A pet’s worth

We didn’t get a whole lot of education on the topic of the law while we were in school. Too much other stuff to cram into four short years to spend much time on something that changes with some regularity. But at the time, the general consensus was this: from a legal standpoint, pets are property, and as such, your liability in terms of the law is limited to the replacement value of the pet.

That has changed with some rapidity.

A Texas court is just one of the most recent cases in which a judge has ruled that owners can recover damages for “sentimental or intrinsic value” after the loss of a pet. In New York, a woman is suing a pet shop for the pet’s medical ailments, claiming damages for not herself, but the pet’s own pain and suffering- in essence challenging the legal upholding that pets are merely property. These are just the latest cases, but they are not the only ones.

This sort of legal wrangling makes me shudder as a vet, and I’ll tell you why. Well, to quote the great Mandy Patinkin from The Princess Bride, there is too much. Let me sum up.

From an ethical standpoint, we already know that pets are more than just pieces of wood we can do with as we will, which is why there are animal welfare statutes and prosecutions for neglect. But from a legal standpoint, the “property” definition has kept the damages in the courtroom to manageable amounts. It’s the reason an anesthesiologist may pay up to half their salary in malpractice premiums, but vets- unless you work with high value pets like racehorses- have pretty small premiums.

If that changes, and despite the efforts of organized veterinary medicine to the contrary I think it will, be ready. Because if veterinarians have to start facing skyrocketing pain and suffering damage claims not only for the legitimate cases of wrongdoing, but the many more numerous specious claims that will arise, the ones who are going to suffer the most are pets. If you think the cost of veterinary medicine is high now, wait until that happens.

I love this guy. But I’ve never viewed him the same way I do a person.

It’s a conundrum. On the one end of the spectrum we have a lot of people who are entirely oblivious to the pain they cause these living beings, through neglect and ambivalence and things like fighting rings and puppy mills. As a society we still have a ways to go on that account, though I will say having been to multiple third world countries we are still light years ahead of the game.

On the other hand, there are those who want pets to have the same legal and ethical footing as we give ourselves. There has to be some sort of happy medium here. But I don’t feel- and obviously I have a biased view on the topic- that this legal sort of challenge is the best venue in which to force those changes. At best, it will make some lawyers rich, though I still think the root causes of our attitudes towards animals are best dealt with elsewhere.

Education. Teach children from a young age about how to treat other living beings with respect. Teach owners about the proper way to research, obtain, and care for an animal. If the woman in the New York case had spent 10 seconds researching how to obtain a pet, she wouldn’t have been at a pet store in the first place. So who exactly is culpable here?

I once had a veterinarian more experienced and wiser than me pat me on the back during a really horrible experience involving a lawyer and say, “That’s just part of being a vet in this day and age.” That experience changed me, and not for the better. And I have a feeling it’s only going to get worse.

This is a tip of the iceberg sort of thing, but what do you think? Will changing the legal standpoint of the animals really help them in the long run? Are you ok with paying double in order to reserve the right to sue for pain and suffering? Or are we barking up the wrong tree?

Filed: Blog, Daily Life, Musings Tagged: , ,
  • Jeanie

    We have two dogs that we love dearly and are members of our family:) As a Christian I believe that God created every animal and cares very much for them. We have been given the responsiblity to care for them and to watch over them. I support animal cruelty laws and I guess people just don’t know or think about puppy mills and the cruelty that is done to animals. You’re right, we need to take every opportunity to educate children and adults and support those organizations that are working to care for these animals.

    • Thank you Jeanie!

  • Lisa W

    I agree with you that this woman should have done minimal due diligence before purchasing this poor dog. Puppy mills will never go away until the demand goes away.

    I am a little torn on the issue of the legal status of pets. I know my vet really well and trust her implicitly to do the right thing for Oscar and Sophie. And vets are human, so if some mistake happened I can’t see myself suing her. Again with the due diligence. But if we were somewhere away from home and had an emergency, and there was a real case of negligence and harm, it might be a different case.

    Then again, I’m never going to sue for no reason, and I guess that’s something else that really needs to be handled differently in the courts. Lawyers should grow some ethics in this area and not continue to bring BS lawsuits that clog up the courts and cause good people harm. If everyone would just act with best intentions, we wouldn’t need to worry, would we? And leave me alone, I can dream about my princess world with bluebirds and butterflies if I want to! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • “If everyone would just act with best intentions, we wouldn’t need to worry, would we?” So, so true. I want to live in the princess world too.

  • Talonvaki

    “I love this guy, but I don’t look at him the same way I do a person.”

    I love my cats, too. I definitely don’t look at them as I do people. My cats are BETTER than most people I run into.

    I really think pet cats & dogs need MORE rights, especially as more people are having them instead of children. I think we should be able to declare pets as dependents (because they ARE) on income tax returns, and also I think there should be a way to use our medical insurance to pay for vet bills the way people with children can. How is it fair that, when my cat needs an X-ray, dental work, or tests run to diagnose an illness, I have to plunk down $500 – $1000, but people with children can have the same tests done on their kids for a $20 co-pay?

