My interest is always piqued by news of changes in laws that view animals as family members rather than personal property. Case in point is a newly amended law in Alaska (Amendment HB 147) that requires consideration of the best interest of companion animals who are caught up in the tangle of divorce. In the past, the animals would have been placed with whomever was deemed to be the more “rightful owner.”

The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) has called Amendment HB 147, “groundbreaking and unique.” A recent ALDF blog post stated, “Even though judges throughout the U.S. can already choose, in their discretion, to consider an animal’s best interests, no other state legislature has required judges to do so when adjudicating property distribution upon the dissolution of a marriage.”

Will other states follow suit?

Alaska’s Amendment HB 147 has set a precedent in the United States in terms of divorce law. It remains to be seen whether or not other states will follow suit. Few laws currently exist within the United States that recognize the best interests of animals within the court system. Alaska’s decision represents significant progress. State Representative Liz Vasquez, a sponsor of HB 147 stated,  “Pets are truly members of our families. We care for them as more than just property. As such, the courts should grant them more consideration. It’s only natural.”

A case in Texas

There have been a handful of court cases in recent years that have challenged the long-standing legal precedent that animals are to be regarded as personal property. One notable example involved Texans Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen. Their lawsuit stemmed from the wrongful euthanasia of their dog Avery by a Fort Worth animal shelter. Avery had been picked up as a stray and was to be held until the Medlens could retrieve him. Shelter workers erroneously placed Avery on the “euthanasia list.” The Medlens sued and attempted to recover “sentimental” and “intrinsic” damages for the loss of their dog. Ultimately, the Texas Supreme Court denied the Medlen’s claim declaring that pets are nothing more than personal property.

The court, however, did sympathize with the Medlen’s grief by acknowledging that, “Texans love their dogs. Throughout the Lone Star State, canine companions are treated- and treasured- not as mere personal property but as beloved friends and confidants, even family members.”

However, the Supreme Court justices felt that this sentiment should not negate a more than a century old precedent that bars emotional damage claims for the death of a pet. As Supreme Court Justice Don Willet wrote, “The Medlens seek emotion-based damages for the death of ‘man’s best friend’ when the law denies such damages for the death of a human best friend. For all their noble and praiseworthy qualities, dogs are not human beings, and the Texas common-law tort system should not prioritize human-animal relationships over intimate human-human relationships, particularly familial ones.”

How do veterinary organizations weigh in?

Professional veterinary organizations typically voice opposition to viewing pets as more than personal property. Here is their reasoning. Currently, veterinary malpractice insurance premiums are extremely affordable. If and when pets become more than personal property and their owners can sue for emotional damages, the cost of veterinary malpractice coverage will skyrocket, perhaps rivaling those of human medical doctors. This would dramatically drive up the cost of veterinary care.

In the Medlen lawsuit, both the Texas Veterinary Medical Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association filed legal briefs requesting that the existing law viewing pets as property be upheld.  About this case, Texas Veterinary Medical Association president, Dr. Jed Ford stated, “The court upheld a legal precedent that has served the people and animals of Texas well for over 100 years. While animals play important roles in our lives, it was critical that the court maintain its position that noneconomic damages are unavailable for the loss of an animal. To have ruled otherwise would have had a dramatic negative impact on the practice of veterinary medicine in Texas and animal care in general.”

How do you weigh in on the legal view that pets are no more than property?