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Cats, Dogs And Our Legal Love Affair With Our Pets

Cats and dogs as family members.  Pet parenthood. Our relationship with our pets is changing – we take a look.

Dogg Frank is On Point producer Katherine Brewer's brand new Burmese Mountain puppy. He enjoys cuddling, napping and eating and strongly dislikes thunder. (Kat Brewer / WBUR)

Dogg Frank is On Point producer Katherine Brewer’s brand new Bernese Mountain puppy. He enjoys cuddling, napping and eating and strongly dislikes thunder. (Kat Brewer / WBUR)

Our love affair with dogs and cats is going strong. More than 90 percent of owners think of them as a member of the family.  Eighty percent would risk their lives for them. The human bond with dogs and cats is ancient — and taking on new making in our modern world. Courts now grant pet-imony — that’s alimony, for pets. Federal law allows your pooch to retain legal counsel. And pet advocates are pushing to extend them civil rights, citizenship and even personhood. Could dogs and cats someday sue one another? Sue you? This hour On  Point:  blurring lines between pets and  people.


David Grimm, deputy news editor at Science. Author of the new book “Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship With Cats and Dogs.” (@David_Grimm)

Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Fellow of the Animal Behavior Society. Author of “Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation” and “The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons for Expanding Our Compassion Footprint.” (@MarcBekoff)

From The Reading List

Science: When Cats Become Comrades –”A team of archaeologists excavating an ancient settlement known as Quanhucun in central China has found eight cat bones—a pelvis, a mandible, and other pieces, all dating to about 5300 years ago—scattered among other animal bones, pottery fragments, and stone tools in garbage pits around the site. The villagers, perhaps a thousand strong, were successful millet farmers—and they clearly had a pest problem. ”

Boston Globe Magazine: Cruel divide – “Do we really need a picture to respond adequately to human suffering? And without a photo of a kid covered in bruises, do we lose our moral compass?So here’s where I end up: right where I started. Animal abuse is sadistic, indefensible. Human abuse is even worse. To condemn the latter is not to tolerate the former. But far too many humans just don’t get it.”

The Wall Street Journal: More Americans Are Writing Their Pets Into Their Wills — “As of 2012, 68% of U.S. households owned pets, up from 62% in 2010. Among cat owners, 9% had made financial provisions in their wills for their animals, up from 6% in 2010, according to the American Pet Products Association, which represents manufacturers of pet food and other products. From 2010 to 2012, the percentage of dog owners making such arrangements rose to 9% from 5%.”

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  • Susan McConnell

    When our last dog died, we were devastated by the loss and didn’t get another one for ten years. Now that we have our three year old bloodhound,Daisy, we are more smitten than ever. She is spoiled rotten, and spoils us with love in return. Three noticeable things have happened in the ten years we were without a dog. 1) The “rescue” culture is huge. “Is she a rescue?” “I rescued him from a Georgia kill shelter.” “She has some behavior issues, she’s a rescue.” 2) If a dog isn’t a “rescue”, it’s probably a “doodle”. 3) There are great off-leash dog parks nearly everywhere. And there are great doggy day care facilities everywhere. The one we use even has an app for our phone that enables us to check in on her via live video while we are apart. Yes, I know it’s crazy!

    • Emily4HL

      I love the culture of looking to rescues first.

      But I hate the culture of pinning all behavior issues on the animal’s status as a rescue. Although rescued pets might have behavioral issues from before you got them, too much gets written off or excused that could be helped with good training, same as any animal.

      Notably, if you adopted a puppy or kitten young, they are highly unlikely be less well adjusted than an animal from a breeder. Excusing behavior problems as rescue problems discourages others from adopting and adopters from seeking quality training.

  • James Govoni

    My dog is my son, he is really funny to watch how he treats my kids, just like a sister and brother. He even teases them!

  • Emily4HL

    Although leaving your pets large amounts of money in your will strikes me as absurd, it is only responsible to provide for their care in the event of your death.