    • Have you looked into a pet health insurance plan? If you Google “pet insurance” you’ll find many options. Trupanion is one that I’ve heard good things about.

    • Jason

      Do you realize that parents have to pay for their kid’s insurance premiums on top of the co-pays? Between the premiums and co-pays; the out of pocket expense of paying for child medical care is comparable to pet care without insurance. Dental insurance for kids may not be included in their health insurance. The cost of medical care doesn’t include the cost of day care (a whole other story but thought I should mention it because it partly the reason why kids are considered dependants).

      You should look into pet insurance (it is different from human health insurance but it can be helpful…I have it for my cats).

  • For me, what is missing here is that some vets are incompetent, or commit malpractice, and only being responsible for “replacement value” of an animal is not adequate redress for wrongdoing nor adequate means to ensure incompetence can be weeded out of the field. Lawsuits are horrible, and those that are groundless cause much headache and pain. Nonetheless, it is one of our most powerful tools to help enforce best practices.

    • Weeding out due to incompetence can also be done by the medical board. Actually, that is the main way it is done, not through lawsuits.

      • Medical boards are an important avenue of redress. The average consumer won’t know how to use that option, or be afraid. My experience with medical boards (I am a licensed psychologist, and have experience on different boards for different professions) is that many move to protect the guild in all but the most negligent of cases.

        Boards and lawsuits are punitive, and last resort. I don’t see either as good options, nut they are necessary as they Re the only tools consumers have.

        • It may vary from state to state. In mine- California- the veterinary medical board takes its role as a consumer protection agency very seriously, and in my experience investigates every claim and addresses it.

      • Elizabeth and The Lab Crew

        Dr. V. – The medical Board “should” be the way incompetent Vets are weeded out but we know that is not the way it really works. Vets the same as human doctors are protected by their peers. You say CA is doing a good job of protecting consumers, I do hope that is true because it certainly is not true everywhere. Most people don’t even know where to start if they have a complaint. Every Vet or human doctor screws up, fact of life and that does not mean they should be punished in my opinion but incompetent Vets and ones who commit malpractice need to be dealt with and not just a slap on the wrist.

        • But for us, the medical board is not comprised of our peers, but members of the public. There is one vet out of, I think, 7 members? I don’t recall the exact statistics.

  • Dot Baxter

    As much as I love my pets, I don’t feel having the ability to sue for pain and suffering as a trade off for higher vet costs will be to the benefit of pets. Vet care in many areas of the country is already way too high. I live in NJ and the costs here are already 3-4X higher than in the southern states. Our auto insurance is one of the highest and to make it even somewhat affordable I have opted out of the right to sue for my own pain and suffering. Lawsuits unfortunately drive up the costs for everyone. Clear cases of negligence or abuse obviously need to be addressed. Also in order to protect themselves vets would have to order every possible test thus driving up costs even further. Therefore the average person would be priced right out of being a responsible pet parent and the bottom line would be more neglect of the family pets medical needs and less pets finding loving homes.

    • “Also in order to protect themselves vets would have to order every possible test thus driving up costs even further”. I see this a lot, what we call “CYA medicine.” It’s one of the unintended side effects of needing to practice ‘defensively’.

  • Cathey

    This is a very complicated question and not one that is easily answered here or anywhere else, but to my mind the short answer (or question) is “Who is the HUMAN adult, here?” Like in any other part of a person’s life, there are things to be learned and investigated before making decisions. And then there are consequences for those decisions. Sometimes the consequences, even with all the info, are not good, but most of the time, if you make a reasonable effort to find good information, you can do the best you can do.

    As we have seen with laws on other subjects, making more laws will NOT fix stupid. Only more education, both of adults and children, will make us all better people, better able to make good decisions and live better lives, hopefully improving the lot of all our animal friends and ourselves along the way, one person, one day, at a time.

    • “making more laws will not fix stupid.” I wish I had a ribbon for Quote of the Day. ๐Ÿ˜€

  • I agree with you fully. I love my dog and he is definitely a member of the family but at the end of the day he is an animal and not equivocal to a human.

    As a general rule, the more you regulate (in this case, pain and suffering claims in court) a good or service, the higher the price will be for that good or service. This is the last thing I want, as people complain enough about how expensive it is to go to the vet.

    I love that you mix serious posts with fun ones. Always something to learn at Pawcurious.

    • Thank you! I try to mix it up. Well, I guess it just reflects my own lack of ability to focus.

  • Tamara

    I believe outright negligence on the part of veterinarians is VERY RARE, as many people I speak to who claim negligence are really only concerned about money. They may think that giving animals more ‘rights’ will mean veterinarians are responsible if things go wrong. WRONG! Pet owners must still be responsible, and until they take THEIR OWN responsibility more seriously, laws like this can only cause more harm that good. Sad that a person who shops at a pet store would blame anyone but herself for her troubles, but I hear of people who do and believe the same at least weekly. Laws can’t fix stupidity…there, I said it.

