Over the last decade or two, animals have enjoyed a rise in the value society places on them. Many people now treat their pets as more than just an animal; they're members of the family. Unfortunately, the law hasn't kept up with this exalted view of our pets. The law still sees animals, even our domesticated pets, as property. What does this mean? Essentially, your dog or cat has the same legal status as your kitchen table or chair. Really, the only thing separating your pet from the objects in your house is the animal cruelty laws that may protect them from extreme abuse or neglect.
There are multiple consequences for treating animals as property. One of the most glaring problems is the inability to recover damages when your pet is harmed. We see examples of harm all the time - negligence by a veterinarian, purchasing a sick puppy, pets that are hurt or killed by another person – the list goes on and on. In these situations, you can expect to receive little, if any, compensation. Because animals are property, you are only entitled to the fair market value of the animal. You can't recover for any emotional damages, and may not even be able to recover for all veterinary and/or ongoing care for the pet, especially if that care costs more than the market value of the animal.
Another consequence is the inability of humane law enforcement officers to remove an animal from an abuse or neglect situation. The process required can be so long and the required standard of mistreatment so high that by the time the animal can be removed, it may be too late. Also, animal cruelty cases become very difficult to investigate and prosecute, so often only the most egregious acts of animal cruelty are charged.
Additionally, imagine the scenario where your animal runs away from home. Your pet is found and taken to a shelter. Ownership of your pet can transfer to that shelter in as little as 72 hours. At that point, the shelter has control over what happens to the animal. If the shelter isn't a no-kill shelter, they have free reign to euthanize the animal.
These are just a few of the consequences of classifying our pets as property. But why should they be classified as anything more? Consider the following statistics:
- 68% of American homes own a pet; this equals 82.5 million homes.
- 90% of pet owners consider their pets members of the family; 81% of pet owners consider those pets EQUAL members of the family.
- In 2013, we spent $55.72 billion on our pets.
- 58% of pet owners call themselves “mommy” or “daddy.”
- More than 1 million dogs in America have been named the main beneficiary in their owner's will.
It's clear from these stats that animals are no longer considered property by their owners; they're family. It's time to treat them as such. I'm not suggesting that animals be given the same rights as humans; however, I do think that we need a new classification for pets.
My suggestion is that we move our domestic pets outside the definition of “domestic animal” and create a new classification, “companion animal.” Under this classification, we could then grant new rights to our pets that would recognize their higher status and value in our lives. We could then draft legislation allowing owners to recover for things like emotional distress and ongoing medical costs when their animals are injured. It may give pet owners standing to sue on behalf of the animal when that animal is harmed. Also, a higher classification would help strengthen animal cruelty laws.
It's clear that we love our pets. It's clear that pets are more than property. The law needs to catch up with society and recognize companion animals for what they are. Only then can they (and we) truly be protected.