What We Call Family?

Last Tuesday I wrote about why I consider my pets as members of my family.

The BFFs at rest.

The next day I received my weekly email from Faunalytics (formerly Humane Research Council) where they spotlight a variety of papers and studies relating to animals and animal welfare. By the way, anyone can sign up for access to Faunalytics and gain access to a clearinghouse of research, some studies include only the abstract but others give full access to their research papers.

Anyway, one of the papers Faunalytics highlighted this week is entitled “Barking Up the Wrong Tree: Companion Animals, Emotional Damages and the Judiciary’s Failure to Keep Pace by Sabrina DeFabritiis, Associate Professor of Legal Writing at Suffolk University Law School.

In this paper Ms. DeFabritiis discusses how companion animals went from workers to family members that many consider their children. But the courts haven’t moved along with us.

What does Ms. DeFabritiis mean by that? Say you came down here to Florida with your 5-year-old human child and a drunk driver ran up on the sidewalk and hit and killed your child. In addition to criminal charges, you would most likely sue the drunk for emotional pain over having watched your child die. The suit could potentially ask for millions of dollars in damages. It won’t bring your child back, but it gives you some way to show that drunk that the life he or she took mattered.

On the other hand, if you came to Florida with your five-year-old Irish Setter, whom you also consider a child, and a drunk driver hit and killed your dog, the courts would look upon that incident far differently. Why? Because in the state of Florida, and indeed in most states in the country, dogs are considered property and you are limited by law to the economic value of the loss. In other words, you could sue for what you could have sold the dog for on the day he or she died.

If, while out for a walk, someone caused deliberate injury or death to Rumpy, I could sue for up to $1000, because Rumpy is no different in the eyes of the law than a chair. 

Why is that? According to Ms. DeFabritiis, courts have held that while humans have emotional bonds to animals comparable to those of other family members, there is no law that allows for them to act in any other way.

Three states (Tennessee, Illinois, and Connecticut) have enacted laws that give courts more leeway, but the laws are very restrictive. In Tennessee, for example, the law only covers dogs and cats and is limited to injury to the animal either on the owner’s property or while the animal is under the control of the owner.

Though other states have tried to pass laws, there has been huge push-back from the animal agriculture and veterinary industries who are afraid they’ll have to meet the increased standards too.

So what’s the solution? Ms. DaFabritiis offers that proposed legislation should cover these four areas:  (1) the definition of a “companion animal” or “pet”; (2) a description of the actionable tortious conduct; (3) the recoverable damages; and (4) parties exempt from liability or subject to limited liability. She states that Animal Legal Defense Fund is developing proposals of legislation for states to consider.

So what can you do? I think it’s important for each of us to write our state elected officials and let them know what our companion animals mean to us, and then ask them to introduce legislation that allows owners to sue for non-economic damages when our animal companions are injured due to negligence or maliciousness.

What about you? How do you see your companion animals? Do you feel you should be able to recover more then just the sale price for your beloved companion? 



29 thoughts on “What We Call Family?

  1. I wish it would be possible to see “companion animals” as more than “just” an animal. I remember a lawyer who letigated for years to hand down all what he owns to his dog. He sadly lost at all official channels… but I would like the idea that everything I own goes to the dog :o)

    1. There have been cases in the US where companion animals were allowed to inherit from their human owners, but only with a human caretaker identified in the will as well.

  2. I certainly don’t see myself as Honey’s owner or her as my property. But I see great potential for unintended consequences when the law changes to treat a companion animal more like a human animal.

    For instance, if a state law treats a dog as similar to a human for deciding wrongful death, will they also restrict a person’s right to make end-of-life decisions for their pet?

    I’m not opposed to changing the laws. I’m just cautious and would want to see qualified legal scholars and ethicists involved in the discussions.

    1. And that is one of the issues ALDF is working to address. It’s not going to be easy to pass legislation and is part of the reason why the laws already passed are very limited in scope.

  3. We have been struggling with this issue for the past few years trying to get companion animals classified as something more valuable than “livestock” or a rock. Especially now that service dogs, therapy dogs are a critical part of some people’s lives.
    Seems unfair a dog is held responsible for harm if they bite someone – and usually are put to death, yet if the reverse is true, it’s just “that silly old object with out value or soul” in the eyes of the law. Where is the balance of justice?
    Hard with the mindset of a big bunch of people
    Thanks for raising awareness of this issue

    1. Actually, this paper notes that 85% of pet owners consider their pets as family, so the problem isn’t the people, it’s that we haven’t got mad enough yet to go up against the powerful animal ag and veterinary lobbies. It’s time more of us started talking to get the masses riled up.

      1. It is a problem of opinion in this state – a large majority of people/voters (not just pet owners) don’t see a problem/don’t care/think it’s stupid to equate animals with people. We keep trying every legislative session. Each time a bit closer.
        Squeaky wheel does get the grease, though.

      2. Oh, well that is good news! I was pleasantly surprised to see Tennessee was the first state to pass such legislation. I lived there for many years and know what an agriculture-friendly state it is.

  4. Here in Finland was in the newspaper some days ago: a woman was in a car accident with her dog. They both were injured. Insuorence company promised to pay a new dog, not the hospital bills. Just like a chair as you said. They kept the dog even he needed a big surgery and a lot of money.

  5. Excellent post. Laws need to speed up and catch up. At least now in California animal abuse is a criminal offense and offenders are being incarcerated. Slow progress to my liking but thankfully a lot of influential people love their dogs (pets) and lend their voices.

  6. From an economic point of view pets are expensive to replace. Since my cats are rescues there is no “breed” value but they are spayed, vaccinated, dental work, etc. costing lots of $$. That’s not even touching how nuts I will be when I lose them. I’d rather total a new car than lose a pet. Locally a guy killed his girlfriend’s cat because he was angry at her. He’s being prosecuted and may (hope, hope) get jail time.

  7. I think the law should be changed. Pets should not be considered property and owners should be classified as guardians for the animal. All living beings deserve to have rights and should never be treated as an unfeeling object.

  8. I definitely consider my dog a family member. I look at him as an adopted child. He stays inside the house with me. I feed him regularly and make certain he has clean water to drink. I keep close watch on his health, brush his teeth regularly (or try to) and have health insurance on him. He’s actually better-behaved than most children and even some adults. If I had a choice between saving him and a stranger trapped in a burning car, I’d save my dog first. He’d certainly show greater appreciation for it. Yes, I’d try to save the stranger, too.

    Brain scans and MRIs done on animals prove that most (especially dogs and cats) have extensive and intricate neurological structures; thus proving they all possess some level of intellectual and emotional capacity. I believe the state of California has been a pioneer in recent years by considering animals less as property and more as individuals with certain rights and privileges. That means people can argue in court for custody or visitation-type situations for their pets, as in the case of divorced couples. Advances in legislation regarding animal welfare are improving and becoming refined as more people realize the value animals can add to humanity.

  9. It was what I had been scared to have while I took Kevin for a walk. For me, Kevin was one of my children like the other four cats, and he was the only one who went out from our house, which meant that he migh have got an accident. In Japan, pets are considered as a pet……no difference from birds, hamsters, and beetles that people have.
    So sad….

  10. We live in Connecticut, and are glad that things for people and their pets are starting to get better here. There’s still more to do, but it’s a start.

What would you like to add to the conversation? Bark at me in a comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s