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  • Writer's pictureLeslie A. Farber

Does Your Pet Have Rights?

dog and cat on mat

More than two thirds of American households include #pets, and owners spend more than $50 billion a year on their pets’ care. A Harris poll found that 95 percent of Americans see their pets as members of the family, and over the past few decades, pets have also been considered more like family in the eyes of the law. In New Jersey, it is now possible to set up a pet trust to insure your pets care and wellbeing after your death.

In recent years, a growing body of scientific evidence has revealed that #companionanimals, particularly dogs, have the capacity for emotion and the ability to read human emotions. Combined with an understanding of the deep bond between humans and their pets, this has led to an increasing number of laws giving specific rights to companion animals. These include the right to be free of cruelty, to be rescued from a natural disaster and to have their interests considered in a courtroom.

For instance, last year Illinois became the second state to pass a law that would force divorce courts to divide pets between their owners in a custody battle and take the animals’ well-being into account. Alaska was the first state to amend its divorce statutes to require judges to consider the well-being of animals in their judgments and assign joint custody over an animal if necessary.

In the United States, animal protection laws can be enacted and enforced at every level of government. The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) has been the primary federal animal protection law since it was signed in 1966. The AWA involves animals kept at zoos and used in laboratories, as well as animals who are commercially bred and sold. While it is the only law that sets minimum standards for the “handling, care, treatment, and transportation” of these animals, it is often criticized for allowing inhumane practices to go unchecked.

Most animal protection legislation happens at the state level. Laws that formally recognize the emotional interests of companion animals and give courts the power to put their rights ahead of their human guardians remain the exception rather than the rule. However, all 50 states have laws that prevent cruelty against animals. #Dogs and #cats – and sometimes birds, #horses and other animals – receive the strongest level of protection under state laws. However, there have been cases where an individual has been prosecuted for having committed cruel acts against wildlife or farm animals.

Each state also has laws governing certain aspects of the care of animals. For example, there are laws regulating how long animal shelters must keep stray animals before they can be adopted or euthanized, as well as regulations concerning commercial breeding of companion animals. Many states have laws criminalizing leaving an animal in a vehicle in extreme weather. Anti-tethering laws limiting how long pets can be tied up outside, and laws allowing pets to be included in domestic violence protective orders, are also becoming more commonplace.

Wildlife protection laws have been enacted in every state, and some states regulate or ban the use of wild animals in entertainment performances. Farm animals are not typically included in state animal protection laws, but a number of states have regulations limiting farming practices that confine animals.

Many animal protection laws are enacted and enforced at the local level. Although state and federal laws offer protection to greater numbers of animals, it is not uncommon for new animal protection measures to begin at the city or county level, then be considered by state legislators in response to public demand.

While countries such as France, New Zealand and Canada are recognizing a new legal status for animals, pets are still generally considered property in the U.S. However, animal rights activists are hopeful that the trend of legally recognizing animals as individuals will continue to grow. If you have questions concerning your pet’s legal rights, please contact us at 973-509-8500 x213 or email

The contents of this writing are intended for general information purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion in any specific facts or circumstances.

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