The law has not kept up with the attitudes of Americans regarding our pets. The law traditionally regarded them nothing more than property. For that reason, we face challenges when they are injured or killed. But we are “up to” those challenges!

The way the law developed will help us understand the legal “loopholes” that help the wrongdoers get away with it. The first laws pertaining to the value of animals were the anti-cruelty laws. Prior to 1800, there were no recorded criminal prosecutions for cruelty to animals. (Davis v. A.S.P.C.A., 75 N.Y. 362 (1873).) The first anti-cruelty laws protected only commercially valuable animals like horses, cattle, sheep and pigs – but did not punish their owners if the owners abused them. In other words, the owners were free to do anything they pleased to their animals.

In the 1860s, the next generation of anti-cruelty laws extended protection to more animals and stopped giving free rein to owners. Nevertheless, animals were still regarded as property. For that reason, an owner was entitled to collect only a small amount to replace any animal that was killed. State laws specifically provided that the measure of damages for the loss of an animal was the same as for the loss of any other item of property. (See, i.e., California Penal Code sec. 491, "Dogs are personal property, and their value is to be ascertained in the same manner as the value of other property.”)

The law has evolved very little since then. Almost all states regard animals as property. When property is damaged or destroyed by the negligent (unthinking, careless, stupid) conduct of another person, the law generally requires the negligent party to give the owner an amount of money sufficient to simply repair or replace the property. The owner’s sentimental attachment to the property does not enter into the monetary equation unless the item is something along the lines of a wedding ring – an object that the law finds to clearly have emotional value.

Incredibly, in almost every state, pets do not fall into that category. When the “property” is a pet, the law usually requires that the negligent person merely pay either the veterinarian bills or the replacement cost of the animal. Even this small measure of damages has two severe limitations:

First, the wrongdoer generally does not have to pay that portion of the veterinarian bills in excess of the replacement cost of the animal. In other words, if the bills are two thousand dollars but the replacement cost is one hundred dollars, the defendant need pay only one hundred dollars.

Second, the measure of the replacement cost is sometimes the cost of purchasing another pet, but other times the amount of money that the pet could have been sold for (prior to being injured or killed, of course). This dual standard favors some animal owners but hurts others. For example, the owner of an old dog usually cannot obtain an amount of money sufficient to pay for a puppy from a reliable breeder. On the other hand, the owner of specially trained dog should receive an amount that would cover not only the cost of the dog, but also its training and experience.

Beyond the veterinarian bills or replacement cost, the law generally has little to offer. The states differ with regard to the emotional distress of the pet owner, the sentimental value of the pet, the pet owner’s loss of income because of time spent caring for the pet, etc. The basic rule is that these losses are a burden that the owner has to bear, without recompense from anyone.
There is only one thing that is clearly “enlightened” about the law in this field. Many states have enacted statutes that make a dog owner automatically liable when his canine injures another dog. Such laws eliminate some of the arguments when one dog attacks another. More about that will be found in the Liability Wizard.