companion animals, animal health care
A great deal of opposition has been mounted against legislation that changes the language describing the relationship between people and their animals from “owner” to “guardian.” One of the primary arguments focuses on the claim that pet “guardians” might be faced with more limited health care choices for their pets. Behind these arguments is the premise that no one should interfere with an owner’s authority to make decisions for her animal’s health care. However, state and local laws that change the designation from pet “owner” to “guardian” will not, as opponents have argued, affect in any way our ability to make veterinary care choices for our companion animals. Choices about veterinary care for companion animals may matter now more than they ever have in the past. Despite their designation as personal property, companion animals are increasingly considered members of their human families. And when these family members become ill, an increasingly sophisticated range of treatment choices are available for them—in fact, many of the same treatment choices that are available in human medicine. These developments give rise to questions around the extent to which the legal framework for clinical decision-making in human medicine can and should be imported into veterinary medicine to control owners’ treatment choices. In most cases of veterinary care decision-making, the status quo—where owners and veterinarians work in partnership to make decisions that balance the animal’s interest with that of the owner—is working fine and does not need to be changed. More limits on owner discretion are, however, needed in cases of “convenience euthanasia:” companion animal owners who request that their veterinarians euthanize healthy animals simply because it is no longer convenient to keep them. The best way to challenge and limit such choices is not through owner/guardian language changes, which have no legal effect, but rather by strengthening and clarifying language requiring proper veterinary care in existing animal cruelty statutes. These statutes should be modified to make it clear that requesting the euthanasia of a healthy companion animal solely for the owner’s convenience is a prohibited form of animal abuse.
2 Stanford Journal of Animal Law and Policy 1(2009).