Animal law is one of the fastest-growing areas of law in the United States. As companion animals play an increasingly important role in their owners' lives, the number of laws designed to protect them has also increased, including tort laws. If someone hurts or kills your companion animal intentionally or negligently, you can typically sue that person. But what would be fair compensation for your pet's death, or for you having to watch your pet suffer?
While most Americans treat their companion animals like family members, the law treats them more like property. Rules vary, but most states limit a pet owner's compensation to the economic value of the pet and out-of-pocket expenses like veterinary bills. Some states allow courts to award additional money as compensation for an owner's emotional suffering or as a form of punishment for outrageously bad behavior.
In this article, we'll cover:
Learn more about liability for injury to a dog or pet.
As noted, the law treats animals as "property," meaning owners of injured or dead animals are typically limited to economic damages. Economic damages may include compensation for an animal's economic value (more on that below) and reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses like vet bills.
Courts allow compensation for "reasonable" veterinary treatment. The question of what's reasonable depends on many factors, including the extent of the injuries and the animal's age and general condition. Some judges, especially in cases involving older pets and unusually high vet bills, may award pet owners no more than the amount of the animal's fair market value. But many courts are allowing pet owners to recover the full cost of care for injured pets even if that amount exceeds market value.
For example, the owner of a 13-year-old dog in Kansas brought a negligence claim against a dog groomer, alleging that the groomer had dislocated the dog's hip. The court found that the dog had no market value, but the owner was entitled to reimbursement for reasonable vet treatment needed to get the pet back to its former condition, including bills totaling $1,308.89 for surgery and pain medication. (Burgess v. Shampooch Pet Industries, Inc., 131 P.3d 1248 (Kan. Ct. App. 2006)).
Similarly, dog owners in Illinois sued their neighbor after the neighbor's Siberian husky attacked their dachshund. A trial court judge found in favor of the dachshund owners and awarded them $200 for the dog's market value. An appellate court reversed, awarding the owners the full value of their vet bills ($4,784) instead of the dog's market value. The court likened the dog to a family heirloom that may not have a lot of market value but is priceless to its owners. (Leith v. Frost, 899 N.E.2d 635 (Ill. Ct. App. 2008).)
If your animal has been injured, keep records of all bills for treatment, medication, and hospitalizations. If you have to take time away from work to care for your pet or grieve, ask for compensation for your lost income and diminished earning capacity too.
Courts can measure an animal's economic value in three different ways: fair market value, replacement value, or the special value to the owner.
Fair market value. The fair market value of a pet is the amount that it would bring if it were sold on the open market. Some of the factors that go into calculating the market value of an animal include its purchase price, age, health, breed, and pedigree.
Replacement cost. Some courts award pet owners the amount it would cost to replace an animal. The replacement value is probably higher than the market value because it can include compensation for an owner's investment in the animal, such as the time and money it took to train the animal.
Special economic value. Occasionally, an animal's market or replacement value doesn't reflect its true economic value based on its special services or usefulness to the owner. For example, in a veterinary malpractice case involving a pedigreed German Shephard, the court awarded the owner $5,000 after her dog was paralyzed in a botched surgery. The court reasoned that the owner had invested a great deal of time and effort to train the dog, relied on the dog for home security, and had lost potential earnings from "stud" fees. The owner simply wouldn't be able to find another dog like it on the open market. (McDonald v. Ohio State Univ. Veterinary Hosp., 644 N.E.2d 750 (Ohio Ct. Claims 1994).
For most pet owners—whose animals don't win prizes or collect stud fees—the worth of their pets can't be measured in dollars and cents. The real value of a companion animal lies in the relationship that develops between a pet and a pet owner. A few states have passed laws recognizing that the usual standards of recovery in property cases—market value and replacement cost—are inadequate when it comes to pets.
For example, in Tennessee, pet owners may recover non-economic damages (up to $5,000 in 2022) as compensation for the loss of "companionship, love and affection" when their pets have been killed intentionally or through negligence (Tenn. Code Ann. § 44-17-403).
And a few courts have found that when a pet has no market value, a court can consider the actual value of the pet to its owner, including sentimental value (see, for example, Jankoski v. Preiser Animal Hospital, Ltd., 510 N.E. 2d 1084 (Ill. App. 1987)).
But so far, courts in most states follow the traditional view that owners aren't entitled to recover non-economic losses for sentimental value or loss of consortium (companionship) when their pets are killed through negligence (see Strickland v. Medlen, 397 S.W.3d 184 (Tex. 2013) and Barking Hound Village, LLC v. Monyak, 787 S.E.2d 191 (Ga. 2016)).
Some pet owners try to get around limitations on how the law values pets by suing directly for their own mental suffering. But courts in most states don't allow claims for emotional distress when a pet is harmed as a result of someone's negligence (see, for example, Kaufman v. Langhofer, 222 P.3d 272 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2009)).
Distressed pet owners may be eligible for compensation when someone maliciously hurts their pets or acts with the intent to make the owner suffer (sometimes called the "intentional infliction of emotional distress"). In a particularly egregious case, a Washington appellate court found that a cat's owner was entitled to $5,000 for the sleeplessness, depression, and other emotional distress that she experienced after three boys maliciously set her cat on fire (Womack v. Von Rardan, 135 P.3d 542 (Wash. Ct. App. 2006)).
People typically sue for two types of mental distress: the shock and distress caused by seeing the mistreatment and the long-term effect the loss has on their lives. The more outrageous the conduct of the person being sued (the "defendant"), the more likely the court is to award compensation for emotional distress, and the larger the award is likely to be.
Proving mental suffering is not always easy. But pet owners can testify about how they felt when their pets were killed and how the loss disrupted their lives. If they sought medical treatment or psychological counseling, that will strengthen their claim.
When a court orders a defendant to pay a pet's owner damages, that money is intended to compensate the owner for economic (and sometimes emotional) harm. In some states, courts may also award punitive or exemplary damages intended to punish defendants for their egregious behavior. For example, California law specifically allows these awards for injuries to animals "committed willfully or by gross negligence." (Cal. Civ. Code § 3340).
Every state in the United States makes it a crime to intentionally hurt or kill an animal. Animal anti-cruelty laws support the idea that pets aren't just pieces of property, but family members. Animal cruelty is typically punished as a misdemeanor, but serious or repeat offenses may a felony in some states.
If your pet is the victim of criminal animal cruelty, you may be eligible for restitution. Restitution is designed to compensate victims for financial losses related to a crime. Courts order people convicted of animal cruelty to pay restitution during criminal sentencing. Victims who receive restitution don't have to file a separate civil lawsuit to get compensation for their losses.
If someone has injured or killed your beloved pet, you're probably devasted and angry. In the past, you may not have been able to get compensation for your loss. But the law in this area is developing as more lawmakers and courts recognize the special role that pets play in their owners' lives.
So, if you find yourself in this heartbreaking situation, talk to a lawyer. A personal injury lawyer or an attorney who specializes in animal law should be able to explain how the laws in your state apply to your case. Find out whether you can get your vet bills reimbursed, seek compensation for your emotional distress, or punish the person who hurt your pet with punitive damages.