Dogs: Personal Property or Family Members?

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We love our pets. More than 60% of U.S. households include at least one pet. According to one poll, more than half of pet owners would prefer to be stranded on a desert island with their pet rather than another human. An estimated 1 million dogs in the U.S. have been named the primary beneficiary in their owner’s will.

It may come as a surprise to many pet owners that under the laws of most states, including Arizona, pets are considered personal property. In other words, Rover is treated no differently than a couch, chair or DVD player.

But things may be changing. Recently, the Arizona legislature changed the legal definition of “personal property” to remove the word “dogs”.

Previously Arizona Revised Statues Section 1-215(19) defined “personal property” as including “money, goods, chattels, dogs, things in action and evidences of debt”. This definition was changed in House Bill 2088 (Arizona Laws 2015, ch. 276). The updated statute now defines “personal property” as including ““money, goods, chattels, things in action and evidences of debt”.

Effects on Tort and Divorce Laws

What does this change mean? It’s too early to tell at this point. Two areas of the law that might be affected are tort law and divorce law.

In tort cases, pet owners whose animals are injured or killed have been unsuccessful in obtaining damages for emotional distress and loss of companionship. This is because the law does not provide compensation for emotional suffering that results from an injury to personal property. Pet owners’ damages are limited to the fair market value of their pet, and the value of the pet to the owner is not considered. In other words, the same analysis is applied to the death of a pet as would be applied to a totaled car.

In divorce cases, if one spouse owned the pet before the marriage, the pet is considered that person’s separate property just like other assets owned before the marriage. For pets obtained by both spouses during the marriage, the analysis is more complicated and may depend on factors such as who provided more care for the pet and who is awarded custody of a child (pets often go with the children). Even so, the pet is still considered personal property, so visitation rights are not normally awarded and the best interests of the pet are not legally relevant.

Shifting Trends

Is the Arizona legislature at the front of the pack when it comes to shifting trends?

  • In 2006, following Hurricane Katrina, a bi-partisan Congress passed the Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act (PETS Act), which requires states seeking FEMA assistance to accommodate pets and service animals in their plans for assisting victims of emergencies and disasters. Many people in the hurricane-affected area had refused to leave without their pets, and some died as a result. Other families left their pets and suffered tremendous guilt and depression over their decision.
  • In 2012, a California Court of Appeal refused to limit the damages of two pet owners to the market value of their injured pets. Instead, the owners could recover reasonable and necessary costs incurred in treating their animals. The court pointed out that animals are already treated differently than other types of property because there are laws against cruelty to animals that do not apply to furniture, cars and other personal property. The court recognized that “animals are special, sentient beings, because unlike other forms of property, animals feel pain, suffer and die”.
  • In 2014, France has changed the definition of pets from “movable goods” to “living beings capable of feelings”.

Arguments For and Against

Opponents believe that those who want to change the classification of companion animals to something more special than kitchen cutlery are barking up the wrong tree. They argue that allowing pet owners to recover sentimental damages for the injury or loss of a pet will impose additional burdens on an already resource-limited court system, that it will allow recovery for any injured animal including fish and iguanas, that it opens the door to recovering emotional damages for prized personal property such as a family heirloom or a hard-won trophy, and that it would provide significantly broader damages for the loss of a pet than for the loss of a human being.

Supporters of the trend argue that we are becoming an increasingly civilized and compassionate society, and this trend should be reflected in our legal system. The law should recognize that animals are sentient beings that have a close connection with their owners. Laws can be passed that enable greater rights for animals and their owners while at the same time imposing standards and limitations that address the concerns of the opponents.

We’ll see what the future brings. At least you can’t accuse the legislature of not being able to learn new tricks.

8 thoughts on “Dogs: Personal Property or Family Members?”

  1. Thank you Adam for posting this most informative article about the current state of pets as property. As the former Chair of the Animal Law section of the State Bar of Arizona I’m always glad to see this topic discussed. It’s still a little unclear why the Legislature did this but it will be interesting to see what the consequences are.

  2. For people like myself (twice widowed), dogs are caregivers. I only continue to function in this world because my dogs leep me human and related to society. The idea that a government can take my “children” for vague reasons, complaint without ever facing the “accuser” is outrageous. I live on 40acres on a mountain….dogs barking at night are not MY DOGS (cuz they are indoors with me) yet I could be blamed and my dogs taken as a nuisance with no proof. Echos thru the valley carry to keep predators away….so I am safe. Im afraid when they are not with me. No more trauma please. Ive been a victim before. Let me be safe too
    , without carrying a gun.

  3. I have had possession of a dog for over 3 years. The previous owner left Arizona at least 1 year ago. How long do I have to have possession of the dog before he is legally mine?

  4. I just moved here from Ca and I cry because I miss my cat. I live alone and I’m 86. Im happy here but I miss my cat. He is allowed but I have to pay $225.00 one time fee which I dont have. Some one said a law was passed stating that I dont have to pay. Is this true and if so, where can I get the proff to show them?

  5. It’s ridiculous that a veterinarian can get away with malpractice because of this law. I truly believe that’s why they don’t put forth their best effort to treat the animals because they know there will be no repercussions just as with my dog that she diagnosed with IMHA. She verbatim told me she’d be better in a couple of days and sent me home with a 30 day supply of prednisone. She died 2 days later because she needed to have fluids and a blood transfusion. I was an accomplice to her dying in front of my eyes and I had no idea. I let her worsen until it was too late as her red blood count went from 18 to 6 in 2 days. Misinformation and that veterinarian murdered my baby and there’s no penalties??? And no attorney seems interested in my case or justice for my baby girl that died way too young because I chose an uneducated veterinarian. There has to be change. Animals are precious and certainly not property. I’ll be forever devastated

  6. Had a dog die from a faulty product from Ecoshield Pest control company. No one would help our family with this because pets are considered personal property. Really hope this law changes!

  7. My daughter’s exboyfriend refuses to give back her dog. His mother owns the property and threatens to phone the police if she steps onto the property. Any advice?
    A concerned CT mom…
    Rose Marie Helwig

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