Should Dogs Have Legal Rights?

Courts are treating dogs differently these days, but man's best friend is still considered property under the law.

While you won’t find mention of dogs’ rights in the Bill of Rights, to some degree, dogs do have rights under American law. Barna Tanko/Shutterstock

In 2011, Bob and Elizabeth Monyak took their dogs, Lola and Callie, to an Atlanta pet kennel. During the dogs’ stay, kennel staff mixed up the animals’ medications, which landed Lola in the hospital with acute kidney failure. She died nine months later.

The Monyaks sued, but under the law, dogs are considered property, and the kennel claimed that Lola had “no fair market value” because she was a rescue dog that was adopted for free. The Monyaks’ case eventually made its way to the state Supreme Court, and this month, in a unanimous decision, the court ruled that a jury can decide the monetary value of a pet — not the market.

Ultimately, Lola was still considered property in the eyes of the law; however, by acknowledging that a treasured pet is worth more than simply what was paid for it, this case joins a host of others that reflect a significant change in how American society regards man’s best friend.

Why should dogs have rights?

While you won’t find mention of dogs’ rights in the Bill of Rights, to some degree, dogs do have rights under American law. “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,” journalist David Grimm told National Geographic.

Still, according to law, dogs are property, making them no legally different from furniture or other items in your home. However, experts say decisions like that in the Monyak case are changing this. After all, this certainly wasn’t the first time a court weighed a dog’s value, as well as its right to life. When a Texas dog was wrongfully euthanized in 2012, the Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth ruled “the special value of man’s best friend should be protected” and effectively gave dogs increased legal status by acknowledging pets are more than simply property.

Rulings like this seem to reflect our sentiment. According to a Harris poll, 95 percent of Americans consider their pets to be members of the family. Nearly half of those polled purchase birthday presents for their pets, and three in 10 frequently cook for the animals that share their homes just like they do for family.

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

But it’s not just our affection for man’s best friend that’s led to companion animals’ growing legal recognition. In recent years, research has revealed dogs aren’t that different from us. They not only have the capacity for emotion, but they also have the ability to read our emotions.

“Science has demonstrated that the mind of a dog is roughly equivalent to that of a human child two to three years of age,” writes dog expert and neuropsychological researcher Stanley Coren. “Like a toddler, the dog has all of the basic emotions: fear, anger, joy, disgust, surprise and love.”

And in 2013, after two years of studying MRI scans of dogs, Emory scientist Gregory Berns concluded, "dogs are people too."

Even Pope Francis has weighed in on the sentience of animals like dogs, noting “every act of cruelty towards any creature is contrary to human dignity” and that one day we will see animals in heaven because “paradise is open to all of God’s creatures."

This growing body of scientific evidence, combined with a compassionate understanding of the bond between human and companion animal, has led to changes in how our legal system operates. For example, it’s becoming more common for pet owners to sue for mental suffering and loss of companionship when a dog or cat is killed, and judges have even started taking the best interests of pets into account during custody cases.

What if man’s best friend had the same rights as man?

Dog at the vet
The American Veterinary Medical Association is concerned that if the law recognizes pets as family members, then veterinarians could easily be sued for malpractice. DuxX/Shutterstock

In 2014, French parliament reclassified animals as “living beings” instead of simply property. Last year, New Zealand passed the Animal Welfare Amendment Bill, acknowledging that animals are sentient beings just like humans. And in December, Quebec granted animals the same rights as children under its laws.

With so many countries recognizing a new legal status for animals, especially pets, it seems only natural others would follow suit. But not everyone wants the law to look upon man’s best friend differently, and one of the biggest opponents to it here in the U.S. is the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

It’s understandably beneficial to veterinarians that we treat our pets like children. After all, if you think of your dog as a member of the family, you’re likely willing to spend a great deal of money to keep that family member healthy.

However, organizations like the AVMA are concerned that if the law recognizes pets as family members, then veterinarians could easily be sued for malpractice. In other words, a dog that’s legally worth only its adoption costs is much less risky to operate on.

“The veterinarians are in a very tricky situation,” Grimm said. “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.”

There are also concerns that by recognizing pets as humans under the law, pet owners themselves could lose rights. Critics say granting animals such legal status could lead to arguments that dogs can’t be spayed or neutered against their will, for example. Other say that taking such a step could spawn a great deal of frivolous and expensive litigation, as well as a slippery slope that could lead to the end of hunting and breeding.

“As farfetched as some of this stuff may sound, we're on this dramatic trajectory, and it's really unclear where we're going,” Grimm said. “There are a lot of unintended consequences to treating pets as people.”

Why Pets Matter to Treehugger

At Treehugger, we are advocates of animal welfare, including our pets and other domestic animals. The better we understand our dogs, the better we can support and protect their wellbeing. We hope our readers will adopt rescue pets instead of shopping from breeders or pet stores, and will also consider supporting local animal shelters.