Animals’ Legal Status

Animals are considered property under the law, which limits their protections.

We are a country of animal lovers. Americans overwhelmingly view our companion animals as family members. All animals are living, feeling beings, who are entitled to protections under the law.

Yet did you know that our legal system still considers animals to be “property”? This means animals are lacking in fundamental legal protections. By and large, the law treats animals as if they are no different from a chair or a table.

The legal system is lagging behind. This needs to change.

Animals are different from a table or a chair, and the law should and must recognize this difference. Animals deserve a legal status that reflects the kinds of beings they are: creatures with the capacity for pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow, fear and contentment.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund litigates, advocates, and educates to achieve progress in the law. We are working hard so that animals’ legal status matches what we as a society believe it should be, and what animals need and deserve.

What happens if a dog is beaten to death, but prosecutors elect not to bring charges? Can the dog file a suit on her own behalf? Is there anyone else who is able to pursue justice under the criminal law system?

Sadly, the answer is no.

Animals generally do not have meaningful legal rights under current law. They are deprived these protections largely because by and large, the law considers animals to be property—or “legal things” — instead of “legal persons.”

There are felony provisions in all 50 states and the District of Columbia for intentionally killing a dog or cat.

Legal “personhood” sounds complicated. But really, this designation is mostly a practical matter. A very important practical matter.

“Legal persons” do not have to be human beings. Recall that Mitt Romney once infamously said that “corporations are people.”

Romney probably wishes he hadn’t said that. But he was right. Indeed both corporations and ships, just to name two, are sometimes defined as legal persons. In this context, they are granted certain rights, and they also assume some legal obligations. These entities can do such things as sue and be sued.

The legal person’s interests or rights vary, depending on their needs and nature. For example, recognizing a dog as a legal person would not give her the right to vote—any more than, say, Walmart has the right to vote.

However it might give the dog the right to not be used in a painful experiment or the right to have a court appoint a guardian to protect her legal rights.

The Law Already Recognizes Some Ways in Which Animals Are Special. But Not Enough

Although classified as property, the legal system also recognizes that animals are different and treats them distinctly in some regards.

Unlike all other forms of property, animals are protected by criminal anti-cruelty laws. As of 2017, they can also be the beneficiaries of legally enforceable trusts in all 50 states. Nearly two-thirds of states allow companion animals to be included in domestic violence protection orders.

Even more recently, some states have begun to allow courts to consider an animal’s best interests when determining custody, in the context of divorce proceedings. Traditionally, animals are treated like furniture or other material assets, to be equitable divided. This emerging “best interests” standard treats companion animals more like children or other dependents — more like family.

Another promising development is in animals being recognized as “legal victims” of crime. This means, for instance, that when a person commits acts of cruelty upon more than one animal, each one counts toward a separate criminal charge because each is a separate victim.

In this same vein, one court has also upheld the right of law enforcement officers to seize an animal who is in need of veterinary attention, even without a warrant.

However, most animals do not yet even enjoy these additional protections, which thus far are mostly reserved for those who share our homes like cats and dogs. Wildlife, farmed animals and animals used in laboratory experiments are still almost entirely left out.

Animals’ status as “things,” or property, and their corresponding lack of fundamental legal rights, are persistent barriers to protecting their lives and advancing their interests through the legal system.

One of the areas in which animals’ lack of rights is most pronounced is when it comes to “standing.”

In order to bring a lawsuit to court, a party must have standing. Legal standing is the requirement that the party filing a lawsuit has been, or will be, harmed by the defendant — and that the court can remedy this harm.

Criminal animal cruelty laws can usually be enforced only by prosecutors, not private citizens. So standing is a serious obstacle for animal advocates, as well.


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