Judge holding gavel

Here’s a story out of Texas that’s got plenty of veterinarians I know in a lather.

After Avery, an 8-year-old Labrador mix, got loose during a thunderstorm and was picked up by the municipal dog catcher, his family went to claim him at the shelter. Bureaucratic shenanigans ensued and Avery accidentally ended up on the put-to-sleep list. Considering that a court of law was enlisted to help suss out the rights and wrongs of this case, you should have no trouble guessing how this story ends.

The court sided with Avery’s family. I tend to think that we’d all agree this is a good thing, but here’s the part that's got veterinarians in a huff. The Texas Second Court of Appeals (yes, it went to the appellate court) went even further and decided that pets are worth more than just their market value. They also have sentimental value, the court agreed, and offered this statement in its ruling:

"Dogs are unconditionally devoted to their owners. We interpret timeworn Supreme Court law … to acknowledge that the special value of 'man's best friend' should be protected.”

Legal action is an increasingly popular last resort for pet owners who feel their pets have been treated indefensibly by shelters, veterinarians, groomers, pet sitters, neighbors, or even other family members. In fact, the legal specialty of animal law is finally coming into its own now that pets are considered family members rather than property.

All of which probably helps explain why a court in Fort Worth, Texas, decided pet owners can sue for the sentimental value of their pets, not just their market value.

So what’s a pet worth? Aye, there’s the rub. You and I might find it impossible to put a price tag on our family members, but in the eyes of the law, a pet has historically been worth more than a toaster oven but less than a human.

In other words, under the law, pets have been treated kind of like glorified simple property. Basically that means that a pet is still your property, but you aren't allowed to abuse it, for example, so pets do have certain rights beyond that of a toaster oven.

Yet the law of the land has –– until this ruling –– effectively decided that shelters that kill or maim pets negligently, maliciously or otherwise, are liable only for the [near negligible] cost of an otherwise unwanted animal. So, too, does this rule stand for anyone else that might hurt or kill an animal.

That is, until this appellate court in Fort Worth decided otherwise.

So why the veterinary outcry? As dedicated to the health, welfare and overall well-being of companion animals though we might be, the recent increase in legal action against pet service providers has led to considerable angst within the veterinary community. “Could I be next” they worry?

In my estimation, however, legal machinations that manage to secure higher animal welfare standards for pets are, on balance, a good thing. What worries me, however, is the notion of the two-way street. If our animals’ significant sentimental value becomes the new normal in legal circles, might those who are unwilling or incapable of treating their animals as sentient beings worthy of this designation be liable for their less-than-state-of-the-art care?

Think about it: According to this new legal paradigm, not only are veterinarians potentially liable for providing an increased standard of care (which invariably translates into greater accountability and higher prices), but owners must demonstrate that their pets meet “sentimental” criteria. In other words, if you’re incapable of paying for a treatment that’s considered the standard of care for your pet’s disease, might you be held liable for an animal welfare transgression?

Many veterinarians might well dislike the legal concept of “sentimental” value for pets for purely mercenary reasons, but my contention is that smart, welfare-minded vets willing to think the issue through have legitimate beef with these decisions. After all, it’s not just pet service providers who stand to suffer under the microscope of increased scrutiny in these cases … theoretically, pet owners are every bit as exposed as any high-target professional on this issue.