Pets – Sentient Beings or Mere Chattel?

A year ago my little Jack Russell Terrier, Sharkey, was overdosed by a pharmacist and nearly died. It’s a long story, but suffice it to say the pharmacist was neither concerned nor did he offer an apology. Instead he first denied he had done it, secondly made a snarky comment about the dog being alive so it hardly mattered, and third put another pharmacists initials on the label violating several federal and state laws. The national grocery store chain that owns the pharmacy, one that prides itself on it’s public service image and customer care, made no move to call or compensate until after I filed a complaint with the proper authorities. Sharkey suffered liver damage and has taken a year to recover.

But this article isn’t really about what happened to Sharkey. It’s about the fresh perspective I have about the rights and welfare of animals. To be certain animals are sentient beings capable of feelings and returning love and affection. In truth my little dog Crusher gave me more emotionally than my alcoholic second husband, but that’s another story altogether.  The issue of compensation for the pain and suffering of animals is wrapped around the emotional issues of the owner, the big corporate businesses having to do with pets, and insurance for veterinarians and other people entrusted with the care, custody and control of our pets.  You wrap those three highly charged issues together and suddenly things aren’t as clear cut as we would like to think.

Should animals be compensated for pain and suffering?

Insurance companies as well as most state laws declare that animals are mere chattel such as a toothbrush or an old tire. Being such they are not worthy of compensation for pain and suffering. None of this really surprises me. First of all because the nasty insurance attorneys, whose job it is to defend the money that really isn’t even rightfully theirs, would stoop as low as the sewer system rather than have to pay – even for something legitimate and clearly an error on the part of their insured. That aside, it’s an insurance company, enough said. The national grocery store chain instantly hid behind the pharmacists insurance company with a letter stating they would take no responsibility. Again enough said. It always comes down to protecting the shareholders and bottom line rather than doing what is right.

As I watched Sharkey suffer I was outraged. She neither understood that she might not recover nor why she was made to endure the agony in the first place. She continued to be by my side, even when it was obvious that just moving was agonizing for her. Some days were better than others. I was often in tears just watching her.

So my question is this; what would happen if the courts recognized animals as the sentient beings they are, and what would be the domino effect in the industry? If laws were changed so that animals received compensation for their suffering, how should that money be allocated, in other words, should there be a maximum for the pain and suffering or death an animal incurs from those responsible due to negligence?

Stay tuned for part two!


  1. Anna says on  06/28/2011 at 6:00 pm

    Does this mean we will all become vegetarian? If all animals have a life and feel pain then surely we shouldn’t eat them. Or will only cute animals be included in this. So dogs and cats are sentient but cows and sheep aren’t?
    For the record I am actually a vegetarian and I love animals and I believe they DO have feelings and we do need to treat them with more respect. However I believe this applies to ALL animals and not just cute pet ones. I get frustrated when people get wound up about dogs but don’t give two hoots about sheep. Both have an equal right to be free of suffering and humane treatment. It’s not fair to give the dog more rights because it’s cuter.

    • Tu says on  03/06/2013 at 4:41 pm

      I’m not a vegetarian like yourself, I actually love meat. But you are indeed correct regarding this philosophy. All animals should be treated with love and respect.

  2. Anna – I will be touching upon this fact in part -two of this piece. What is good about people getting ‘wound up’ about their pets is that it brings the issue further into the light and enlightenment spreads. However, I think that there is a certain level of awareness that dogs have that, say, a chicken, does not. Pets are able to love us back and therefore we give them much more value as they enrich our lives. And this is part of the ‘sticky wicket’ in the entire issue…where does one draw the line and how. Stay tuned.

  3. So sorry for Sharkey’s pain–and your own.

    Here’s the irony: we bred dogs to be human-like, to accomplish human tasks, to accomplish tasks beyond our capabilities…and most especially, to have an intimate relationship with us. Yet, we deny the sentience we’ve bred into these creatures.

    What’s the solution? Perhaps it’s hidden in the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution and the subsequent Civil Rights movement. Abe Lincoln, the “Great Emancipator” initially used emancipation of slavery as a weapon against Southern secession–his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation threatened to free slaves only in those states that seceded. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it…”

    In other words, only political expediency, not moral correctness, guided the passage of Amendment 13 and freed the slaves. And only the life-or-death struggles of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s brought our country even close to an acknowledgement of the rights of all humans.

    100 years of struggle, often at the cost of life and liberty to begin to ensure legal protection to people.

    I believe that little will improve for our canine partners until we are as politically active as civil rights workers were 50 years ago. Can we match the courage of the Children’s Crusade (1963) or the Freedom Riders? Is there enough outrage to spark rioting?

    Better start sometime.

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