It’s bad enough to watch your pet suffer or die. But it can be particularly upsetting if the injury was needless, and you think someone else was to blame. Because the law treats all animals like property—even beloved companion animals—anyone who deliberately or carelessly hurts your dog or cat will generally be responsible just as if that person damaged your car or other property. While it may not be worth it to go to court over the dispute, it helps to know the rules about legal liability. That way, you have a better idea about your legal options before you’re ready to negotiate or take other steps to seek compensation for your pet’s loss or injury.
As a general rule, anyone who intentionally injures a dog or other animal is financially responsible to the animal’s owner. There are exceptions. For instance, many states have laws that allow people to kill or injure dogs that are attacking or harassing their livestock. Also, people generally have the right to kill or injure dogs when it’s necessary to protect themselves, other people, or property. But they aren’t entitled to hurt someone else’s dog just because the animal threatened them or their animals in the past. (See more on when killing a dog is legally justified.)
Here are some examples of intentional injury that may entitle the pet’s owner to compensation:
Pet owners may sue the people who purposefully hurt or killed their animals under different legal theories, including conversion, trespass to chattel (an old-school legal term for destroying or interfering with someone else’s property), or intentional infliction of emotional distress. A Washington court has recognized a separate claim for “malicious injury to a pet,” which can be a factor when measuring the owner’s damages for emotional distress (Womack v. Von Rardon, 135 P.3d 542 (Wash. Ct. App. 2006)). That approach hasn’t caught on in most other states, however.
Under state animal cruelty laws, anyone who injures or kills a pet unnecessarily, intentionally, or maliciously may face criminal charges. In many states, courts may order the convicted person to pay compensation to the animal’s owner for economic losses (either under the animal cruelty statutes or under laws that call for restitution to victims in all criminal cases).
You may also be able to sue someone who injured or killed your companion animal through negligence (legalese for carelessness). In order to win a negligence lawsuit, you must prove that the defendant (the person you’re suing) had a duty to be reasonably careful, didn’t meet that duty, and—as a direct result of that negligence—caused harm to you as the injured animal’s owner. (Because animals are considered property, injury to the animal isn’t enough.) The harm will typically be in the form of vet bills that you had to pay to treat the injury or the cost to replace a killed animal. Courts in almost all states don’t allow compensation in negligence cases for the emotional harm of losing companion animals or seeing them suffer.
Negligence lawsuits for injury to an animal usually come up when people—like pet sitters, dog walkers, shelter employees, or groomers—have taken on the responsibility to care for someone else’s pet. (Special legal standards apply in cases of veterinary malpractice.) Because drivers have a legal responsibility to operate their vehicles carefully, they might face negligence lawsuits when they hit and injure animals. But state laws often relieve them of that liability if the dogs were running loose on the road, unless the drivers were being particularly reckless (see, for example, Tex. Agric. Code Ann. § 143.103).
Here are some examples of negligence:
What if another person’s dog attacked and injured your dog, cat, or horse? The rules vary from state to state. Some states have “strict liability” laws that make owners responsible for damage caused by their dogs, even if they weren’t negligent or didn’t know that their animals had dangerous tendencies. Other states make owners automatically responsible only if they knew or should have known that the dogs were likely to cause that kind of damage. So if a dog had a tendency to attack other dogs, its owner would be liable for the injuries resulting from that kind of attack; the injured animal’s owner wouldn’t necessarily have to prove that the other owner was negligent. Many of the laws dealing with animal-on-animal injuries date back to the time when the biggest concern was dogs killing livestock. Some—but not all—of those laws have been expanded to cover other kinds of animal victims and “predators” other than dogs.
Regardless of these strict liability laws, the owner of an injured pet still has the option of trying to prove that another animal’s owner should be liable for the injury because of negligence.
Several states have separate laws that make dog owners criminally and civilly liable when their pets attack and injure service animals.
Historically, it's been difficult to get adequate compensation for a pet's loss or injury. But the law in this area is changing. So if your companion animal has been hurt or killed because of another person's carelessness or intentional act, consider speaking with an attorney experienced in animal law, property damage claims, or personal injury law. A lawyer can explain how local law applies to your situation, the legal options that may be available to you, and the deadlines for filing property damage claims in your state. You also might explore the idea of suing the responsible owner in small claims court, which offers simplified procedures designed to be used without an attorney.