    • Thank you Tamara. I know negligence does happen- I’m not claiming it’s not- but as a proportion of the court cases I have known of, it’s pretty rare. There are a lot of differences between the way veterinary medicine works and human medicine that there really isn’t a good comparison in terms of trying to qualify standard of care.

  • Irondogfe2

    I think I am not alone when I say that I would probably be priced out of having pets if the cost of their care approached that of raising children. On top of the cost, I am also worried about the increase in my responsibilities, especially during the time when we are still trying to figure things out. Could guardians be held criminally responsible if insurance doesn’t catch up with the laws and they can’t afford to treat their pets’ ailments? And euthanasia? Could we be forced to euthanize or not euthanize based on laws, rather than doctors’ advice and personal beliefs?

    • Those are all really important questions. And within the realm of possibility.

  • KarenB.

    “If the woman in the New York case had spent 10 seconds researching how to obtain a pet, she wouldnโ€™t have been at a pet store in the first place. So who exactly is culpable here?”

    I had the same thought – it’s the usual thing of not taking responsibilities for one’s actions. I’m pretty sure the pet store owner did not force her to buy the dog. I love and adore my dogs, but they are not “little people in fur suits.” I find the trend here disturbing.

    • I think people’s hearts are in the right place, but the trend is going to have some unfortunate consequences.

      • KarenB.

        Yes, I absolutely agree about people’s hearts being in the right places. It’s just all of the unintended consequences that make me uneasy.

  • Jason

    I love my cats but they are not humans. These type of laws concern me because I can not see where they end. Our society is very sue happy and often times in the court of law, it is not always about right or wrong. It is about who has the financial means to afford the best lawyer. I can see lawyers winning but I don’t forsee any benefits to the average pet owner and their pets.

    • Unsurprisingly, I agree, Jason!

  • ls

    #1 rescue a dog from a shelter and donate the $1600 to LOCAL rescue groups – wow! would they be thrilled and you’d get a wonderful companion and save a life

    #2 buying from stores encourages puppy mill breeding. If you choose to go that route, then sue the ORIGINAL store owner then, as the attorney suggests, they’ll be more inclined to take responsibility for the quality of pets they offer.

    #2B if you’re willing to shell out that kind of money be sure you get all the paperwork on that pet! They should know the line, breeding, etc. Then you can trace things if they go bad and then the store can also be sued if they’ve lied about that.

    #3 I don’t know too many vets on the ‘take’. Like ANY doctor, they can misdiagnose and some things are not immediately detectable. Ask pet owners and local rescue groups what vet they go to – like anything, we will gladly refer to doctors, people, places, things we love and respect.

    #4 pets are like people in that they too require food, shelter, and medical care in addition to our time and love. Be willing to accept that going into it or don’t bother … take responsibility for your choice … which would apply to having kids too ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Great post. Thank you.

  • Susi

    Within a hour’s drive of me, the city council of Boulder, Colorado (affectionately called the People’s Republic of Boulder by locals) changed the language of every law pertaining to dogs so that the term, “owner” was now “pet guardian.” It changed nothing in the way people treated or mistreated their dogs, but it altered the legal ramifications in a civil or perhaps even legal suit. This is a very slippery slope and I think, Jessica, you’ve done well to shine some light on it.

    • I just have a sneaking suspicion that the people who will pay the price the most are not those who are really doing terrible things, but good people who care and get caught up in a vindictive situation. Or the owners who will foot the bill of higher care. Or the rescue worker who gets sued by an unhappy adopter. Etc etc.

  • Leigh

    What makes me nervous is people being able to sue their vet because their animal died… no matter how hard we all tried, how brilliant the vet is, or how well cared for it was at home. When someone dies, grief makes you a little bit crazy. Due to the grief process, your anger is often a major factor in your decision making. There are plenty of times when the animal dies, the owner hates us, or complains to the BBB, posts negative reviews on Yelp, etc… because they are in pain, and unfortunately humans tend to want to make others suffer when they are suffering. We have to deal with it because death and the grieving process are a part of the profession.

    However if it becomes easier to sue a vet because of a perceived wrong (even if your animal received the best care in the universe…) then vets are going to have a tough time deflecting all these lawsuits. It will eat time and money that they often don’t have. And it will be an emotional drain on a profession that is often a lot sadder than most people realize!
    (I assisted a pet grief cousnelor for about three years. Grief can make you do and say awful things. The problem is, about 6 months later, once you have accepted the death, you often don’t fell those hatelful things anymore.)

    • So, so true. And I think vets get this, but if the consequence for this is a pain and suffering verdict in front of a sympathetic jury every time- yep, costs are going to go sky high.

  • Yay Pets

    Well said, Dr. V. In my opinion, both of these things are true: Pets are priceless AND unlimited damage awards would be bad for everyone, including the pets we love.