Are Cats and Dogs People, or Toasters? A Primer on Pet Personhood

David Grimm

 “Dogs Are People, Too”. So ran the headline of a New York Times op-ed over the weekend. The piece, written by Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Burns, argued that because dogs experience some of the same emotions we do (as evinced by some preliminary MRI studies Burns and a friend carried out on canine brain activity), they should be granted rights and “a sort of limited personhood”. The National Review shot back with its own editorial, arguing that personhood for dogs is a threat to human pet peopleexceptionalism and that it would effectively turn pets into slaves.

What exactly is pet personhood, and how could it impact the relationship between you and your cat or dog? I cover this topic in my new book, Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs, to be published this spring by PublicAffairs. In the meantime, here’s everything you need to know.

What is the current legal status of pets?

We may view our cats and dogs as friends, family, and even virtual children, but that’s not how the law sees them. Ever since the early 1900s, American pets have had the legal status of property. That means that, in the eyes of the law, they are technically no different than a couch or a toaster. This status itself is an upgrade. Prior to the twentieth century, cats and dogs were considered valueless objects that didn’t even warrant the meager legal designation of property. They could be stolen and killed without repercussion.

So my dog is a toaster?

Well, not exactly. Even though pets are legally property, lawmakers have begun to recognize that they are not the same as inanimate objects. Take anti-cruelty legislation. Nearly every U.S. state has felony abuse laws on its books, imposing fines of up to $125,000 and 10 years in prison for anyone who harms a dog or cat. (No one’s going to throw you in jail for harming your couch.) On the federal level, Congress passed the PETS Act in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which impels rescue agencies to rescue pets as well as people during natural disasters. And in the courtroom, judges have begun awarding damages for mental suffering and loss of companionship to the owners of slain pets—legal claims typically reserved for the death of a spouse or child. Courts have also considered the “best interests” of dogs and cats in custody cases, treating them like the children of divorcing parents. All of these developments, some legal scholars have argued, have granted cats and dogs rights (the right to be free from abuse, the right to have their interests considered in a custody battle) not available to any other type of property.

Does that mean my cat is becoming a legal person?

 It depends who you ask. Personhood doesn’t come easy. American blacks were considered property for centuries; it took the Civil War for them to attain legal personhood. Even most advocates for animal personhood don’t think that pets are anywhere close to this sort of paradigm shift. But some say dogs and cats may be inching towards personhood—that a felony abuse law here and custody case there may eventually lead a lawmaker to declare that pets are no longer property. Even then, it could take decades for our companion animals to be embraced as persons by the entire legal system.

 What’s all this business about pets becoming slaves?

 Personhood is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it would grant pets unprecedented protections in the legal system. They would have the right to adequate medical care, the right to be removed from an abusive home, and the right to be kept out of puppy mills. But these rights would also impose new duties on owners, who would no longer be owners, but guardians. If pets are people, guardians could be treated like the parents of human children, being fined or having their animals taken away by a sort-of Pet Protective Services if they don’t walk their dog enough or spring for their cat’s chemotherapy. What’s more, dogs and cats with rights could sue people. A cat could sue his owners for the emotional distress of not being let outside; a dog could sue her veterinarian for medical malpractice. Pets could also be sued. (Think about that the next time your dog poops on someone’s lawn.) And finally, pets that are people can’t be neutered against their will; they also can’t be bought or sold—that would make them slaves.

Is there a happy medium?

 Some legal scholars have argued that lawmakers should create a new legal status for pets, one that would acknowledge that they aren’t the same as toasters, but not quite people either. One of the most prominent advocates for this approach is Michigan State University College of Law professor David Favre, who has proposed a new legal status called “living property”. The designation would technically keep animals in the property status, but it would allow them to accumulate a number of rights typically afforded to people, such as the right to be free from abuse and the right to be adopted rather than bought or sold. In essence, pets would be treated much like human children.

What do you think?

 Should cats and dogs remain property? Should they be granted legal personhood? How do you view your relationship with your own pet? Let me know in the comments section!


David Grimm is the online news editor of Science, and the author of the forthcoming book, Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs.

14 Responses

  1. Clever book title (a tribute to Citizen Kane?).

    Good questions. Interesting answers.

    David Favre’s “living property” idea sounds feasible and fair, at least until humans grasp the ethical basis for nonhumans living free and independent and inviolable on their own turf.

    A book that got me thinking about how domesticated and undomesticated animals ought to be treated in a less anthropocentric world is ZOOPOLIS: A POLITICAL THEORY OF ANIMAL RIGHTS by Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka.

    As far as I’m concerned, the more human society allows other-than-humans to express their individuality, autonomy, preferences, interests, emotions, intelligence, and intrinsic worth — and at the same time keeps them protected from human-imposed harms — the better for us all.

  2. Thanks for the comment! I have read Zooplis as well. Another interesting attempt at finding a compromise between pethood and personhood.

  3. In my view, animal rights are meaningless unless nonhuman lives are protected; but that might require the provision of government benefits that many Americans now resent providing humans. So I’m not optimistic.

    If animal rights are ever recognized by law, it makes sense that breeding, buying, selling, and killing of pets, including institutional killing would be prohibited — the only exception might be for hopelessly sick or injured animals when palliative care is not possible; or in true self defense.

