Are Pets Possessions, Friends, or Family?

Picture of a man and his dog

Today, we are bombarded with footage of Ukrainians fleeing their homes in search of respite in a safe haven outside their home country. Most of these Ukrainians carry very few personal belongings with them, but one thing the pet owning population most definitely has in tow is their cherished family pets. It is interesting to note that many of these forced evacuations took place on very little notice and with little opportunity given to consider what possessions should accompany these refugees on their tenuous journey. Yet with seemingly little time for forethought, these Ukrainians facing an uncertain future knew that for them there was one firm non-negotiable: they would not leave their homes without their pets. Some pets made the journey in cardboard boxes while others were carried in backpacks with great difficulty by their owners. Still, these images leave a lasting impression on all who view them: to these Ukrainians, pets are not possessions; they are family. 

What Does the Law Have to Say About Pet Ownership?

Under the law, pets are owned property, and thus, fall into the category of possessions. Speaking in a strictly legal manner, this means that owners are at liberty to deal with their pets as they see fit. Thankfully, there are some limitations placed on pet ownership which prevent cruelty and abuse from occurring. Neglect can be considered a form of animal abuse but is not always punishable under the law.

How Does the Insurance Industry View Pet Ownership?

Most homeowners’ insurance policies include a provision to care for their pets. Insurance companies very clearly view companion animals as possessions and not partners or family members. Because of this, homeowners’ policies contain important provisos for dealing with any issues that may arise as the result of pet ownership. Among the scenarios that could incur a in lawsuit if the proper insurance is not secured are:

  • Pet-related accidents or injuries to a person or animal on the homeowner’s property
  • Dog park attacks
  • Dog bites on or off the homeowner’s property

Should any of the aforementioned incidents occur, either on or off the home property, the homeowner would be liable to pay all the damages for the injured party. Since vet bills for damages to an injured pet and medical bills for a harmed person can be extremely high, insurance is an absolute must to avoid bankruptcy should an accident occur.

If a dog attacks a person or another animal, the person affected may opt to sue the pet owner. This is particularly problematic if the dog already has a bite history or was clearly not kept under the owner’s control. Today, some insurance companies will refuse to insure dog breeds they deem to be “dangerous,” and some states even have bans on certain dog types.

How Is Ownership of a Pet Determined If It Is Unclear to a Judge?

Sometimes, it can be difficult to determine who is the legal owner of a family pet. This most often becomes an issue if a marriage has been dissolved with both parties sharing “custody” of the pet. If the law must get involved in determining who is the legal owner of a dog or a cat, here is the criteria the deciding factor hinges on:

  • Who purchased the pet?
  • Who is listed as primary owner on the registration or adoption papers?
  • Was the animal purchased as a gift?
  • Who is the main caregiver of the pet? 

What Role Do Pets Play in Our Lives Today?

Today, pets are far more than simply animal companions in our lives. For many families, their lives revolve around their pets, and they choose to include them in all aspects of their daily routine from their exercise programs to their vacations and even their TV watching. Research supports that sharing our lives with pets provides us with many health benefits and can even strengthen neighborly bonds within our community.

Over time, pets become far more to us than friends and take pride of place as valued members of our families. In single parent families, a dog or a cat can take on a significant role, helping children to feel a greater sense of stability. Children of single parents are taught the important skill of caring for another living being which also includes a highly developed sense of compassion and empathy, qualities which will benefit these children throughout their entire lives.

The shift in thinking to viewing pets as members of the family can take some of the sting out of household chores associated with pet ownership. As each family member invests time in the care of their canine or feline pal, their bond is strengthened, and stress is naturally decreased.

Studies indicate that companionship with an animal can have positive effects on human health. Statistics compiled from the medical records of pet owners living in Australia and Germany show that those who share their homes with pets frequented their doctors 15 percent less than their non-pet owning counterparts.

Does Pet Ownership Benefit Us?

It is a proven fact that humans that bond with their companion animals experience strong health benefits as a result. This is particularly true of pets that live within our homes as opposed to those that dwell in an outdoor facility, kennel, or yard. Dogs and cats that live within our homes are given greater opportunity to bond with us, helping to form strong attachments. In addition to this companionship that comes from sharing a living space, dogs, in particular, must be exercised each day to remain healthy and content. This time spent in a common and mutually beneficial pursuit helps encourage a sense of deep connection.

Among the physical benefits to be gained from pet ownership are:

  • Reduced risk of coronary heart disease
  • Decreased stress levels
  • Increased physical activity
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Boosted serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine levels
  • Greater chance of surviving cardiovascular disease

How Does the Proposed Loss or Separation from a Pet Affect Us?

