Protecting Pet Welfare and Affordability Through Appropriate Legal Frameworks
Americans love their pets. Two-thirds of all households own at least one pet. In 2018 Americans spent over $72 billion on acquiring and taking care of their pets. Pets provide enjoyment, companionship, and even health benefits for their owners. So, it is important that public policy provide a stable environment that keeps pet ownership affordable for people of all income levels.
The current legal status of animals has facilitated the rise of pet ownership and pet care. However, laws that seek to change the legal status of animals by allowing owners to collect noneconomic damages for things like emotional distress would upset this balance and add to the cost of pet ownership. While these proposed laws claim to protect pets, they would, in fact, do the opposite: by driving up the cost of pet ownership, these laws would reduce pet care and make pet ownership too expensive for many. Essentially, they would invite a few humans to get rich at the expense of animal welfare.
Pet Status and Non-Economic Damages
The human-animal bond is stronger than ever, as our love for our pets continues to grow. So what happens when a pet is accidently injured or killed? How should owners be compensated for the tragic loss of this treasured companion? Should owners be able to sue and collect damages for non-economic factors like emotional distress?
While U.S. law has historically classified pets as property, courts and legislatures also recognize the special, emotional bonds people have with their pets. That’s why there are animal cruelty laws in each state. Courts have also shown flexibility in the kinds of economic losses for which owners can be compensated when their pet is wrongfully injured or killed. In addition to being compensated for the market value of the animal, courts have allowed owners to be compensated for breeding, pedigree, capabilities of the animal, and whether it’s offspring might be valuable. More recently, courts have allowed for other costs, such as reasonable and necessary veterinary expenses incurred as a result of the injury, often exceeding the value of the animal. The key is that all of these are measurable, economic costs for which an owner can – and should – be compensated.
But some have suggested – in lawsuits and in legislation – that owners should be compensated for various types of non-economic damages, like emotional distress. These types of damages are not measurable and are thus subjective and wide-open. Courts and legislatures have generally protected pet health and welfare by rejecting these efforts.
There are two important reasons why non-economic damages should not be allowed in cases involving animals.
First, it would place these human-animal relationships above many close, familial human-human relationships in the eyes of the law. In most states, such damages are only allowed for harm to a close family member – a spouse or child – and then only in limited circumstances. Attempts to collect these damages for the death of other close family members, including cousins, grandparents, and fiancées, have been rejected by courts. While these are deep emotional relationships, they generally are not eligible for non-economic damages.
Second, while proponents of these damages have argued it is in the interest of pets, just the opposite is true: Allowing such damages would harm pet health and welfare by driving up the cost of pet care and ownership. Anyone who cares for animals – including veterinarians, groomers, dog walkers, animal shelters, and others – would see insurance skyrocket as uncontained liability claims become legal. As these costs rise, animals would not see the level of care they currently enjoy, and some people would simply be priced out of pet ownership. Allowing a few people to get rich from collecting these damages would harm all pets and owners. Non-economic damages would harm pet health and welfare and should not be allowed.
Pet “Owner” vs. “Guardian”
It is common to refer to pets as “companion” animals, but should pets be treated legally as if they were people? In an effort to raise the status of animals, some have proposed referring to animal owners as “guardians.”
Unfortunately, this legal label would harm pets by hampering people’s ability to care for their pets properly, by
- Creating legal confusion about the relationship between owners and animals
- Limiting or even eliminating pet owners’ ability to freely choose treatment for their pets.
- Subjecting decisions about pet care to outside intervention by neighbors, third parties and government authorities.
Words have meaning, and words found in law have meaning in the courts. Referring to pet owners as “guardians” would represent a dramatic and negative change in the legal standing of animals.
The word “guardian” has typically been applied to minors. In legal terms, guardianship is a complex fiduciary relationship subject to court approve. It is not a status used to upgrade the standing of an individual, but one that is used as a fallback when no natural guardian – or parent – is present.
Guardians are not owners; rather, they are merely caretakers. Guardian status could reduce the pet care choices available to the caretakers.
To illustrate, consider an elderly dog that has developed a severely arthritic hip. Currently, an owner has several treatment options available, from hip replacement surgery to less invasive and less costly alternatives such as medicines. While some owners may indeed opt for the surgery, other owners may choose other options. However, a “guardian” would be required to act in the “best” interest of the animal; if a neighbor, the local humane society, or someone else believes that surgery is in the “best” interest of the animal, the dog’s caretaker could be forced to accept that option – whether or not they could afford it.
Another example would be a dog owner that decides the family dog is safest and most comfortable in a kennel rather than roaming throughout the backyard. Under current laws, pet owners have the freedom to make the choice they believe is in the best interest of the dog. But a guardian could risk being taken to court by an animal rights group or by family members who disagree with the owner.
Changing the legal reference from animal owner to guardian might sound appealing, but it would harm our beloved pets and infringe on the rights of those who care for them.