Is a beloved family cat a pet or a fur baby? He’s a dog owner who dresses his labradoodle in knitted booties, or a pet parent? Increasingly, the language applied to companion animals has shifted from a framework based on ownership to one borrowed from parent-child relationships. Some of this language shift is due to changes in the way popular culture thinks about family and the pet-owner bond, and some of it is the result of clever marketing by the pet care industry: Maybe you won’t spend cash on a new bed for Fluffy, but why wouldn’t you want the plushest bed for your fur baby?
Unfortunately, while emphasizing the family bond we can have with our pets can be great for selling pet products and services, it can also have the unintended side effect of encouraging pet owners to seek damages based on emotional or other non-financial damages when a pet is harmed by a product or service. In the appropriate case, a mother whose child was injured by a medical error may receive non-financial compensation for her emotional distress, but the law does not (yet) recognize a claim for emotional distress arising from an injury to a pet. An amici curiae brief issued in Idaho by nonprofit associations dedicated to animal welfare and responsible animal ownership noted that jurisdictions from Texas to New York to Alaska have “broadly rejected liability based on emotion in negligence , recklessness and non-malicious cases’ of deaths. or injuries to pets.
Despite this widespread rejection, many courts have gone out of their way to assert that there is a strong emotional bond between pets and humans—but have emphasized that the existence of that bond is one that simply cannot be won. For example, in North Carolina the court stated: “The emotional bond between a man and his partner can neither be quantified in monetary terms nor compensated under our current law.” Shera v. NC State Univ. Vet. Teach’g Hosp., 723 SE2d 352, 357 (NC Ct. App. 2012). In Iowa: “An owner’s emotional attachment to his or her dog has no place in calculating damages for the death or injury of the dog.” Nichols v. Canine Soukaro555 NW2d 689, 691 (Iowa 1996).
This rejection of noneconomic damages may seem “anti-pet,” but from a public policy perspective it would actually be deeply harmful to pets to award damages that are not based on economic emotion. Factoring in the new potential liability for sentiment-based damages would mean that pet services, veterinary care, pet insurance and pet products would all become more expensive—prohibitively so for many. If fewer pet owners could afford regular vet checkups and preventative care for their pets, their pets’ health problems might worsen. Without regular care, owners may find themselves unable to treat sick pets, causing unnecessary physical suffering for the pets and unnecessary emotional suffering for the owners. Eventually, these pets may need to be euthanized. If some pet owners who suffer emotional distress win financial benefits from emotion-based damages, many more animals will be disproportionately harmed as litigation and insurance costs have soared in the pet care industry.
Language, like bonding with a pet, can be powerful, emotional, emotional. But as every case throughout the United States court system has shown, marketing copy that tugs at the heartstrings of pet owners for the industry’s own financial benefit simply doesn’t translate into financial benefits for those same “pet parents” in court.