Give Pet Owners Greater Rights, Not Fewer Rights

The pet food recall has made people aware of a great injustice in the law of most states: when a pet is injured or killed, the owner can make a claim for compensation, but the amount of compensation cannot exceed the replacement cost or market value of the pet. In other words, a dog or a cat is “worth” just the price of, well, a used dog, or a used cat. In other words, practically nothing.

I have suggested that dog owners fight this in small claims court, and have provided them with ways to do so in my book, When a Dog Is Injured Or Killed.

Some people, intending to help the situation, are potentially making it worse. They are asking us to support a change in the law that would change and probably eliminate many of the rights of pet owners. They are saying that pets should not be considered “property,” but something else.

Changing the legal status of pet owners is not the answer. What we need to do is change the way the law measures the worth of a pet. A pet owner needs to receive the full measure of a pet’s worth, not a half measure or less, which is now the case in most states. To accomplish this, we need to increase the rights of pet owners, not take away their status as owners.

The issue of the rights of pet owners arose again today, when I was contacted by the author of a new website, who asked me for an endorsement of sorts. The website states that, to give pet owners full rights to deal with the pet food recall and prevent such a thing from happening again, pet owners should sign petitions that say that “pets are not property.” 

As much as I agree with the sentiment of that other website, I had to point out that pets are indeed property and must remain property, or else things could actually get worse for our animals. Here is the message, in full, that I sent that website author:

I reviewed your site. I agree with the point you are making, but you have either intentionally or unintentionally phrased this as an issue of animal rights and not pet owner rights. By saying that pets should not be property, you are saying what? Are you saying that they should be de facto citizens? If not, then what? What are they if they are not property?

You might have misunderstood what I and others have been complaining about. It’s not that pets are property, which is perfectly acceptable, but that the law uses the property measure of damages when the pets are injured or killed. The injustice is that the law uses the property measure of damages. The property measure of damages means the replacement cost or market value of the pet, and it ignores the emotional value. The legal measure of damages currently being applied for pets is incorrect. The fair measure of damages should include not only replacement cost or market value, but also the emotional distress that the owner feels.

If owners are entitled to receive full damages for injuries to pets, then pet food companies and other third parties will have a greater incentive to put safe products on the market. Right now, the pet food recall is driving a lot of people to demand some changes here. But they have to be the right kind of changes.

Arguably, if you are not the owner of your pet, then you have no right at all to do anything if the pet is injured or killed. You also would have no right to determine what the pet eats, where it sleeps, and what kind of medical care it should receive. This is not the answer to the current problem, and it is not what you want. In any event, it is not what I want, as the owner of a dog and a rabbit.