Pet “Owner’ vs. Pet “Parent”/”Companion”/”Guardian”
Recently I’ve been taken to task over the fact that I use the phrases ‘owner’, ‘parent’ or ‘companion’ almost interchangeably. Some people get upset over my use of the phrase ‘pet owner’ or ‘dog owner’. I understand but I don’t use this phrasology to offend. Legally, whether we like it or not, we do ‘own’ our pets. To me, it’s a matter of semantics but the important thing is how we treat them.
I ‘own’ two dogs, two cats and a parrot. Most of the time I refer to myself as a pet parent and my pets as my children or my babies and they are treated accordingly. They are my companions and the facts that the law tells me that I ‘own’ them does not diminish them in my eyes.
Now, there are people and groups lobbying for a change in the way the law looks at our companions. They want our pets to be legally classified in a way that we are ‘guardians’ rather than ‘owners’. This sounds great on the surface but there are many things this may impact that we may not realize.
Historically, the law has classified pets as a kind of property. This status has enabled owners to protect their pets in the same way they can protect other property from undue restrictions and seizure.
Because there are a number of kinds of property, however, pets enjoy a special legal status. The law recognizes, for example, that pets are not the same kind of property as desks or cars. Rather, each state in the U.S. has laws requiring humane care of pets and criminalizing cruelty to animals. Other laws set standards for the care and handling of companion animals involved in commerce. So while pets do not have the same legal status as people, they are treated as a special type of property, a kind of property that requires humane treatment by pet owners and protects pets from irresponsible neglect and other forms of abuse by pet owners. (AMVA)
This is not a bad thing, this classification and protection. Now if pets’ legal status were changed and we were ‘guardians’ rather than ‘owners’, what would the difference be?
In contrast, under U.S. law, guardians are not owners; they are merely caretakers. Guardian status could reduce the petcare choices available to the caretakers. Legally, for example, human guardians must always act in the best interest of the “ward.” What is “best” is determined by anyone with a self-proclaimed interest or expertise and who is willing to use the court system to force a caretaker to make the “best” decision.
So consider an elderly dog that has developed a severely arthritic hip. Currently, an owner has several treatment options available, from hip replacement surgery to less invasive and less costly alternatives. While some owners may indeed opt for the hip replacement surgery, other owners may choose less expensive options. However, a “guardian” would be required to act in the “best” interest of the animal; and if a neighbor, the local humane society or a local college professor believes that hip replacement surgery is in the best interest of the animal, the dog’s caretaker could be forced to accept that option – affordable or not.
Another example: a pet owner may decide the family’s dog should be confined to a kennel rather than roaming freely throughout the entire backyard. Under current laws, pet owners have the freedom to make that choice. But a guardian could risk being taken to court by a local animal rights group or by family members who disagree and want the dog to roam the yard freely – under penalty of the law.
Changing the way the law treats pets and the people who care for them from ownership to guardianship raises many questions about how pets will be cared for in the future. If pet owners today become, under new legislation, pet guardians, a number of things could happen:
- Animal rights organizations or meddling neighbors could petition courts for custody of your pet if they don’t approve of the way you care for your pet
- The treatment options you and your veterinarian decide on could be challenged by the local animal rights organization or other self-appointed experts.
- It could be illegal to spay or neuter a pet because it deprives them of their “reproductive rights.”
- Veterinarians and pet guardians could be sued for providing what another individual might regard as inadequate care.
Guardianship laws also could have negative consequences for animal care and control organizations, which already have limited resources. They could be forced to deal with changes in euthanasia policies, increased responsibility for investigating animal abuse charges or responsibility for monitoring guardians. (AMVA)
When you look at things this way, it gets a little scary for responsible pet owners. Do you want someone to tell you that you have to do this or that for your pet because that is what they deem as best, even if you disagree. Do you want someone to be able to remove your pet from you because they claim you are not providing proper or adequate ‘guardianship’?
Recent surveys have show that more than 80% of pet owners look at their pets as part of their family and treat them as such. They look at themselves as pet parents and as the 40 billion dollar pet industry can attest, we spoil, pamper and care of our furkids here in the US more than any other country in the world.
The bottom line here; “Pets are important and valued companions. That’s why laws that protect pets from abuse are already on the books. Changing the laws to refer to pets in the same way we refer to family will not provide further protection to pets, but rather will limit the ability of pet owners to make decisions about the care and treatment of their pet.”
As I see it, I’ll be content to ‘own’ my babies and not worry about the semantics of whether I call myself a pet ‘owner’, ‘parent’ or ‘companion’. What does now and always will concern me is how they are treated, that they are loved and cared for to the best of my ability and that they will always be a part of my family!
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