Ruthie was more than a pet. The shaggy brown-and-white mutt padded along to work with her owner, Robin Lohre, provided companionship during Ms Lohre’s painful divorce and was like a sister to her 6-year-old daughter, who dressed the dog up in doll clothes and cradled her at night. She was family.
When Ms Lohre returned home one August afternoon to find Ruthie dead under her dining room table, she was devastated. While a company called Posh Maids had been cleaning the house, a worker had accidentally let Ruthie outside, where she was hit by a car. The worker left no note.
Ms Lohre sued for nearly $100,000, most of that for her and her daughter’s mental suffering. In 2012, a Colorado district court awarded her $65,000 — one of the largest emotional-distress judgments for a pet in US history. Posh Maids went out of business. Ms Lohre had purchased Ruthie for $299.
Americans have long seen dogs and cats as family members, but the law hasn’t always agreed. Until the early 1900s, both animals were deemed so legally worthless that they didn’t even qualify as property — and could be stolen or killed without repercussion. But as Americans began to spend millions, then billions, on food, toys and veterinary care for their pets, the law changed. Today, cats and dogs aren’t just property; they are the most legally protected animals in the country.
Felony anticruelty laws in all 50 states impose up to $125,000 in fines and 10 years in prison for anyone who abuses animals. The federal Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act, passed after Hurricane Katrina, requires rescue agencies to save pets as well as people during natural disasters. Judges have been increasingly willing to treat cats and dogs like people in the courtroom, allowing custody disputes over pets and granting large awards in cases like Ms Lohre’s — including so-called noneconomic damages typically reserved for the death of a spouse or a child. In a few recent court cases, judges even gave dogs their own lawyers.
But not everyone is cheering. Cleaners, groomers and dog walkers have been hit with large lawsuits when harm has come to family pets. And veterinarians have been particularly spooked by the rising legal status of cats and dogs.
In 2004, a Los Angeles man won a $39,000 veterinary malpractice verdict for the death of his Labrador mix. The American Veterinary Medical Association warned that “personhood” for pets could flood the courts, drive vets out of business and ultimately harm dogs and cats by making veterinary services prohibitively expensive.
Ironically, veterinarians themselves helped to create this bind. In the 19th century, they would have shared the law’s view that pets were worthless animals. Their work focused almost exclusively on economically valuable creatures such as horses and cows. But as these animals began to disappear from US cities in the early 20th century, veterinarians often found themselves out of work. They turned to cats and dogs for the survival of their profession.
Veterinary medicine began to resemble human medicine. Dank stables gave way to comfy waiting rooms, white coats replaced grungy aprons, and vets began performing blood transfusions, ultrasounds and even open-heart surgery. Owners became more like parents, and vets became the pediatricians of “fur babies.”
Now veterinarians are getting sued more like doctors, too. The AVMA and state veterinary associations have begun battling legislation that would reclassify owners as “guardians” and filing briefs in court cases to limit damages for the loss of a pet. Last year, the AVMA helped to persuade the Texas Supreme Court to deny the owners of an accidentally euthanised dog the type of “sentimental damages” awarded for the loss of family heirlooms and photo albums. Under current Texas law, you can recover more money from someone who destroys a picture of your dog than from someone who destroys the dog itself.
Nor are vets the only ones worried about the rising status of dogs and cats. Firms involved in agriculture and biomedical research fear that personhood for pets could spill over to livestock and lab rats, stymieing cures for human diseases and shutting down meat production. “We’re worried about the slippery slope,” says Frankie Trull, president of the National Association of Biomedical Research.
So are cats and dogs destined to become fellow citizens? The answer may be up to the next generation, which grew up with cats and dogs as virtual siblings. Take Rachel Brady, who recently began veterinary school at U.C. Davis. “I definitely think cats and dogs should have a different legal status,” she says. “It seems absurd they’re considered property.” She worries about veterinary malpractice lawsuits, but that, she says, doesn’t outweigh giving dogs and cats the place in society they deserve.
Mr Grimm is the online news editor at Science. This essay is adapted from “Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs,” published by PublicAffairs.