How much is your pet worth to you? Should he die, be lost or stolen, what does his untimely departure really cost you?

The Miami Herald reports today that a judge in Broward County, Florida (next door to me) has just awarded an owner $30,000 for the loss of her Rottweiler after a kennel failed to seek appropriate medical attention for the respiratory condition that afflicted him and her other dog during their stay there. $20,000 was the sum specifically awarded for the pet’s “intrinsic” value.

Aside: Animal lawyer Marcy LaHart (an occasional contributor to Dolittler) was the legal counsel for the winning side. I congratulate her.

Here’s some background:

In terms of the real market for pets, your old, arthritic shelter pet is likely to come in at a negative value––in the thousands. That’s what it might cost for someone to take him on, expensive troubles and all, for the rest of his life. In other words, your past-his-prime pet is less than worthless––a liability, even––in the eyes of those who would consider him mere “property” in terms of the law.

Yet among more enlightened legal scholars and animal attorneys out there, the very idea of your pet’s negative monetary value is ridiculous. After all, you have spent thousands on him, year after year, caring for him lovingly as if he were a member of your family on par with your children. The negligence of a veterinarian or the cruelty of a neighbor should not end in nothing just because, in strict financial terms, he belongs as an item on your accountant’s debit column.

This pet has real “intrinsic” value to you. All your expenses and all that sweat equity spent in training, exercising, feeding wonderful foods, learning about his ills, involving yourself fully in his daily care, etc. clearly demonstrate that this pet is worth more to you than the word “pet” would designate. Indeed, he is a companion in every sense of the word. Your friends, your neighbors, your veterinarian, your groomer, even your friendly neighborhood blogger, can all attest to that.

When your pet is “lost” due to the wrongful actions of others, this intrinsic value translates into “loss of companionship.” And you should have the right to seek compensation for this––primarily by way of punishing the wrongdoers and obtaining justice on behalf of your pet. Maybe it’ll mean that fewer animals will suffer the same fate your companion did.

Similarly––and this is critical to me––an owner who has treated his pet like a pet all her life (i.e., a yard-only life, minimal veterinary care, no training, no apparent involvement in her day-to-day care, etc.) does NOT deserve to reap the similar benefits of the owner in the above example.Perhaps, even, he deserves to be counter-sued for a lifetime of his pet's poor treatment.

Though you might argue that any individual animal deserves to be defended on his or her own intrinsic merits, the reality is that a human is the initiator, sufferer and beneficiary of legal action. That’s why, for better or worse, a pet that is not fortunate enough to have been cared for as a companion is not attached to an owner who can claim a loss for the animal’s intrinsic value.

As I’ve explained here often on Dolittler and in a national veterinary publication (Veterinary Practice News), I’m all for judgments like this. “Non-economic damages,” they’re called. Because it goes both ways. If people are willing to spend more on pets because they’re family members––boarding them at expensive kennels, having them professionally groomed, trained and treated to high-quality veterinary care––then owners who take on these responsible practices have plenty of proof of their engagement with their pets’ lives to the tune of true companionship.

Irresponsible owners of marginalized pets? They, too, reap what they sow. I can’t wait for the day when I can take pet owners to task––legally––for doing wrong by their pets.

Judgments like this open up a barrel-ful of wriggly worms, it’s true, but it’s one I prefer be dumped out once and for all––because it reflects the true nature of what pets mean to many of us. Intrinsic value-based awards and the converse, judgments for inadequate care that leads to poor outcomes, are only fair––and just.