Should Pets be Considered More Than Property Under the Law?

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There's no doubt we love our pets, but how does the law view them? Are pets more than just property?

Most pet parents would agree that our pets are not just important, but are considered members of the family. So, it’s not surprising that 75% of pet parents celebrate their pet’s birthday, and over 50% throw a birthday party.1 Surprisingly, when it comes to the law, pets are still considered “property” and enjoy few rights. 

 Are Pets Considered Property? 

Since pets are categorized as personal property under the law, pet insurance policies are somewhat different from human policies because they act more like property insurance. In other words, pet insurance helps pet parents ensure their precious property stays healthy. As a result, pet insurance policies are relatively less complicated than policies for humans, and often allow more flexibility while still providing protection. 

Even though all animals, including pets, have historically been characterized as property under the law, there is no denying the important role pets play in our lives. As the importance of pets has evolved in society, there is a growing movement to provide greater legal status for pets. 

 According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, “animal law” includes the statutory and case law that effects nonhuman animals including pets and wildlife.2 Under the umbrella of animal law, there are two major efforts: animal welfare and animal rights. Advocates for animal welfare strive to strengthen laws that protect animals, while the fight for animal rights focuses on obtaining legal status for animals beyond simply property.  

The Fight for Greater Protection of Animals 

The legal foundation of animal welfare advocacy is the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 (AWA) which was enacted to protect animals in research and exhibitions. Since then, the AWA has been amended eight times, and continues to expand the scope of legal protections for animals. The goal of animal welfare advocacy is to strengthen current laws to reduce the mistreatment of animals. For example, according to the Humane Society, there are approximately 10,000 puppy mills in the U.S. where dogs are bred in deplorable conditions and profits are more important than the animals’ well-being.3 

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The fight against inhumane puppy mills is a good example of the complexity of animal welfare advocacy. Raids on puppy mills have discovered animals kept in squalor with inadequate medical care and sometimes no human contact whatsoever. But shutting down puppy mills is often difficult because technically, a puppy mill is not illegal. The only way to shut down a puppy mill, and save the animals, is by enforcing state laws that prohibit cruelty to animals.  

Why Should Animals Have Legal Rights? 

Many advocates for animal rights argue that characterizing pets as property is outdated and should be changed. To many pet parents, it simply does not make sense that a beloved dog or cat is simply considered property, like a toaster or t.v. under the law. But so far, courts have been hesitant to weigh in on animal rights and establish case law on the topic. Critics of increasing animal rights argue that pets are not human, and therefore, should not be given rights under the law.  

The Fight for Animal Rights Continues 

Progress, however, has been made in the quest for animal rights. Currently, two states, Alaska and Illinois, have amended divorce laws that require a judge to consider the well-being of a pet in deciding pet custody cases. This is significant because these laws recognize that pets have rights independent of the legal status of property. While pets continue to be viewed as property under the law, there does seem to be a willingness to at least consider a change.  

In Texas, the state supreme court recognized that “Texans love their dogs” in a 2013 tort case against a shelter employee who mistakenly caused a family pet to be euthanized. The court also noted that dogs are more than “mere personal property” and are beloved “family members.”4 However, the court ruled that an 1891 law that categorized dogs as “personal property” limited the value of the dog to “market value.” In other words, despite the court recognizing the emotional loss attributed to the wrongful death of the family pet, the family could not sue for loss of companionship because a dog is property and not a human.  

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The Future of Animal Rights 

While it is unclear whether the law will ever recognize animals as sentient beings (possessing the ability to perceive, reason and think) and deserving of individual rights;  efforts to strengthen laws protecting animals and the push for animal rights show no signs of slowing down. In fact, the scope of legal issues under animal law seems to be increasing. Lawyers now specialize in animal law, and law schools teach courses dedicated to animal rights. While some legal issues are quite complicated, the fundamental goals remain the same: to strengthen protection for all animals and to challenge the status of pets as mere personal property.  

The Impact of Animal Rights on Pet Insurance 

Despite some signs that courts are willing to recognize that animal have some rights, the progress is slow and courts continue to frame the issue of animal rights only within the context of personal property. In other words, animals do not have an individual right to sue in court because the law does not recognize animals as human beings. If animals were given legal status, however, that would mean significant changes in the way courts, and society view animals. For example, in a pet custody case, a lawyer or guardian ad litem, would likely be appointed to represent the pet in court, much like in custody cases involving human children.  

Other possible changes would be that pet insurance policies would be written to provide protection to the pet as an individual being, and not as the property of the pet parent. Also, if a pet is harmed due to negligence, the pet could sue for physical injuries, medical expenses as well as emotional distress, pain and suffering. A central and important part of the fight for animal rights is to recognize that all animals have feelings and process emotions much like humans.5 

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Animal law is no longer considered fringe or unusual, but is seen as an important area of law that is significant to the daily lives and happiness of many humans and animals alike. As advocates continue to push for stronger protection and rights for animals, it is up to elected officials and regulatory bodies to realize that for many people, pets and animals are more than simply property.  

Sources:

1 Do you give your dog a birthday? Three in four owners celebrate with half also throwing a party [Online Article], Retrieved May 2, 2020, from https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4483046/Three-four-owners-celebrate-dog-s-birthday.html

2 Animal law 101 [Online Article], Retrieved May 2, 2020, from https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4483046/Three-four-owners-celebrate-dog-s-birthday.html

3 What is a puppy mill? [Online Article], Retrieved May 2, 2020, from https://www.petfinder.com/helping-pets/puppy-mills/animal-cruelty-puppy-mills/

4 Strickland v. Medlen (opinion) [Online Article], Retrieved May 2, 2020, from https://law.justia.com/cases/texas/supreme-court/2013/12-0047.html

5 James C. Ha, Tracy L. Campion, Chapter 5 – The emotional animal: using the science of emotions to interpret behavior, Dog Behavior, Academic Press, 2019, Pages 93-108, ISBN 9780128164983, https://doi.org.10.1016/B978-0-12-816498-3.00005-5.

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