Alaska’s New Divorce Law: Pets Are More Than Property

Photo Credit: Flicker CC, Davidegorla, HugMy interest is always piqued by news of changes in laws that view animals as family members rather than personal property. Case in point is a newly amended law in Alaska (Amendment HB 147) that requires consideration of the best interest of companion animals who are caught up in the tangle of divorce. In the past, the animals would have been placed with whomever was deemed to be the more “rightful owner.”

The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) has called Amendment HB 147, “groundbreaking and unique.” A recent ALDF blog post stated, “Even though judges throughout the U.S. can already choose, in their discretion, to consider an animal’s best interests, no other state legislature has required judges to do so when adjudicating property distribution upon the dissolution of a marriage.”

Will other states follow suit?

Alaska’s Amendment HB 147 has set a precedent in the United States in terms of divorce law. It remains to be seen whether or not other states will follow suit. Few laws currently exist within the United States that recognize the best interests of animals within the court system. Alaska’s decision represents significant progress. State Representative Liz Vasquez, a sponsor of HB 147 stated,  “Pets are truly members of our families. We care for them as more than just property. As such, the courts should grant them more consideration. It’s only natural.”

A case in Texas

There have been a handful of court cases in recent years that have challenged the long-standing legal precedent that animals are to be regarded as personal property. One notable example involved Texans Kathryn and Jeremy Medlen. Their lawsuit stemmed from the wrongful euthanasia of their dog Avery by a Fort Worth animal shelter. Avery had been picked up as a stray and was to be held until the Medlens could retrieve him. Shelter workers erroneously placed Avery on the “euthanasia list.” The Medlens sued and attempted to recover “sentimental” and “intrinsic” damages for the loss of their dog. Ultimately, the Texas Supreme Court denied the Medlen’s claim declaring that pets are nothing more than personal property.

The court, however, did sympathize with the Medlen’s grief by acknowledging that, “Texans love their dogs. Throughout the Lone Star State, canine companions are treated- and treasured- not as mere personal property but as beloved friends and confidants, even family members.”

However, the Supreme Court justices felt that this sentiment should not negate a more than a century old precedent that bars emotional damage claims for the death of a pet. As Supreme Court Justice Don Willet wrote, “The Medlens seek emotion-based damages for the death of ‘man’s best friend’ when the law denies such damages for the death of a human best friend. For all their noble and praiseworthy qualities, dogs are not human beings, and the Texas common-law tort system should not prioritize human-animal relationships over intimate human-human relationships, particularly familial ones.”

How do veterinary organizations weigh in?

Professional veterinary organizations typically voice opposition to viewing pets as more than personal property. Here is their reasoning. Currently, veterinary malpractice insurance premiums are extremely affordable. If and when pets become more than personal property and their owners can sue for emotional damages, the cost of veterinary malpractice coverage will skyrocket, perhaps rivaling those of human medical doctors. This would dramatically drive up the cost of veterinary care.

In the Medlen lawsuit, both the Texas Veterinary Medical Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association filed legal briefs requesting that the existing law viewing pets as property be upheld.  About this case, Texas Veterinary Medical Association president, Dr. Jed Ford stated, “The court upheld a legal precedent that has served the people and animals of Texas well for over 100 years. While animals play important roles in our lives, it was critical that the court maintain its position that noneconomic damages are unavailable for the loss of an animal. To have ruled otherwise would have had a dramatic negative impact on the practice of veterinary medicine in Texas and animal care in general.”

How do you weigh in on the legal view that pets are no more than property?

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at,, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.


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7 Comments on “Alaska’s New Divorce Law: Pets Are More Than Property

