Government

CVMA’s Owner Vs. Guardian FAQ

1.   Isn’t the change from “owner” to “guardian” just a technical name change?

The terms “owner” and “guardian” have two entirely different legal meanings and cannot be used interchangeably. By changing the legal definition, this ordinance could seriously hamper the ability of a pet owner to properly determine the care for his/her animal. It could restrict the rights and responsibilities of pet owners and local municipalities to protect and care for animals. It could also subject animal owners, veterinarians and government agencies to frivolous and expensive lawsuits.\

2.   Wouldn’t changing from “owner” to “guardian” lead to more humane treatment of animals because they would no longer be thought of as “things”?

There is nothing to suggest that changing the definition from “owner” to “guardian” would lead to better treatment of pets. People who mistreat animals are going to do so regardless of their legal status. A “bad owner” would undoubtedly be a “bad guardian”.

3.   What’s the real difference between the terms “owner” and “guardian”?

An owner, by law, bears full legal responsibility for his/her pet. In the legal sense, a pet is considered personal property, owned and protected by the individual. Such ownership protects a pet from being taken away without due cause but also places responsibility on the owner to care for his/her pet in a safe and humane manner. As an owner, you are legally responsible for your pet’s welfare, protection and actions during its lifetime.

Guardians, on the other hand, do not own property and, according to extensive statutory and case law, have only limited or temporary possession of property, in this case, their pet. They can be removed from their position of guardianship for far less restrictive reasons than an “owner.”

4.   Are there other potential problems if the term “owner” is changed to “guardian”?

Because case law regarding guardians is so voluminous, changing the terminology raises the possibility of a tidal wave of legal questions that could bog down the court system. For instance, according to laws regarding guardianship, local governments would bear a greater responsibility to ensure that guardians are acting in the “best interest” of the pet, creating confusion over what is in the animal’s “best interest.”

In addition, there is a strong potential for local municipalities to be drawn into legal battles regarding the licensing of pets and the spaying, neutering and euthanasia of stray animals. There also would be the potential for lawsuits arising over such issues as whether a guardian is legally able to sell, give away or breed his/her animal.

5.   In an era of tight budgets, what kind of costs would be incurred by making this one-word change?

Although it sounds simple, enacting a changeover from “owner” to “guardian” could prove very costly for local governments, veterinarians, humane shelters and other animal-related entities. Cities and counties would be required to convert all of their codes and ordinances that refer to animal owners; and it could require the changing of animal license tags and public park signs. In addition, the wording would need to be changed on veterinary forms, animal adoption forms, kennel paperwork and all animal-related publications.

This would cause difficulty and lawsuits when local government tries to enforce their animal control and public health regulations since all city and state laws are predicated on the fact that animals are property, albeit a special class of property.

6.   What if, as a compromise, the new ordinance recommended combining both terms to “owner-guardian”? Isn’t that a win-win solution?

No, it would only confuse the issue. Since “owner” is not synonymous with “guardian” in either the legal or vernacular sense, a combination of the two words would do nothing but create more confusion and legal uncertainty.

7.   Isn’t this just about treating our pets with respect?

According to the proponents, In Defense of Animals (IDA), this ordinance is an effort to “recognize animals as individuals, not objects.”By speaking, treating and viewing pets from the standpoint of a “guardian” not an “owner,” says the IDA Web site, “you are helping to elevate a community’s consciousness and way of thinking about non-human animals. …recognizing that (animals) are individuals with needs and interests of their own.”

There is no need to legally re-define owners as “guardians” of “non-human animals” in order for them to appreciate and responsibly care for their animals. Surveys show that 80 percent of Americans consider their pets as family members. They don’t need legislation to tell them how to love their animals.

© 2017 California Veterinary Medical Association

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