Q&A: Pets Are Becoming People, Legally Speaking

Cats and dogs are gaining more rights, reports author David Grimm.

Pets, like this Great Dane named Babe, have become the subject of legislation and court battles, and in some cases even have their own legal representation.


We love our pets. About 90 percent of owners consider their pets part of the family. More than 80 percent of us would likely risk our lives for them. Last year, we spent $55 billion on the animals that share our lives.

This is all fairly new. Dog and cat ownership has quadrupled since the 1960s, and our pet expenditures have more than doubled since 2000. As more and more cats and dogs (150 million in the United States) have licked and purred their way into our lives, they've also worked their way into the legal system. Pets have become the subject of legislation and court battles, and in some cases even have their own legal representation.

"As pets have become family in our homes," writes David Grimm in his eye-opening new book, Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs, "they've also become family in the eyes of the law."

National Geographic talked to Grimm about whether pets are property or (legally) people, and about what their evolving status means for the animals and for the humans who love them.

I have a dog and a cat. What legal rights do they have?

The last couple of decades, there have been a lot of laws that target cats and dogs specifically and give them what a lot of lawyers would consider rights, whether it's the right to be free of cruelty, the right to be rescued from a natural disaster, or the right to have their interests be considered in a courtroom.

It's still the case that cats and dogs are considered property. Technically, in the eyes of the law, they are no different from a couch or a car. But there have been a lot of legal changes that have really blurred that line between animal and person, and between property and person, especially when it comes to cats and dogs.

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 American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is fighting the idea of legal personhood for pets. Why are they against it?

Veterinarians have realized that it's to their benefit for us to treat our pets like children. If you treat your cat like a toaster, there's no way you are going to spend $500 at a vet. If you treat your cat like a member of the family, you'll spend thousands of dollars on chemotherapy for your cat.

Vets have built a career on this sentimental relationship. They are the third most respected profession in the country, right behind doctors and nurses, because people have such intimate relationships with their vets.

However, veterinary organizations like the AVMA have drawn the line when it comes to treating pets like people in eyes of the law. They worry that, "Oh, my God, if this person considers their cat or dog a person, if I make a mistake they could sue me for vet malpractice. I could be sued for tens of thousands of dollars for an animal that's only worth 50 bucks."

The veterinarians are in a very tricky situation. They benefit when we consider our pets members of the family, but they are also starting to see the other side of that, too. When we view our pets like children, we sue like they are children when things go wrong.

Why, after thousands of years of domestication, are cats and dogs only now becoming part of the family?

I think it's really the confluence of a lot of factors. First of all, you have the disappearance of all other animals from our daily lives. At the turn of the 20th century, animals were still ubiquitous, horses were everywhere, pigs roamed the street. Those animals have all disappeared.

Also, we used to live with a lot of people in our houses—grandparents and parents and cousins. Now you have a lot of people living just as couples without kids, you have empty nesters, you have huge divorce rates, people living by themselves. There's a real emptiness in our homes that cats and dogs have filled. This isn't fringe behavior to treat a pet like a member of the family. It's not the crazy cat lady or the crazy dog person. It's society.

Some people you spoke with warned that giving legal rights to pets undermines what it means to be human.

One of the people I talked to was a Pepperdine University law professor named Richard Cupp. He's actually a big animal person—he has dogs that he considers members of the family—but he is very concerned about this idea of granting pets rights and considering them people in the eyes of the law.

His idea, which is shared by a number of legal advocates, is that humans are unique. Only we can have rights because rights imply responsibility and an understanding of how society works and how the law works. All of human civilization is built on us not only understanding our own rights but also understanding the rights of others. Giving animals rights completely shatters this: Not only are they not human, but we have no idea that they can even comprehend this status and these rights that we've given them.

If pets get legal rights, do owners lose some of their own rights?

That's something that the AVMA has brought up as a counterargument. If your cat was a legal person, and your neighbor thought you weren't treating your cat well—you weren't feeding the cat enough or you weren't springing for that $5,000 chemotherapy—your neighbor or something like a pet protective services could step in and take that animal way, just like if you mistreated a child.

Or some people might say, "Look, pets are people so we can't spay or neuter them if it's against their will. And we can't buy or sell them." As farfetched as some of this stuff may sound, we're on this dramatic trajectory, and it's really unclear where we're going. There are a lot of unintended consequences to treating pets as people.

What do you think of the comparison between the animal rights movement and civil rights?

It's a very touchy subject. On the one hand, you obviously don't want to compare the journey of animals to the journey of blacks because a lot of people would be offended—and rightly so—by that comparison. On the other hand, these animal rights and animal law advocates need some sort of road map. When you look at the journey of pets, pets went from being wild animals to being co-opted by human society to being turned into property. Now some people are trying to fight to turn them into people.

That's exactly the same journey that blacks were on. When blacks were in Africa, a lot of white culture considered them wild animals; they were abducted and brought into society, and for centuries they were considered property. They could be bought, sold, and abused really without repercussion. Then you had the rise of the abolitionists who helped turn them from property to people. Animal advocates see that as an instructive road map.

But Africans were always people, and dogs are never people.

That's what critics say. We may have pretended for a while that blacks weren't people, but they were always people. Critics shoot back at the animal activists and say these animals are not people. You can pretend as much as you want that a dog or cat is a child or a person, but basic biology tells us that these are not human beings.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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