  1. Society has changed it’s outlook and thinking on many cultural changes over just the last 50 years. One such change has been viewing family pets as being just property. That mind set is outdated and needs to be legally recognized as companion animals now being something more closely akin to extended family members. As society grows and advances forth so does our thinking and actions. I remember back over fifty years ago when growing up, the family pet was most likely found to be living outdoors, sheltered in a dog house or outbuilding, contained in a small enclosure or tethered by a cable. We played with them, but when it came time for us kids to go back inside the house, back went the dogs to their usual place, separate of us their human owners. Now days, as an educated, understanding adult and yes, dog lover, I would never consider housing my dog(s) outside of my home, unless that housing was within a close by secure structure, dry, well lite, heated/cooled building with large kennel runs. However, our dogs live indoors with us, have access to comfy places to sleep, are fed high quality dog foods, provided excellent health care and often travel with us. They are active family members in my eyes. They unknowingly teach us about ourselves. They set examples we should all follow and live by with their unconditional love. They are a part of our lives, our memories, our happiness and we do so grieve for them when they have passed. Society has come to realize the underlying importance our furry family members have in our lives. Trained service dogs allow individuals to lead independent lives. Therapy dogs help heal those physically and emotionally disabled. Businesses find their employees are happier, more energetic and productive allowing pets in the work place. Even the family companion animal helps relieve daily stress and inspires us to be more active physically by way of play and walks. They serve as trusted guardians of our homes and family members as well as being more widely used helping society in general, through their police work. Their bond with us humans is so strong that they would give up their lives to protect us. I just find it unfair that society continues to live by old outdated laws and rulings that see family companion animals to be property and not something more akin to a family member. I find it awesome that Alaska has stepped forward and recognized just how valuable and important a companion animal is in a human individual’s life. Is it that those whom still see companion animals as property and not something more physically and emotionally viewed as a family member, become cold and desensitized to living creatures in general? Have they become so wrapped up in their own egos, status and always on the go in this fast pace of modern life to actual see the real relationship of companion animals to those whom have them? I often wonder if more of those individuals that have a hand in enacting the laws actually had a companion animal with whom to experience that day to day bonding, would their thinking be that of seeing companion animals in a different light other than that of property. An individuals property can be replaced by something exactly like that before it, no two companion animals are exactly alike, thus they are not really property, but an extension of ourselves and our families.

    I realize companion animals are not a right fit for everyone, that’s fine with me. I chose to have companion animals, choosing to enjoy their being a part of my life, taking on the responsibilities of their care and well being. But that’s me, I’d rather live the simple life and enjoy the love and the simple joys shared with a loved companion animal. I just wished others would recognize my choice as I do theirs.

    I applaud Alaska legislators for recognizing society’s changing views towards companion animals and I hope it does create a snowball effect that eventually turns into an avalanche. Hopes are it will encourage more open minded thinking, conversations and laws in other state legislatures across the country, that will in turn recognize companion animals as being something a whole lot more precious than just an individuals piece of property.

  2. Dogs are sentient beings. But most animals are sentient. Elephants weep and mourn over the death of another elephant. Chimpanzees care for each other. Animals feel physical pain. Yet our grammar objectifies all animals and refers to them as it and what. Our government defines them as “property” and classify dog food in the lot of “cattle feed” for food regulation. If our government makes the move to recognize dogs as sentient then they may have to recognize other animals as sentient. We as a society choose to eat animals like cows, chickens, pigs, and more. If all the animals become more than property that may challenge us to a moral dilemma and a “profit” dilemma for the meat industry. I am a vegetarian for all those reasons. But a lot of people want to continue eating meat. There is nothing wrong with that. Dogs are on the menu in many countries. The Yulin Dog festival in China is a huge event every year where thousands of dogs are slaughtered for food to celebrate. I truly believe dogs are sentient beings and need to be embraced as members of our family. But this may be the beginning of much bigger issue we may need to grapple with as a society.

  3. Livestock shouldn’t be considered as livestock. The are emotional, intelligent beings; pigs more so than dogs. Why do people love one and eat the other?

  4. My dog is family. She not property or livestock. She is in my trust with 2 named guardians, should one not be available, and financial support if I predecease her.
    I understand Vets issues, but it’s hard not to think of her as anything other that an important part of my family.

  5. Anyone interested in this issue should learn about the Nonhuman Rights Project at I heard the attorney, Steven Wise, who has worked for legal personhood for nonhuman animals for 30 years, speak at a conference recently. This project requires careful reading and understanding to avoid a knee jerk reaction that “animals are not people.” I am appalled at the crass, unethical stance of the Texas veterinarians as reported in this article.

  6. I live in Texas. I can’t help but to wonder if the Texas courts would consider a service dog a pet or working animal. Also, some farm dogs provide valuable services to their owners. For example, sheep and cattle herding.

    Most dogs are family members, not a table (property) and, for the most case, not live stock.

  7. I believe pets are living creatures with feelings that should be considered family and not property. They also should not be considered as livestock.

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