho have it pretty bad, but they aren’t the worst states to be a dog!

Dogs As Property In Illinois

Because dogs are property in Illinois, your obligations when you find a stray dog are governed by Illinois’ lost property laws.

According to Section 16-2 of the Illinois Compiled Statutes (720 ILCS 5/16-2), the theft of lost or mislaid property, including stray dogs, is a serious crime. 

Keeping a stray dog in Illinois is considered theft if the following conditions are met:

  1. Knowledge of the Owner: You learn the identity of the owner or know a reasonable method of identifying the owner.
  2. Failure to Return: You do not take reasonable measures to reunite the dog with their owner.
  3. Intent to Deprive: Your intention is to keep the dog.

If you find a stray dog in Illinois, it’s essential to consider it as someone’s lost or mislaid property. The legal expectation is to make a reasonable effort to identify and return the dog to its owner. 

This could involve reporting the found dog to local animal services or law enforcement agencies, who can assist in locating the owner.

The theft of a lost dog (assuming that dog cost less than $500), is a Class B misdemeanor. A class B misdemeanor in Illinois can land up to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,500.

What You Should Do

Therefore, if you find a stray dog in Illinois, it’s best for you to surrender the dog to animal services. This ensures that you’ve taken reasonable efforts to reunite the dog with their owner. Putting up fliers while keeping the dog yourself may seem like enough. But it may not be enough to avoid being charged with theft

Even if you do really want to keep the dog, there’s still a clear an easy path for you to obtain legal ownership. If the owner doesn’t claim their dog, you can easily adopt the dog from the animal shelter after the mandatory 7-day holding period. This is the only way to ensure the dog is 100% legally yours.

However, again, these laws are all only at the state level. It is very likely that the specific county or city you live in in Illinois has additional rules. And it’s likely that these rules will further complicate how long before a stray dog is legally yours.

Stray Dogs Across Illinois

In Illinois, the management of stray dogs is primarily the responsibility of local counties. Therefore, it’s crucial to understand the specific ordinances of your area.

Stray Dogs in Cook County, Illinois

Cook County, the most populous county in Illinois, has established its own set of rules regarding stray dogs. The Cook County Animal and Rabies Control provides detailed guidelines on how to handle stray animals, including dogs.

If you find a stray dog in Cook County, you are encouraged to contact the Cook County Animal and Rabies Control or a local animal shelter. Section 10-9 of their municipal codes states that anyone, not necessarily animal control, may apprehend a stray dog AND contact animal control or the police so that it can be impounded. 

This suggests that individuals may not keep the dog themselves and that you must surrender the dog to the police or to animal services for the duration of it’s impoundment.

Notably, Cook County abides by the same 7-day holding period for stray dogs as mandated by the state. 

If you want to keep a stray dog that you find in Cook County, Illinois, you must legally surrender the dog to animal control. But if the owner does not reclaim the dog within 7 days, you can adopt it yourself from the shelter. 

Stray Dogs In Chicago

Chicago, the most populous city in Illinois, has slightly different rules when it comes to stray dogs. 

In Chicago, impounded animals with known owners will be held for 7 days per Section 7-12-060 of the city’s municipal code, the same as Cook County and Illinois. This notably only applies to dogs found with known owners; this may mean they have a microchip, ID tag, or even just a collar that implies that it’s owned.

Interestingly, the seven-day holding period does not apply to dogs of unknown ownership. 

The animal control department claims ownership of all stray dogs of unknown ownership if they are unredeemed after three days. They are then free to adopt out, transfer, or euthanize these dogs after just three days.

This is a pretty small window compared to other states. For example, stray dogs in Georgia who are impounded with unknown owners are held for 30 days.

Therefore, if you find a stray dog in Chicago, it’s best to surrender it to animal services. If a dog without a known owner remains unclaimed for 3 days, you can legally adopt it yourself. However, if there is a known owner or evidence of one, the holding period extends to seven days.


Encountering a stray dog in Illinois can be a situation filled with mixed emotions. While the instinct to care for and potentially keep the dog is natural, it’s essential to tread cautiously. You may not just be wrongfully depriving someone and their dog of a happy reunion. You may also be breaking the law.

The key is to prioritize the welfare of the dog while respecting the rights of its potential owner. If you’re hoping to adopt a stray dog you’ve found, following these procedures is the surest way to legally and ethically bring a new pet into your home.


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