I recently attended a continuing legal education seminar on animal law. I hadn’t previously thought of all the crazy issues that can arise with animals. For example, did you ever think of the repo man coming to repo a pet? It can happen — loans to purchase pets can be secured by a lien on that pet. Or what happens when your cat runs away and gets “adopted” by a new family who doesn’t want to give him back? Do you need to sue to get that pet back? Did you give up your right to the pet when you let him out the door? (The answer here, as will pretty much every legal question, is “it depends.”)
Can you sue your veterinarian for malpractice? (Yes, you can.) What about “custody” disputes over the family pet? They happen, and can be just as painful and challenging as for custody disputes over kids. (You get Toto every alternate weekend, and for a two hour visit on Tuesdays and Thursdays…) Can you recover for pain and suffering if your pet gets hit by a car? (And whose pain and suffering is it? Yours, or your pet’s?) And what do you do when your dog bites the neighbor kid? (You’ve got to be careful — you wouldn’t want your dog getting a reputation for being “vicious.”) Did you know that you have to have a license to perform artificial inseminations on other people’s animals?
People are more commonly making provision for the care and “guardianship” of their pets after death, including establishing trusts for the benefit of the pet. And so, of course, family members are contesting such trusts (particularly where Nana left the family riches to Mr. Whiskers rather than to the kids).
Historically, animals were viewed solely as property — no different than your big screen, your cell phone, or your water heater. Although that rule is generally still true, there has been some recognition in the law that (believe it or not) people actually have a closer emotional connection to their pets than to their espresso machine. (Though admittedly there are some people who seem to have quite a connection to their espresso machine.) There’s also been a recognition that animals can sense pain and generally are entitled to better treatment than your average home appliance. Thus, no one cares if you take a baseball bat to your TV (though be careful — old CRTs can explode). But, if you seriously mistreat your pet parakeet, you could find yourself in jail.