Is the idea of ‘pet guardians’ out of this world?

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Is the idea of ‘pet guardians’ out of this world?

Experts weigh in on whether a future where people care for furry wards would be better than one where pets are owned.
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Oct 26, 2016

"Open the cat box doors, Hal ... " (Shutterstock.com)“Pet owner” is so 20th century. We’re in the future! We call our pets “fur babies.” We dote on them as parents, using coochy-coochy-coo language. And many Americans already act as if they’re just as valuable as any two-legged Homo sapiens marching around the house.

So we got to wondering: could the near future (or the distant future) see American pet owners turned into pet guardians? Would we not own animals but be responsible for them in the way parents are responsible for children—as guardians who care for wards?

We asked experts. They said it’s not gonna happen. Why? Because the reasons given in support of this shift are largely myths. Here’s a closer look at the three biggest ones.

Myth No. 1: Pet guardianship means animals will get better medical care

Many state laws give parents the right to decide on medical care for their children, but child protection agencies can step in when parents’ medical choices could be fatal, when the children wouldn’t have reasonably good quality of life, and when the medical community agrees the care is needed for that child. Could that happen with pets? Would pet owners be required by law to bring pets in for wellness visits (once, twice, three times a year!), pay for medically required procedures (no more skipping surgeries and dental work) and attend to pets’ emotional needs (home enrichment and top-notch training, here we come!)?

Probably not. For one thing, who would enforce these guardianship standards?

“All of this adds up to an obligation to the state to report and live up to state standards,” says Mark Cushing, JD, a founding partner of the Animal Policy Group, which provides government relations and strategic services for various animal health, veterinary and educational interests. “The assumption is that you’re not valuing your pet, and the only way we can get you to play with your pet, feed it and take care of it is the hammer of the state via guardian supervision.”

That mentality actually goes against what has led Americans to spend more and more money on pets year after year: the evolving and growing human-animal bond. “That bond is what’s motivated people to get pets, to own pets, to take better care of their pets and to be better educated about their pets’ health,” Cushing says.

Legal pet guardianship could irreparably harm the profession—and the nature of the human-animal bond.

While the veterinary industry continues to impress on pet owners the importance of pets in people’s lives (and the money that can be spent to make their lives better), continuing this line of thinking all the way to legal pet guardianship could irreparably harm the profession—and the natural, organic nature of the human-animal bond.

“Our slogans are, ‘We treat pets like family,” Cushing says. “That flows from the human-animal bond way of looking at things.”

Myth No. 2: Pet guardianship means courts will allow damages for pain and suffering

Families can spend thousands and thousands of dollars on pets during their lifetimes, treating them better than their own flesh and blood and bonding with them in a way they seldom do with people. Is it fair that, if someone accidentally or purposefully hurts or kills that beloved family member, the courts and the law value the pet using nothing but its replacement cost?

The thing to remember, says Jim Wilson, DVM, JD, author of Law and Ethics of the Veterinary Profession, is that people in court don’t even get special damages for most other people. “Human beings typically receive noneconomic damages in court only in cases of parents, spouses and children,” Wilson says. “And sometimes not that much.”

As a Texas judge remarked in 2013, “it would be off if Texas law permitted damages for loss of a Saint Bernard but not for a brother Bernard,” Wilson notes.

We're not saying the future could bring pet guardianship for America's pets. But maybe a mission to Mars? (Shutterstock.com)However, Wilson believes the economic damages allowed by courts could potentially rise over time. Pet owners can already sue for replacement cost, veterinary care, lost-animal search costs, lost income from a working animal, transportation costs and funeral costs. Considering the increasing amount of money pet owners are willing to spend on their pets—including in many of these categories in situations of pet loss—this could mean higher legal awards. And that could mean higher malpractice insurance costs for veterinarians.

Wilson cites a study in California maintaining that increasing economic damages to $5,000 per pet could double a veterinarian’s annual malpractice premium—but that’s only from $250 to $500, which most veterinary professionals could manage. “I believe our profession could live with expanding economic damages to $10,000 or $20,000,” he says. “I don’t think we could survive with expanding noneconomic damages.”

A wild increase in noneconomic damages, Wilson argues, could eventually price pet owners out of the market for good veterinary care in the same way human healthcare costs have continued to skyrocket. In the end, “we’d be depriving pets of care,” he says.

Myth No. 3: Pet guardianship means we’ll learn to respect animal pain, cognition and welfare

Many people believe that a shift to pet guardianship would open people’s eyes to the interconnectedness of life and human beings’ responsibility to help animals live out their lives well—not just for our sake but for their own sakes.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” says Bernie Rollins, ethicist and author of An Introduction to Veterinary Medical Ethics. “In Britain now they’ve got a pet welfare law that says you can’t tie up a dog all day outside. Most of us don’t have that law.”

Would a new legal relationship to animals bring about more compassion, more understanding and a willingness to provide a better world for animals?

Maybe. But is it really the law keeping pets from better care and owners from that greater understanding?

Wilson thinks some of the attitude behind the fight for pet guardianship comes from a judgmental attitude toward today’s pet owners, an attitude he can relate to because he used to—used to—feel the same way.

“I used to believe that if you couldn’t afford proper veterinary care, you shouldn’t own a pet. But then I worked with low-income pet owners...”

“I used to believe that if you couldn’t afford proper veterinary care, you shouldn’t own a pet. But then I worked with low-income pet owners,” he says. “These people come to the emergency clinic with the same love and affection for their pets as I had. These pets were important to these people. And in terms of what that bond brings to their lives, the companionship and the perpetual friendship, I can’t deny the importance of that human-animal bond.”

Wilson, like many other experts, isn’t sure a shift to a world of pet guardians, not pet owners, policed by bureaucracies and yielding bigger court awards leads more pets to better veterinary care.

The future looks good, Wilson argues, because people are coming to value their pets more on their own. And veterinarians should be involved in their practices, in their communities, in associations and in legislatures to make sure no one forgets the crucial role they play in whatever future comes for pets and the people who love them.