The proposed loss or separation from a cherished family pet can stir up feelings of immense grief in pet owners. Pets that become lost or that pass away are impossible to replace. Their presence is as unique and beloved as that of our human family members, and their absence is deeply and equally missed as that of an actual person. The bond between a human and an animal can be so intense that the feelings of grief are as acute of the loss of a human family member.

How Does Pet Ownership Help the Community?

There is no doubt that well-mannered canine and feline members of society can help strengthen the spirit of community within a neighborhood. Most often, people who share their homes with pets connect with other pet owners when out walking their dogs or participating in community events. In addition to this; often, pet owners share a common bond when it comes to animal welfare. This bond helps drive greater community interest in causes which promote improved pet health, wellness, and safety.

Since dogs must be walked, this naturally drives people who might otherwise stay home out of their dwelling places and into areas of the community where they can engage in greater social interactions. This allows people to spend more time relating to their neighbors, potentially leading to reinforced community bonds.  

How Are People Working Together to Protect Companion Animals in Society?

Whether society at large views pets as possessions or partners in life, they feel quite strongly that as living beings without a voice, they require our protection. Keeping animals safe from cruelty, abuse, and neglect is a vital component of the mandated legislation in every municipal government in the United States today.

Sadly, though, many municipal governments opinions on the appropriate way to deal with lost or unwanted pets is not on par with our own feelings. Under many Animal Protection Acts, a lost pet who is recovered via Animal Control is given only a few short days to be claimed by its owner before it is transferred to another facility such as an adoptive family, a research lab, or a shelter. In some cases, the animal is simply euthanized. Today, many states have adopted a no kill philosophy, ensuring that healthy animals that are not claimed by owners within the legally allowed hold period can be moved on to a no kill rescue or shelter where they will be prepared and promoted to ensure adoption into an appropriate loving forever family.

There are some countries in the world that have made euthanization of healthy animals illegal, including India, Taiwan, and Italy. Unfortunately, in North America, euthanization of healthy animals to free up space or to deal with the problem of strays still occurs at an alarming rate.  A 2017 assessment by Humane Canada revealed that greater than 70 percent of dogs and cats impounded in shelters were not claimed by their owners/caregivers. Sadly, as a result, tens of thousands of companion animals lost their lives to euthanasia. Another startling Canadian statistic is the number of animals used for scientific experimentation in 2016: 4,308,921. 17,000 of this vast number were dogs and cats that were supplied by shelters and later destroyed.

Woman and her dog

What are we doing about this?

The bond we share with our pets has led to increased interest in animal rescues with a focus on saving healthy companion animals from such terrible fates as research facilities and euthanasia. Many reputable rescues also offer low cost spay/neuter clinics, a particularly effective way of dealing with such problems as pet overpopulation and feral cat communities.

Another area where unwanted pets require assistance is online marketplaces. Pets that are listed as free to a good home can potentially fall into the hands of people who will neglect, abuse, and even harm them. Some rescues exist for the sole purpose of finding these pets and taking them into care where they can be prepared for adoption with a loving family.

Senior dogs are typically among the hardest hit. As their families age and must move into facilities that do not permit pets or their owners pass away, these elderly dogs find themselves in need of a safe place to lay their heads. Today, there are organizations dedicated specifically to the needs of abandoned senior dogs such as Elderdog, a Canadian rescue that assists aging pet owners and their pets.

The Humane Society International is another organization committed to helping pets suffering from abandonment, abuse, cruelty, and neglect. This shelter and rescue mission has been heavily involved in rescuing dogs and cats from countries that practice the companion animal meat trade. Since 2018, the Humane Society has helped permanently close three dog meat farms in South Korea as well as two slaughterhouses. In total, these closures led to 512 saved dogs who then became available for adoption in Canada and the US.

The peace-loving world leader Mahatma Gandhi promoted a world where animals and their owners connected in a bond that was mutually beneficial with each endeavoring to provide protection and care for the other. He said, “…man’s supremacy over lower animals meant not that the former should prey upon the latter, but that the higher should protect the lower, and that there should be mutual aid between the two.” We have a responsibility to care for those that are unable to care for themselves.

Pets: are they possessions, friends, or family? Though under the law and in the eyes of insurance companies, pets are clearly owned possessions; there is no question that in our eyes they are first friends then family. If you were forced to flee your home today with little time to prepare, what would you choose to take with you? If you share your home with a dog or a cat, chances are Fido or Fifi would be among the first must haves as you travel towards your new home. After all, you’d never leave a family member behind to face an uncertain future. Not even cranky old Aunt Gertrude. For those who share their homes and hearts with a dog or a cat, pets are most definitely family!

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