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Pet owner or guardian?


National Report - As more and more municipalities consider replacing "pet owner" with "pet guardian" in their animal laws, veterinarians and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) say the change is bad for business.

NATIONAL REPORT — As more and more municipalities consider replacing "pet owner" with "pet guardian" in their animal laws, veterinarians and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) say the change is bad for business.

"This is a dramatic legal change," says Adrian Hochstadt of the AVMA. "This body of law [guardianship] evolved around people—minors and those unable to act in their best interest. It was not intended for animals."

While the role of animals in society has evolved over the years from agricultural purposes to companionship, the AVMA says a change to guardianship could result in more litigation, higher costs of animal care and fewer people adopting animals.

However, little has changed in pet care in Rhode Island since the state added "guardian" to its laws almost 10 years ago, says Dr. Gary Block, co-owner of Ocean State Veterinary Specialists.

Block says it is critical to point out that Rhode Island law uses guardianship and ownership interchangeably.

Since the law passed in 2001, Block says the number of small claims court cases has not increased dramatically for his practice.

"I have never heard of any vet in Rhode Island complaining about his or her ability to spay, neuter or euthanize an animal on the grounds that the pet owner is in fact a pet guardian," he says. "I do not believe pet care has changed during this time, and if it has it is not due to legislation. It is more likely a function of the public becoming aware of what level of care is available for their pets and the recent economic crisis in our country."

Block says he is not sure if things would be different had the legislation replaced "owner" with "guardian."

"I think the answer depends on whether the legislators' intent was to classify pet owners as guardians in the legal sense as we do with children. My interpretation of the Rhode Island law is that legislators were trying to make a feel-good statement about our evolving relationship with animals, but not trying to change the legal landscape for vets, pet owners and non-economic damages in our profession."

The catalyst for the addition of "guardian" to the Rhode Island law came from an ethics discussion among high school students as part of a pet-assisted therapy program, Block says. The students and their instructors proposed the change to their state representative, and two students even testified before the house committee. The bill became a law before most veterinarians in the state even knew about it, Block says.

Other states are taking steps to keep "guardianship" out of their animal laws.

In 2009, Missouri signed a law that said no one in the state could describe the human/domestic animal relationship as anything other than "persons may or can own domestic animals."

Hochstadt says he believes the change to guardianship was proposed to protect animals.

"It seems on the surface like a good idea," he says. "But now the owner is the client. If it's changed, the owner becomes a guardian and then who is the client?"

Dr. John Scamahorn, who owns a mixed-animal practice in Indiana, agrees.

"I look at guardians as those looking after my mother. I don't know that it could be applied to animals," he says, adding he thinks veterinarians will get caught in the middle.

"Ownership is clear cut. The owner can authorize treatment. Guardianship puts another spin on things," Scamahorn says. "The animals they are trying to protect could actually end up suffering while trying to sort out who is authorized to elect care."

Dr. Ron Cott, a veterinarian and associate dean at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, also is against the change.

"There are a lot of legal implications when you give them [pets] rights. You become the guardian and they are the ward," he says. "Say it costs $3,000 to do a procedure. You are going to be forced to do it, even if you don't have the money. The neighbor down the street could find out you aren't doing it and take you to court for cruelty to animals."

The veterinarians and Hochstadt admit they have not heard much about the issue recently.

"It was being talked about when I arrived five years ago [at the AVMA]," Hochstadt says. "I expected to see some more legislation, but I haven't."

Scamahorn agreed. "The way, right now, it has been applied, it has not been an issue," he says.

Municipalities that have already changed from owner to guardian include the California cities of Beverly Hills, San Jose, Imperial Beach, Santa Clara County, Albany, Sebastopol, Marin County, San Francisco, West Hollywood and Berkeley; Bloomington, Ind.; St. Louis, Mo.; Wanaque, N.J.; Woodstock, N.Y.; Amherst, Mass.; Menomonee Falls, Wis.; Sherwood, Ark.; Boulder, Colo.; and Windsor, Ontario, Canada.

Ms. Fellenstein is a freelance journalist in Cleveland, Ohio.

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