dog in the grass

Companion Animals: Property or Sentient Beings?

Animals in the United States are currently treated as personal property rather than sentient beings.  Although most states have anti-cruelty laws and some animal welfare regulations – and these vary widely by state – animals do not have anywhere near the level of basic protections that people do.  For purposes of this article, we are sticking to the rights of companion animals, specifically dogs and cats, rather than getting into the wider discussion about the rights of farm animals.  We will note, however, those who argue against extending more rights to companion animals do so, in part, because they are afraid the argument will then turn to all other animals, including those kept on farms, those raised and slaughtered for meat, race horses and zoo animals, among others.  While we agree that this would be the logical progression of the argument, it is equally true that this is not a good enough reason to stop progress to enhance the rights and protections afforded to our companion animals.  The best thing we can all do to start enhancing the rights of this second group of animals is to reduce our stop consumption or meat and other animal products, including leather, stop patronizing horse racing venues and work to ensure that zoos are designed and supported in a way that enhances the lives of the animals living there.

Current law

justice statueBecause animals in the United States are regarded as property under most state and federal laws, their owners are generally allowed unfettered rights to make decisions about the animal’s fate, so long as those decisions do not violate anti-cruelty regulations.  For example, a dog owner is allowed to decide if and when to euthanize a companion animal, even if the dog is perfectly healthy and the reason for the decision is that the owner no longer has the time or the money to spend on the dog.  A cat owner may turn her out of the home and leave her to her fate on the street because the cat is scratching the furniture.  Dog and cat owners may decide to breed their animals at will and sell the offspring. Dog owners may decide to dock their pup’s tail or crop his ears.  All of these actions are legal but none of these is in the best interest of the animal and all can and do harm the animal in question.

As animals have increasingly become family members who live inside with us, often sleeping with us in our beds, and as we incorporate our companion animals into almost every aspect of our lives, including eating out and travelling, and as we take steps to provide for our ‘fur babies’ in our wills, treating them as inanimate objects just doesn’t jive with their status under most laws.  A 2002 Villanova Law Review article  the author states “The function of law is to adapt to the ever-changing views of society.”  The author concludes that “The law’s categorization of a companion animal as merely property….does not accurately reflect societal views relating to the human-animal bond. Public attitudes and psychological evidence indicate that in our society pets are thought of more as family members than as inanimate objects.”

dog and a cowA 2010 University of Illinois Law Review article attempts to strike a balance between the desires of pet owners to extend greater rights to their companion animals and the issues raised by agricultural concerns regarding farm animals.  The author concludes that “The special treatment these pets receive sets them apart from other animals. Yet, classifying them all as persons per se raises economic fears, thereby necessitating the courts to treat pets as persons in the limited circumstances of tort and custody disputes only upon substantial evidence that these pets were treated as persons by their owners. Such a test eliminates the anthropocentric and economic fears that any per se categorization of all animals as persons raises, yet it allows the law to acknowledge what much of society has come to recognize: that the anthropomorphic qualities and relationships formed with pets distinguish them from other animals and make them more valuable than their fair market prices. These unique qualities of pets justify the law’s treatment of them as persons.”

In a 2014 National Geographic interview with David Grimm , who wrote Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs,  states “In custody cases, judges have started talking about the best interests of the cat and which home it would be better in, which you would never do for a couch or a lamp. If a cat or a dog is killed, owners are starting to be able to sue for mental suffering and loss of companionship, which traditionally have applied only to spouses and children. You are really seeing this revolution taking place in the legal system as well as in our homes.”

The Animal Law Resource Center  provides a case law search tool which enables you to search federal and state law by year and type of animal-related case (e.g. “companion animals”; “animals in research”; “entertainment”).

Not everyone is in favor of greater rights for our companion animals

dog on a couchNot everyone thinks it is a good idea to accord companion animals the same rights as humans.  Even some staunch animal welfare advocates point out the downsides of changing pets’ status from property to sentient beings.  Here are some of their arguments:

  • Our society works on the principle that greater rights imply greater responsibilities and one must be able to understand our own rights as well as those of others. For the most part, our companion animals cannot understand their legal status or act accordingly.
  • Determining what is in the best interest of a particular animal will become the subject of debate in which others will have a right to an opinion. So, for example, if someone is against the idea of spay/neuter, that person may try to stop you from having your pet sterilized by alleging that such an action is cruel and is not something your pet would want.
  • The AVMA in is a bit of a pickle regarding this issue because while veterinarians want their clients to treat their pets as children and pay for the best care money can buy for their fur babies, they don’t want those same pet parents to be able to sue for malpractice in the event something goes wrong and be awarded more than the token amount which would be assessed as the value of the animal harmed. The AVMA website includes a 2005 Animal Health Institute article which argues against changing pet “owners” to pet “guardians:

“Changing the way the law treats pets and the people who care for them from ownership to guardianship raises many questions about how pets will be cared for in the future. If pet owners today become, under new legislation, pet guardians, a number of things could happen:

  • Animal rights organizations or meddling neighbors could petition courts for custody of your pet if they don’t approve of the way you care for your pet.
  • The treatment options you and your veterinarian decide on could be challenged by the local animal rights organization or other self-appointed experts.
  • It could be illegal to spay or neuter a pet because it deprives them of their “reproductive rights.”
  • Veterinarians and pet guardians could be sued for providing what another individual might regard as inadequate care.”

 Vive la France!

french bulldogWhere else but in France would dogs and cats no longer be considered property?  Canine companions appear in fancy restaurants and go everywhere and anywhere with their human caretakers and cats are a close second to their canine brethren.  In 2014, after almost 700,000 people signed a petition against an 1804 French law which stated that animals are movable goods, the French Parliament voted to change the status of dogs, cats, horses and other pets from “movable goods” like furniture, to “living and feeling beings.” As reported in The Daily Mail, Former Education Minister Luc Ferry characterized the 1804 definition as “absurd” and states “No one has ever tortured a clock.  Animals suffer, they have emotions and feelings.  It is not a question of making animals subjects of the law… but simply of protecting them against certain forms of cruelty.”

In addition to the French legislation, cosmetics testing on animals was banned in Europe in 2013, Congress requested an investigation of a government-funded animal research lab in 2014 and the Ringling Brothers finally decided to retire all its circus elephants by 2018.

Where are we heading?

A 2015 Gallup poll found that “Almost a third of Americans, 32%, believe animals should be given the same rights as people, while 62% say they deserve some protection but can still be used for the benefit of humans.”  Gallup first asked Americans about animal rights in 2003 and again in 2008 and then again in 2015 and found a significant rise from one poll to the next in the percentage of respondents who support increased animal rights.

Based on what is happening both around the world and here in the US, this is a topic which will be under discussion for the foreseeable future.  In the meantime, we will all continue to treat our fur babies as the family members they are, regardless of how the law treats them.



©Onpets, LLC 2017.  All rights reserved.

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