Who Are Companion Animals?
When we think about companion animals, the first images that often come to mind are those commonly referred to as “pets,” especially dogs and cats. However, the legal definition of a “companion animal” varies across jurisdictions. It has changed over time and it will continue to do so. If companion animals are defined as those animals with whom we share our homes and lives, they may encompass rabbits, birds, fish, horses, and even some animals commonly farmed for food. The distinguishing factor may not be species but the special human-animal bond that is shared. For many, this bond is why protecting companion animals is important.
The essential role of companion animals became even greater after our lives were upended by COVID-19. Loneliness, a sense of isolation, grieving, and a feeling of lack of social support are a few of the many feelings that humans started experiencing more frequently and with which our beloved companion animals have helped us cope.
Americans welcomed companion animals into their homes in record numbers during the pandemic. According to a 2021 survey released by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), close to one in five households welcomed a cat or dog into the family since the beginning of the pandemic, which would account for approximately 23 million American households based on the 2019 U.S. Census. While there were initial concerns that these companion animals may be abandoned after lockdowns and stay-at-home orders ended, 90% of the dogs and 85% of the cats remain in their new homes. For many, caring for their companion animals has proved to be a lifeline in these trying times. As a result, concern for companion animals may only increase in the U.S. and abroad.
Protecting Companion Animals
Companion animals fall into a complicated space in the law. They are legally categorized as property in the U.S. but almost universally considered as members of families. This latter fact currently affords them greater legal protection than other animals, but it also means that their lives routinely intersect with our own, necessitating a robust array of laws and policies.
As companion animals participate so intensively in our lives, if a family enjoys physical and emotional wellness, their companion animals likely share those benefits. On the other hand, when a family is experiencing violence or other trauma, companion animals are commonly victims of the cycle of abuse as well. These, among other issues that companion animals face, lie at the foreground of Lewis & Clark Law School’s Companion Animal Law online course, which is taught by Professor Megan Senatori, an experienced litigator, nonprofit leader, and Associate Director at the Center for Animal Law Studies. Of the law’s role in protecting companion animals, Professor Senatori says, “The animals with whom we share our lives give us so much, but because of how closely their lives intertwine with our own, they can be especially vulnerable. We owe companion animals laws that consider and protect their individual interests, including their rich emotional lives and social well-being.”
An Interdisciplinary Field
The study of Companion Animal Law involves a multitude of complex moral, ethical, and policy considerations beyond the legal sphere.
The Link Between Domestic Violence and Animal Cruelty
For example, research shows that people who hurt companion animals don’t usually stop there. According to “The Link” theory, cruelty to animals is linked to family violence and, more broadly, violence toward humans generally. Having worked extensively on this issue for more than two decades, Professor Senatori co-founded (and continues to oversee as President and General Counsel) an all-volunteer nonprofit organization that recognizes animals as vital family members and provides safe refuge at a critical time: when a domestic abuse survivor seeks refuge from an abuser. Notably, the Companion Animal Law course includes two modules devoted to addressing how advocates can protect human and animal victims of domestic violence/intimate partner abuse, as well as the link between animal cruelty and human violence.
Companion Animal Law also intersects with social work, psychology, veterinary practice, and more, providing professionals with important resources to complement their individual areas of expertise. Understanding the bigger picture surrounding the health and well-being of companion animals, including preventing and addressing abuse and neglect, can be decisive for the sake of both animals themselves, and for people who are also at risk. Moreover, given how common it is for there to be both child abuse and animal abuse co-occuring where there is violence in the home, protecting companion animals can also mean helping other vulnerable family members.
Considered irreplaceable members of the family, companion animals have also become the focus of custody disputes. Because companion animals are considered property in the law, family courts struggle with how to handle disputes over companion animals during divorce or separation. Six U.S. states now have statutes that provide standards for these types of disputes, with some applying a best interest of the animal standard. This standard considers the animals’ own interests and may include consideration of factors such as: the health needs of the animal, the presence of domestic violence in the home, the ability of the parties to provide care for the animal, the bonds shared, and more. The course addresses how courts and legislatures are grappling with the dissolution of a family when the family includes companion animals.
As our relationships with animals grow stronger, the law also changes in order to encompass those advances. Another focus area of Companion Animal Law explores is how the special bond between humans and their animals is reflected in tort law and how the legal system values their lives. Due to our familial relationship with companion animals, possible tort claims for injury or death of animals have become increasingly common. Advocates seeking redress on behalf of bereaved companion animal guardians look to an array of legal theories: intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, loss of companionship, and trespass to property are just a few examples. How the legal system values the lives of companion animals as reflected in damage awards is likewise an important consideration.
Because companion animals are seen as members of our households and families, they are especially benefited by anti-cruelty statutes. All 50 states in the U.S. have their own anti-cruelty laws, which include dogfighting, intentional cruelty, neglect/abandonment, and bestiality (New Mexico and West Virginia do not yet have laws prohibiting the sexual assault of animals). Innovative solutions also complement the framework of companion animal protection. For example, Courtroom Animal Advocate Programs (CAAP) afford trained law students and attorneys the opportunity to advocate for animal victims in criminal cruelty cases. At the same time, CAAP volunteers provide support for the criminal system as a whole, allowing it to accurately address the needs of the animal victim, which, due to crowded dockets and scarce resources, may not be properly considered.
While most companion animals in the U.S. are considered family members, others are regarded as commodities or products. An example is a puppy or kitten mill, a facility where dogs or cats are kept in inhumane living conditions for the purpose of reproduction and profit from the selling of puppies. Animals kept in these mills are seen as reproductive machines. Their basic needs are neglected, which is why they are often sick and unsocialized. Meanwhile, consumers are often deceived and do not realize the conditions in which their puppies were bred and raised. Puppy and kitten mills are unfortunately still a common practice.
Yet change is already happening. At least five states have enacted laws that prohibit pet stores from selling cats and dogs from breeders. More than 250 localities in 22 states ban the sale of commercially bred animals. Besides state and local initiatives, non-profit organizations are dedicated to putting an end to such cruel practices.
Learning the laws regarding this variety of issues that impact companion animals is another important step for any professional interested in advancing their interests.
Advocate Through Animal Law at Lewis & Clark Law School
You can specialize in animal law to advocate for companion animals. The Center for Animal Law Studies at Lewis & Clark Law School has an Animal Law LLM program for lawyers and an Animal Law MSL program for non-lawyers. Both programs are designed to allow advocates to focus on animal law in practice, academia, research, or public policy. These degrees are offered in-person in Portland, Oregon, or fully online, giving you the flexibility to maintain your family, professional, and other life commitments while undergoing this advanced training. The program includes courses such as Companion Animal Law, where students are introduced to multiple evolving issues, such as: how the law legally defines “companion animals” and why it matters; domestic violence and animal cruelty; breed-specific legislation and dangerous dog laws; estate planning to include companion animals; working, police, and military dogs; anti-cruelty laws; puppy and kitten mills; tort law relating to the injury or death of a companion animal, and more.
Lewis & Clark’s online Animal Law LLM and online MSL program are flexible programs that fit your schedule with courses taught by renowned animal law scholars and practitioners from around the world, letting you explore the challenges and opportunities available to advocates interested in companion animal protection issues.