    I think pet rights, and the rights of other dependent animals, should be similar to children’s rights. So in the same way that parents are responsible for their human children, we would not sue pets, but rather their caregivers.

    Designating animals as objects of property is a choice. I have yet to read David Favre’s “Living Property”, but I don’t think we’re obliged to maintain their status as property in order to protect them.

  4. History teaches that the long-discredited justifications used to oppress and subjugate slaves, women, and children in the past are identical to the arguments and justifications used to enslave and oppress non-human animals today. In each case, the legal system was used to facilitate the treatment of the subjugated class as inferior and to classify them as a form of legal “property” or “chattel,” thus denying them status, rights, and protections as “persons” under the law. All branches and instruments of the political infrastructure and the legal system were manipulated to justify the property rights of the majority class to “own” the non-persons, and the principle of stare decisis ensured that this putative right was held inviolate for centuries. Likewise, the same religious justifications are now employed to justify the enslavement of non-human animals. We see this today when humans claim a right to oppress non-human animals because they allegedly lack a “soul” or lack the so-called “moral superiority” of humans. I suggest that one only needs to follow the news of the world for a week to dispense with the ridiculous notion that humans are “morally superior.” No other species has the capacity to act as wantonly depraved as humans. Over time, a long time to be sure, all of these arguments and justifications failed, of course. The oppressed minorities eventually found their voice as their advocates challenged the time-worn platitudes to change legal precedents and the morally bankrupt political infrastructure and demolished the oppressive mechanisms. These same tattered old arguments are still frequently wheeled out – as they recently were in the National Review editorial mentioned in this blog post — but in time their application to non-human animals will be discredited and rejected as well, and non-human animals will inevitably acquire rights that will mandate respect for their autonomy and protection of their interests. Of course, not everyone will be happy with the inevitable result: many oppressors will sorely decry their inability to oppress, like some inalienable right has been taken away from them. But the end, I believe, is certain, and undeniable; “the arc of history is long but it bends toward justice.” And non-human animals will one day have the justice they deserve, despite the specious arguments of those who seek to deny it.

  5. Beautifully put, AR LAW.

  6. […] Our thanks to Animal Blawg, where this post was originally published on October 8, […]

  7. I have both dogs and children. I treat my children like children, and my dogs like dogs. They’re not even remotely in the same ballpark with one another. And ideological blustering about dogs being “slaves” because the law supposedly isn’t right won’t change that fact. No reasonable person is going to accept that their child and their dog or cat should have equal standing before the law, and as “persons.”
    As far as pets’ status as property, I see no rational reason to change that. At the end of the day, I’m not my dog’s “parent” – I’m his owner and master. Ethics and morality dictate that I’m charged with his proper care and kind treatment – as well as making sure he doesn’t become a nuisance, problem or threat to other people.
    Although, trying to argue status as property gives pets the same essential status as toasters seems to me a stretch of false comparison.
    If I kick my toaster around the block, I might at the most get some strange looks. If I start kicking my dog around the block, I will get punishment under existing animal cruelty laws. Not to mention, widespread public shunning and scorn – and deservedly so. With the social media sure to come into play, my professional reputation and ability to effectively represent my organization and do my job in my community would most likely be ruined – and deservedly so. Heck, I might even get clobbered by one or more of my neighbors. And again – deservedly so.
    So, in summary, existing laws against animal cruelty – as well as the well-deserved social scorn and shame leveled at animal abusers – provide an adequate response toward the ill treatment of pets by some. There is no need or rational reason to give Fluffy or Spot the same legal standing as Johnny and Suzie.

  8. There’s a world of difference between pets and toasters, but by law, both are designated objects of property; and neither have a right to protection from harm, the exception being for pets * if * such harm is considered “unnecessary”. Kicking a dog around the block is considered “unnecessary” harm; but that same owner can abandon a dog to animal control where he/she would likely be killed, or take a dog to be killed by a private vet, even when there are viable alternatives. It’s also perfectly legal for researchers to conduct lethal experiments on dogs and cats, as such harm is still considered “necessary”, even though non-animal research is being developed, and there may even be viable alternatives now. The existing anti-cruelty laws fail to protect them from unnecessary harm. In fact, they often protect human purpose instead of protecting animals. As long as they remain objects of property under the law, they will be subjected to the whims of their owners.

  9. What a great article! I like the third option of creating a new legal status for pets. Although, I don’t like the term “living property”. I also wonder if this new legal status would extend to all animals. My guess is that it would not. I’d like to see the day when no animal is treated with the same respect as a worn out couch. Celeste 🙂

  10. Reblogged this on Honk If You're Vegan and commented:
    Hey there all my peeps! I don’t like to do two reblogs in a row, but I just discovered this amazing blog, Animal Blawg. This post, in particular, really made me think. After checking out this post, you might also want to read this one: Happy reading!!

  11. One does not even have to compare to slaves, because in this analogy, one can argue that slaves were humans. However, legally corporations are granted personhood, and they are not live as in any species that feels. So, how is it that a company can be granted a personhood and not our dogs and cats? Also, while babies and people in comas are persons legally with rights, they do not have equal rights such as voting. The important thing here is animals should have the right to not be abused as any baby or patient in a coma.

  12. Celeste, I just looked at Honk If You’re Vegan, and I’m delighted by the great recipes! Thank you.

  13. […] Are Cats and Dogs People, or Toasters? A Primer on Pet Personhood ( […]

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