Pets as Property

Ramona and me dancing in the kitchen to The Cure. We're cool like that. A making-dinner interlude. January 2013.

In case you’re not up on the debate, the legal system generally classifies domestic animals as property. This causes offense to people who lose their beloved companion animals due to negligence and cannot secure damages other than the replacement value of the animal.

Few animal lovers feel that their pets are worth only the cost of the animal’s adoption fee or the breeder’s price. Many people argue that Spot is family, not chattel.

I consider Ramona family. In fact, she’s my only nuclear family, if you broaden the definition of “nuclear family” to include a group that shares the same home in a hierarchical relationship.

I’ve written about our nearly perfect wordless communication and how much she’s taught me about loyalty. Ramona cares whether I come home at night, she worries when I’m not happy, and when she stayed for a day at the veterinarian recently to have her teeth cleaned, my heart broke when I came home and the house stood empty.

If something happened to her, my devastation would not have words.

That said: I’m not sure I’d support changing the law to classify pets as family.

The only positive I see in changing the law to consider pets family is that we can then seek more significant financial damages for someone hurting our animals than we can currently. The law already prosecutes people for animal cruelty and malpractice. Rightfully so. Keep that up.

Yet more money in my pocket won’t bring back my pet.

In my mind, punishing people by making them pay me an increased amount of cash if they hurt my animal doesn’t outweigh the negatives of changing the law:

  • More lawsuits will clog up the legal system. Our society is litigious enough.
  • Increased defensive medicine on the part of veterinarians and increased costs of malpractice insurance mean more expensive veterinary care.
  • Most people pay out of their pockets for veterinary care. If care becomes drastically more expensive, people will need to buy insurance to cover the cost—and the price of insurance will go up to cover the veterinarians’ increased expenses.
  • Due to the increased cost of care and the increased need for and cost of pet insurance, fewer animals will get needed health care than currently do.
  • Currently, family courts divide pets as property. Once a pet becomes a family member, couples will have one more thing to wrangle over in court. Custody arrangements? Visitation?
  • At present, if you cannot afford expensive cancer treatments, you can decide to put the animal to sleep. You cannot put family members to sleep. With children, courts have intervened when parents have withheld or refused needed treatment. Will that begin to happen with pets, too?

What do you think?

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Reader Comments (6)

I'm with you on this. I lost my beloved cat of 15 years last summer, and no amount of money would compensate or make me feel better.

And if we make pets 'people' then what about farm animals? Because saying that only pets are valued as family would be species-ist, and putting a higher value on the cute. Would we have to get consent before milking a cow? or shearing a sheep? Would keeping bees count as insect oppression?

The potential for insane legislation boggles the mind.

January 31, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrebecca

If you take a long term view of things I think it's a "teething" problem. What I mean to say is that the law, culture, and medicine are just now beginning to tackle these issues and the short term solutions are inadequate at best.

Veterinary medicine will no doubt continue to advance and make what were once 100% lethal diseases treatable and of course they will charge for that. The laws concerning pets range from inadequate to overbearing and will cause much grief. Society has finally acknowledged that animals have rights but are unsure just how far that goes.

But over time and through much trial and error these things will all settle down. Pet medical costs will normalize, insurance providers will craft specialized policies for this. The law will take some time but in the end will come up with something that will fit most of the population. Society will come to grips as to how far to take animal rights.

Unfortunately by their very nature these things take time; usually a lifetime. We will probably not live to see them settle down some form where most people can live with them but it will happen eventually.

January 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWilliam Pora

I would love to be able to claim Larraine as a dependent on my taxes.

January 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterErin

Rebecca: Good point. I suppose you could carve out "noncompanion animals," but then what about people who keep pigs and ducks and such as pets, rather than chattel? Ugh.

Will: People will and do spend an exorbitant amount of money on pet care--and you're right that the cost is only going to increase with advances in veterinary medicine. (Maybe I should reconsider and get that pet health insurance, after all...) But I think legally classifying pets as family will make it far worse than it needs to be.

Erin: Ha! I'm with you there. Can we consider pets not family, but still dependents? Why not?

February 2, 2013 | Registered CommenterLeslie Farnsworth

Warning - typing this on my phone, so typos, etc. sorry...
It can get sticky when rescue organizations are concerned. The German Shepeherd rescue I got Grim and Tula from recently lost a law suit concerning a dog because it's "proprty." The dog was removed from an abusive situation by the authorities and put up for adoption by the SPCA. The GSD rescue adopted it, paid for vet treatment and then found it a loving home. The original owner claimed the dog was her property and she wanted it back, after being cleared for animal abuse charges. She sued the rescue and won. Then the dog was removed from it's new loving home where the family had come to love it - and returned to her. The rescue then had to pay for HER legal expenses on top of everything else. And there is a concern that this precidence will deter people from adopting from rescues and they will elect to purchase from breeders and worse, abusers (or people who have abused enough to have animals removed from their posession) can get those poor animals back.
You make good points.
And I don't have a strong opinion either way - because there's no perfect answer in my opinion.
But if the abused dogs weren't property, they wouldn't have to go back to questionable (horrible) situations.

April 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSaraG

Completely agree, Sara! I'm glad we have laws against abusing animals--although I know they're not enough to protect them against even a fraction of what happens out there. (And some of the stuff I don't even want to think about.) There just aren't enough resources to fund the level of watchfulness needed to really catch all the jerks out there.

Still... On balance, knowing neither is perfect, I think we're better off keeping pets as property. Thought I definitely agree with your point in favor of the opposite idea.

April 20, 2013 | Registered CommenterLeslie Farnsworth

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