Guardianship vs. ownership: a vet`s POV

Patty Khuly, DVM
November 24, 2006
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One issue that interests veterinarians more than most pet owners care to hear about is the guardianship vs. ownership thing. Unless you live in California you may never have heard of this controversy. So let me be the first to describe it in infuriating lack of detail with controversial hypotheticals in its wake (but, hopefully, sufficiently for your general comprehension of the issue—from a vet’s perspective, of course). I make no apologies for the vet-biased analysis which follows:

In the eyes of the law, pets are our property (and we, its owners) just as cows belong to a dairy farmer or cars belong to their drivers. Some people think pets are just too important to us as a society for this to remain the law. They suggest it degrades the role of animals in our lives to that of slaves—and correspondingly limits their ability to obtain certain rights.

Pets, for most of you reading this, are family members as well as domestic property no one may steal or harm, without your permission. For all you de facto parents, pets are more like your children, with you acting as guardians—not owners.

There is a growing movement of concerned individuals who would like your legal status changed from owner to guardian. This means that you are in charge of Fluffy’s well-being for the rest of her life, more as if she were your child and less like your refrigerator. While it seems a sound principle for those of us who already treat our pets like children, changing this designation legally gets very complicated very quickly, as the most astute among you might imagine.

Currently, if Fluffy breaks her pelvis (God, forbid), you have the choice of not taking her to the vet—at all—allowing her to slowly limp her way back to a reasonable state of functionality (if that’s even possible). Furthermore, if she is so broken you cannot afford medical attention, you are free to euthanize her so she won’t suffer at home due to your inability to take financial responsibility for her. You are also granted the right to euthanize her yourself, as long as it can be proven she did not suffer. (Egads!)

Under guardianship laws, you would be unable to forego full assessment of her condition (including X-rays or any other means to determine her condition) before a licensed vet could legally treat her or euthanize her. If you had no money to treat her adequately (to alleviate her pain, at least) you would be required to euthanize her. Although this sounds horrible, it would be the humane thing to do and most of us would be on board with this effect of our new guardianship status.

If, however, euthanasia is considered cruel (when life-saving measures are available), Fluffy`s owner might be liable for any reasonable treatment required to make her well again—including $4,000 in surgery to restore her shattered pelvis. You wouldn’t euthanize a child just because she has a busted pelvis, now, would you?

Unfortunately, such far-reaching measures, where pets are treated as children in the eyes of the law, are bound to be somewhat intrusive. What if we can’t afford treatment? How would you feel if you were forced to make a decision in favor of euthanasia with a deadline looming over your head?

While guardianship laws are not likely to be so invasive at their inception, they will likely make cases of negligence and borderline abuse (such as forgoing treatment altogether) a thing of the past. This is why so many of us would like to see a movement towards guardianship-type laws. But requiring you to elect [and potentially go into debt over] state-of the art treatment is another matter altogether.

In the extreme scenario, such laws would eventually take matters out of our hands. Guardians, as with children, would be legally compelled to obtain proper medical care for their charges.

This would increase our liability as veterinarians, raising our service levels to accommodate more treatment and fewer, inexpensive half-measures—and pet healthcare costs would rise as a result (not to mention veterinarian’s higher malpractice insurance premiums).

Another result: more pet owners, held to higher standards for care, would be financially unable to keep pets without [not inexpensive] pet health insurance. This industry would blossom and flourish while vets would be forced to accept delayed third-party payments. Thus the stage would be set for the slippery sloping towards human healthcare-type bureaucratic medicine.

Slightly messy, and not necessarily reasonable from most pet owner’s point of view. While I agree with the sentiment, such laws would be difficult to enforce and hard on the poor. Though, as a vet, I’d likely make a lot more money, I’m not sure I’m philosophically able to bear the societal consequences of a world where pets belong exclusively to the affluent.

For some reason, this is what I always think about when people talk guardianship vs. ownership. I’m sure there are a lot of positives to guardianship laws but I always worry about the messy cases that usually go splat in my lap.

What we really need are stronger humane treatment laws where dogs and cats are no longer subject to shoddy or no care—especially when they deserve to be euthanized if care can’t be provided for financial reasons. Here, I refer to the extreme cases where dogs are chained to trees or can no longer move and yet they lay at home on a back porch in their own filth. Anyone who works in humane services or rescue knows how it happens.

Ultimately, we need higher standards of care for their own sake, not by virtue of widespread laws that force the responsible among us to seek them out…or else. Education, expansion of humane animal services and strong standards for basic care would be my preferred tools. Barring that, seek out the worst offenders and punish the hell out of them.

Perhaps guardianship laws would never reach so far as to challenge our entire system but, as a vet, I can’t help wondering…

And now, ladies and gentlemen, your comments…