How Much Is a Pet's Life Worth? One Vet's Opinion

Changing Legal Viewpoints

Here’s some background on this issue: Pets have historically been regarded as “simple property” in the eyes of the U.S. legal system. Though they’re afforded some extra rights (you can neither abuse them nor neglect them, for example), their monetary value has until recently been limited to their fair market value.

For example: In terms of his fair market value, your old, arthritic rescue dog isn’t likely to be worth much. In fact, he’s probably more of a liability than anything else given what it might cost for someone to take him on for the rest of his life. In other words, your past-his-prime pet has historically been consideredless than worthless.

But the laws are changing.

Consider this real-world example sourced from my neck of the woods: In 2009, a judge in South Florida awarded an owner $30,000 for the loss of her Rottweiler after a boarding kennel failed to seek veterinary care for a respiratory condition that led to his death. Of that amount, $10,000 was awarded for the vet care his owners ultimately sought (upon their return from their vacation). And $20,000 was awarded for his “intrinsic” value. (There have been similar judgments in other parts of the country.)

To be sure, to most of us who love pets enough to read and write about them, it’s a positive sign of the times. But it’s not just us.

Can We Put a Value on Companionship?

Indeed, among more enlightened legal scholars, animal attorneys and plenty of veterinarians out there, the very idea of your pet’snegative monetary value is ridiculous. After all, you’ve spent thousands on him, year after year, caring for him lovingly as if he were a member of your family. The negligence of a professional or the cruelty of a neighbor shouldn’t be discounted in monetary terms just because, in legal estimation, he belongs in your debit column.

After all, this animal has real “intrinsic” value to you in ways your car or your toaster oven cannot. All your expenses and all that sweat equity spent training, exercising, feeding, learning and involving yourself fully in his daily care clearly demonstrate that this pet is worth more to you than the word “pet” might imply. He is a companion in every sense of the word (and often more). Your friends, your neighbors, your veterinarian, your groomer and your pet sitter can all attest to that.

So when your pet is “lost” because of the wrongful actions of others, as Violet might’ve been, this intrinsic value legally translates into “loss of companionship.” And I believe you should have the right to seek compensation for this.

In fact, here’s my overriding point: If Violet had been killed, it wouldn’t have been enough to receive simple justice on behalf of my “pet” to the tune of what someone’s insurance company calculates I deserve. Not for me, anyway.

No, I hold that the wrongdoers (like this driver, if she’d hit us) should be punished, too. And the only way that can happen in the context of our current legal system is if they can be made liable for what the legal system calls “punitive” or “non-economic” damages.

Though “non-economic” damages is the modern terminology applied to pets in this context, both terms denote a financial award, one that’s traditionally served as a means of punishmentanddeterrent to those who would wantonly disregard an important cultural value (for example, the critical importance of a pet’s life to certain individuals).

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