We all think our dogs are priceless, but according to attorney Judy Devore, under the law they are chattel. If your dog is killed or harmed, the damages you are legally entitled to are replacement costs.
If your dog came from the shelter, that’s just a couple hundred dollars.
“This means the consequences of carelessness by a groomer, a vet or a dog walker are very, very low,” she said.
Vulnerable owners, vulnerable pets
Devore’s interest in animal law sharpened after being asked to take several veterinary malpractice cases. The experience set her on a campaign for better supervision of businesses that provide care for dogs including vets, groomers, doggie day care centers, boarding kennels, dog walkers and others.
“The legal standards set for the care of companion animals are not very high,” she said. “A groomer, for example, doesn’t have to go to school for training and doesn’t even have to have a license.”
On the other hand, she said, some animal rights advocates such as Elliot Katz, DVM, who founded In Defense of Animals, have supported changing the legal status of companion to the degree that in some communities the laws don’t discuss dog “ownership.” They refer instead to “guardianship.”
“It’s a slippery slope to treat dogs just like people. They aren’t the same,” Devore said.
But in many cases, she added, the law is not consistent with the reality of living with dogs. It fails to recognize the deep and emotionally complex relationships we have with our dogs that puts them in an entirely different category than other possessions.
Only in a very few cases — such as one in which someone battered a woman’s dog — have courts awarded damages for the emotional distress a person suffers when injury is done to his or her dog.
“But this is generally done in instances of outrageous conduct,” Devore said, “not middle-of-the-road negligence.”
In another case in Orange County, attorneys used the concept of “property of peculiar value” in a case involving harm to a dog. (This is a legal term used to refer to property that has an emotional value greater than its market value — a family heirloom or the watch your late grandmother gave you for graduation.)
That case was reversed on appeal, leaving market value as the standard.
Doing due diligence for your dog’s sake
Devore would like to see a system of inspections and ratings, much like the health department rates restaurants as “A,” “B” or “C.” Until then, she says people with dogs need to do their own inspections and questioning. Here are some of her suggestions:
Doggie day care providers
Visit the site and every part of the facility where your dog will be. Is it clean? Does it smell? Talk to staff members. Ask questions such as:
- How do you handle biting by dogs?
- What happens if a dog that is sick comes to the day care site?
- Is there separate grouping by dog size?
- How is the staff trained? Do they know pet first aid? Do they have training in animal behavior and dog training?
- What is the ratio of staff members to dogs?
- How do they handle discipline?
- What do they do in a medical emergency?
- What will my dog be doing all day?
- Will my dog have access to both indoor and outdoor areas?
Visit several times, again checking out every area where your dog will be in the facility. Is it clean and odor-free? Observe interactions between dogs and between the staff and the dogs.
- Is there good ventilation in the facility?
- Is there protection from weather?
- Do the dogs have enough room to move around in?
- Are the dogs given comfortable bedding?
- What vet do they have a relationship with?
- When do they feed the dogs?
- Can they accommodate special feeding schedules?
- Is the water given to the dogs clean?
Meet the groomer and ask questions about his or her training and experience. Check references. (Ideally, get referrals to a groomer from someone you trust.)
Because vets work on patients who can’t speak, generally work without peer review, aren’t required to hire trained labor and deal with emotionally vulnerable clients with open wallets, Devore says they present particular problems.
It’s in your and your dog’s best interest to ask a lot of questions and use good judgment.
- What kind of training does the vet have? Devore noted that some general vets claim expertise in specialized areas of practice based on limited training in that area.
- How many staff members does he or she have?
- How are they trained?
- Do they have staff on duty 24-hours a day?
- Where are surgeries done?
- How many surgeries are done at a time?
Devore recommended that if your pet needs specialized care, go to a specialist rather than relying on a general veterinarian. Any member of the public can check on the license status of any veterinarian or registered veterinary technician online.
For more information about dogs and the law, check this post.