Pet Guardianship vs. Ownership: Are you your pet’s owner… or guardian?

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Have you ever asked yourself this question? Unless you live in certain municipalities where the issue’s come up, you may well be ignorant that there’s a controversy surrounding this terminology. But since it touches on so many interesting animal welfare issues, it’d be a shame not to clue you in. So let me be the first to describe it to you (from a veterinarian’s POV, of course). Those of you better-versed in its details bear with me as I explain and feel free to opine afterwards. Here goes:

In the eyes of the law, pets are our property and we, their owners. Just as goats belong to a dairy farmer, cars belong to their drivers, and toasters to bagel-eaters, pets are simple property. But some people think pets are just too important to us for this to remain the law. They suggest that this designation degrades the role of animals in our lives to that of slaves and thereby limits their ability to obtain the rights they deserve.

Which makes some sense, seeing as pets, for most of you reading this, are considered family members as well as domestic property. For all you de facto “parents,” pets are more like your children. As such, this means that you’re effectively acting as their guardians –– not as mere owners of simple property.

That’s why there’s a growing movement of concerned individuals who’d prefer it if your legal status with respect to your pet was changed from “pet owner” to “pet guardian.”

It sounds great. “Owner,” after all, is blatantly inadequate to describe this loving relationship. But what does this mean in a legal sense?

“Guardianship” means that you are put in charge of your pet’s health and well-being for the rest of her life. Consequently, in the eyes of the law, she’d look more like your child and less like your refrigerator. But while it seems a sound principle for those of us who already treat our pets like children, changing this designation legally can get tricky.

Currently, if your cat breaks her leg, you’re legally allowed to elect any approach to its treatment as long as it’s considered roughly humane. You may even elect for no intervention at all, allowing her to slowly limp her way back to a reasonable state of functionality. Few jurisdictions would challenge your right to do so unless someone complained that you were allowing your pet to suffer (and it might be hard to prove that she was).

Meanwhile, under guardianship laws, you would be unable to forgo full assessment of her condition (including X-rays or any other means to determine her condition) before a licensed vet could legally treat her or euthanize her. If you had no money to treat her adequately (to alleviate her pain, at least), you would be required to euthanize her. Although this sounds horrible, it would be the humane thing to do and most of us would be on board with this effect of our new guardianship status.

If, however, euthanasia is considered too harsh an outcome (for example, when life-saving measures are readily available), a guardian would be liable for any reasonable treatment required to make her well again –– whether you wanted to spend the money or not.

This scenario has its obvious pitfalls. After all, under the current paradigm it would be unthinkable to require an owner to euthanize their pet. And it would be unfeasible to force them to cough up payment if they didn’t have the means.

Animal lovers though we may be, most of us would agree that these far-reaching measures seem somewhat intrusive. Yet that’s theoretically what the concept of guardianship has in store for us if we effectively endow pets with rights similar to those of children.

While guardianship laws are not likely to be so invasive at their inception, they will likely make cases of negligence and borderline abuse (such as forgoing treatment altogether) a thing of the past. Which is why so many animal welfare-friendly citizens support a movement towards guardianship-type laws. But the possibility of requiring the financially bereft to choose between state-of the art care and euthanasia on behalf of their pets is another matter altogether.

In this extreme scenario, we veterinarians would inevitably raise our service levels to accommodate more treatment and fewer, inexpensive half-measures. Which is a good thing. But pet healthcare costs would inevitably climb too.

And here’s another possibility: Pet owners, held to higher standards for care, would find themselves financially unable to keep pets without keeping pet health insurance policies for them too. This industry might blossom and flourish (something I’d like to see), but not all veterinarians agree that’s a good thing. Some of my colleagues see it as setting the stage for human healthcare-type bureaucracy in veterinary medicine.

In any case, I believe that laws enacting guardianship-style principles in the keeping of pets would be difficult to enforce and hard on the poor. Though, as a veterinarian, I’d probably make a lot more money, I’m not sure I’m philosophically able to bear the societal consequences of a world where pets belong exclusively to the affluent.

For some reason, this is what I always think about when people talk guardianship vs. ownership. I’m sure there are a lot of positives to guardianship laws, but I always worry about the messiness this brave new world might bring.

That’s why I’ll argue that what we really need are stronger humane treatment laws where dogs and cats are no longer subject to shoddy or no care –– especially when they deserve to be euthanized if care can’t be provided for financial reasons. (Here, I refer to the extreme cases where dogs are chained to trees or can no longer move and yet they lay at home on a back porch in their own filth. Anyone who works in humane services or rescue knows how it happens.)

Ultimately, we need higher standards of care for their own sake, not by virtue of widespread laws that force the responsible among us to seek them out… or else. Education, expansion of humane animal services and more uniform standards for basic veterinary care would be my preferred tools. Barring that, seeking out the worst offenders and punishing them harshly and publicly would be the next best thing.

Perhaps guardianship laws would never reach so far as to challenge our entire system of veterinary care, but, as a veterinarian, I can’t help thinking in terms of the worst-case scenario. How does your perspective inform you?