Friday, August 24, 2007

On Animals, the Law and the AVMA

There are over 50 class action lawsuits pending against pet food manufacturers for the illnesses and deaths caused by adulterated pet food. But did you know that in most states, it is impossible to recover more than the “economic value” of an animal?

As of this writing, the New Jersey legislature is considering passing a law that would allow owners of pets harmed by the contaminated pet food to sue for loss of companionship, i.e., for “non-economic damage.” The maximum an owner could recover would be $15,000. Only two other states – Illinois and Tennessee – allow such lawsuits. Otherwise, U.S. law classifies animals as property, similar to any other object you might own.

Who would you guess is in favor of the proposed New Jersey legislation? Anyone whose animal was poisoned by what they innocently poured into a food bowl. Anyone who has euthanized an animal in fulminant kidney failure due to poisoned food. (Count me in that group.) And attorneys favor the legislation – some because they love animals, and some because they love lawsuits.

Who would you guess is opposed? Here’s the sad part. Of course pet food manufacturers oppose the legislation. They want to minimize their liability. But would you guess that the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is opposed? The New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association (NJVMA) is actively lobbying the state legislature not to pass the bill. The same organizations that are eager to promote “the human-animal bond” where it induces people to spend more on veterinary care are running scared from the redefinition of an animal as more than a piece of furniture.

That is, if a fabric cleaner destroys your sofa, perhaps you can recover for the damaged sofa, but not for the sentimental value it held. The AVMA and some state VMAs want it to be just the same if the food you buy destroys your dog or cat’s kidneys.

The NJVMA’s executive director, Richard Alampi claims that “although the bill is specific to animals that were harmed or died as a result of contaminated pet food, it’d be an easy jump to go from that to loss of companionship of an animal from other causes, such as a vaccine reaction or a surgery that did not go well and the patient died.” In other words, “Watch out, veterinarians will be sued next!”

On the other side of the debate, Dr. V. W. Koch (a veterinarian) pointed out in a letter to the editor of the Journal of the AVMA, the AVMA Guidelines for Pet Loss Support Services advise that “the human grieving process following a pet’s death is similar to that experienced by people who have lost a family member.” The Guidelines even suggest that pet loss support helpline volunteers need to recognize when a caller is grieving so deeply as to be at risk of committing suicide. Does anyone grieve that deeply when a sofa is ruined?

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