The legal system's perspective on pets

Paw points logo with pawNearly 10 years ago, my sister bought her first German Shepherd. This was our first experience with purebreds; all our other pets had been rescues.


This was when we began to realize that pets, under the law, are property rather than members of the family.


What happened

The “breeder,” who in reality was a “broker” or “importer” - from whom we had bought her talked a good game, at least for a neophyte. His responses to our questions even had convinced our trainer, who herself bred West German Shepherds and was well known for her work, that the sale was on the level and a good risk. The “breeder” assured us the puppy was a perfectly healthy, breeding-quality female, that if there were problems he would send us another puppy and we could do what we wanted with this one, and so on.

During the next few months, however, we learned the puppy:

  1. had an umbilical hernia. Most reputable breeders recommend against breeding a dog with this condition, because it is hereditary and can be life-threatening. It is not an absolute disqualification from breeding, but it should have been disclosed to us before we bought her.
  2. was suffering from constant diarrhea caused by bacteria not native to this country, which means she was already ill when she came into the country. Treatment with antibiotics was required.
  3. arrived in the US seven days before we took possession of her at the airport, at which point she was nine weeks old. Rabies shots are given at 12 weeks old. According to Center for Disease Control import regulations, animals under 12 weeks old - which do not have all of their vaccinations - may be imported but the importer is required to quarantine the animal until it is 12 weeks old and has had all its vaccinations. This means the “breeder” failed to quarantine the puppy for the required time, and therefore risked exposing the puppy to disease from other animals or, more to the point of CDC concerns, any animal or human with which the puppy came in contact prior to the end of the quarantine period would be exposed to any communicable disease the puppy might be carrying.
  4. had patent ductus. In humans, this condition is known as “blue baby syndrome.” The condition exists when the pass-through valve that cleanses the puppy’s blood in utero fails to close after birth. This results in the puppy never having enough clean, oxygenated blood after birth, which causes heart damage. The first sign of it is a heart murmur, and surgery is required to correct it. The life expectancy of a dog with this condition, left untreated, is at most one to two years. Patent ductus is hereditary, with a certainty that 75 percent of pups in each litter will have the condition, and it is always a disqualification for breeding.

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What we did

We tried to hold the breeder accountable, but we soon discovered that the law treats animals as property, and that once we appealed to the legal system for redress, we had no say in how we were compensated. We were subject to the court’s decision. If the court ordered she be surrendered for euthanasia and we be awarded another dog or monetary compensation, that was our only choice, and we could not drop the suit as if it never happened.

Once the court became involved, in other words, our dog’s life was in the balance and likely would be forfeit.

Since this was not an acceptable risk, we desisted and paid for the surgery ourselves.


The good news is, thanks to our trainer’s admonition to restrict her activity until her bones were fully grown at 14-18 months, our dog had very little heart damage and lived to be nine years old, at which time lymphoma took her. Acquaintances with similar experiences and the appropriate connections subsequently manged to have the breeding rights pulled for dogs from the kennel that were discovered to be carrying patent ductus and other genetic diseases, and the US breeder/importer was removed as an approved seller to a very lucrative market. All of this was done without our instigation, and was documented independently of us.


Pets should be treated as family, not property, even by the legal system. Exchanging a flawed animal to be euthanized for another living one is criminal, in my opinion, and it both minimizes breeder/importer accountability and permits destruction of evidence of breeder/importer disregard for life and its quality.

There is a movement to change the laws. Those demanding accommodation for pets in emergency shelters were a step in the right direction. Apparently Canadian laws are beginning to recognize animals as sentient beings instead of property. Where do we stand in the US on such progress? I do not know - yet - but I plan to find out.

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