Dogs and cats, historically, have been people’s property like a couch or a toaster. But as they’ve moved into our houses and our hearts, courts of law have begun to treat them as something more. They can inherit your estate, get an appointed lawyer if your relatives challenge that inheritance and are protected from cruel acts. Your toaster can’t do any of that.
As these animals inch closer to citizen’s rights, the trend is being watched with worried eyes by biomedical researchers who fear judges could extend these rights to lab animals like monkeys and rats, thereby curbing experimentation. It also disturbs veterinarians who fear a flood of expensive malpractice suits if pets are worth more than their simple economic value. David Grimm, deputy news editor for Science magazine, explores this movement in his book Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs (PublicAffairs Books, 2014), published last week. He explained to Scientific American why scientists and animal doctors have good reason to be concerned.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
In what way have dogs and cats moved beyond the status of property?
They can inherit money, for one thing. And since property cannot inherit property, that makes them different. Legal scholars say that is the biggest change. About 25 states have adopted the Uniform Trust Code, which allows animals to inherit.* Also judges have granted owners of slain animals awards of emotional damages. You cannot get emotional damages from the loss of a toaster. In 2004 a California jury awarded a man named Marc Bluestone $39,000 for the loss of his dog Shane; $30,000 of that was for Shane’s special and unique value to Bluestone.
But why is that a problem for biomedical researchers?
They see this as a slippery slope, because there is no reliable legal distinction between companion animals and lab animals. The National Association for Biomedical Research [NABR], the leading medical research lobby group, has been very much on edge about animal law since the Bluestone verdict. They’ve started an animal law–monitoring project. What worries them is how lawyers, like the Animal Legal Defense Fund, could use some of these cases to expand rights for animals crucial to research. If a cat or a dog becomes closer to a legal person, it has a say in what you do to it. A lawyer could argue that a lab rat would not consent to being injected or cut open.
Are judges really going to view puppies and rats the same way?
I don’t think the NABR wakes up in the morning and worries about puppies. What they do worry about is that our emotional attachment to puppies could be a legal wedge, and similar arguments could be applied to chimps and monkeys—and then rats.
Wouldn’t the public find that absurd?
Actually opposition to animal testing has been rising among the public. That’s especially true of the younger generation, those 29 years and younger, according to recent polls. I think this is because more of these people have grown up with pets than ever before, so the attachment to animals is stronger. When Hurricane Katrina hit, 44 percent of people who didn’t evacuate said they stayed because of their pets. When this generation grows up to become judges and scientists and politicians, this view of animals as more than property is probably going to be enshrined in more policies and practices.
Why is this a problem for veterinarians? After all, they care for cats and dogs.
In a word: malpractice. The Bluestone verdict was against a vet, and it’s the highest veterinary malpractice award in history. There have been several others since then, in the tens of thousands of dollars. Vets see a flood of suits asking for sky-high emotional damages coming from aggrieved pet owners. That’s why the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has repeatedly filed “friend of the court” briefs in these cases, arguing against emotional damages.
The AVMA has also argued these suits will be a huge problem for society. They will clog up the courts, the association says, slowing the progress of truly meaningful human malpractice cases. They’ve even envisioned a kind of “Pet Protective Services” showing up to take your dog away from you if you don’t offer it lifesaving medication, no matter how expensive that is.
Where do you think this is going to go in the future?
I don't think we are close to turning pets into people, legally, though I am very attached to my cats. But as time goes on, I think we will see further chipping away at animals’ status as simple property.**

*Correction (4/17/14): This sentence was edited after posting to correct the number of states that have adopted the Uniform Trust Code.

**Clarification (4/17/14): This paragraph was edited after posting to more accurately reflect David Grimm's observations.