  • Emily4HL

    I would like to hear comments on issues around health care for pets. Sometimes, as in this case, some people seem to think emergency healthcare should be legally required for animals as it is for people–and was before Obamacare, so that’s a misnomer. Others believe that you should only have pets if you can guarantee your financial situation…which almost no one really can. Pet insurance is the answer for some…but many end up between a rock and hard place.


  • Ed75

    Nothing wrong with loving pets … but I heard recently that in pagan Rome children would be left to die but pets were treated grandly, sounds like today when love of pets goes over the top.

  • sam

    To suggest that love is a zero sum game as Ed75 does is a red herring. In addition…do some more research on ancient customs please.

  • HonestDebate1

    Pets need jobs, my dog’s job is to kill rats. She’s great at it, they don’t stand a chance.

  • mrtwilight23

    Talk about blurring the lines – my co-worker’s daughter is a vegan and has put her dog on a vegan diet. That’s animal abuse.

    • jefe68

      Yep, dogs are omnivores and need a balanced diet.

    • Emily4HL

      Even worse when people try to do this with cats. Dogs can survive on vegetarian diets, although it isn’t how they evolved and they are less likely to thrive. Cats are obligate carnivores and will die.

      There are lots of ethical issues around pet food. I

      f we feed all American pets like Americans, lots of quality meat, we cause a lot of ecological and economic problems. But I don’t want to feed my pets tons of byproducts or rendered meat. They do eat bones and oaffle if they hunt for themselves, so I’m not completely against by products, I just don’t want them to be the main protein source.

      I also don’t want to contribute to factory farming with my own food choices or what I chose for my pets.

  • BOBinRSI

    Hey, who can complain about pets. Now the pet owners, that is a different story.

  • jefe68

    How does a dog retain legal counsel?
    My hound is very vocal and understands a lot of words and is a wiz at body language, but using the phone or the computer are not one of his attributes.

    And civil rights? I understand all animals need to be protected from abuse, but how does one know if a dogs civil rights are being violated?

    My dog hates German Shepard’s and Boxers he reacts to their silhouettes from a distance. I asked my Vet about this and she said dogs can have prejudices much the same way we do. Have to say, most of them seem to harbor the same dislike of him. My two cents, both parties are sensing each others fear and are reacting to that. I guess I need to worry about my neighbors Shepard lawyering up in the future…

    My hound also has a dislike for pigs… most hounds do.

    • nj_v2

      [[ However, using the phone or the computer are not one of his attributes. ]]

      Time to enroll him in a class.

      There are a number of these stories out there:


      Dog Uses Cell Phone To Call 9-1-1 When Owner Has Seizure

      • jefe68

        He’s 12, his days are spent sleeping and walking.
        I suspect Border Collies are one of the breeds that can do some amazing things. Some say they are so smart that when you leave home they might rewire the house.

    • HonestDebate1

      If only dogs had an opposable thumb.

      • jefe68

        Well, Border collies would put a lot of people out of work if they did. They can learn over 1000 words.

  • Mari McAvenia

    Let’s face it: humans don’t treat each other very well. Most folks are far more likely to throw somebody they know under the bus than they are to lend a helping hand. When we love and care for cats and dogs they reciprocate in kind. That is their enduring appeal. No, they won’t sue you even if you mistreat them. However, a sanctimonious human will not hesitate to hire a lawyer and go after your wallet for any bizarre reason if they believe they can capture a profit. A dog will fetch your wallet for you and drop it at your feet. Long live our pets!

  • kivenaberham

    pets are disposable emotional need for lonely over work people . we are a nation of disposable people. jobs, things, pets, etc LOOK AT THE FACT on pet shelter death.

    the so call LOVE is propaganda. lie to tell yourself how special your relationship are with your sad world. that is a fact in America.

    • jefe68

      What’s wrong with you? You seem to be projecting more about yourself than anyone I know who is a pet owner.

      • kivenaberham

        reality check bud. check all the stats on animal shelter. united states put more pets to death then any develop country. PLEASE LOOK AT THE FACT AFTER A HOLIDAY!!!! ANY HOLIDAY!!! OR A OPENING OF AN ANIMAL MOVIE!! OR A CLOSING OF AN COMPANY OR A PLANT IN A TOWN. IT IS A HORROR STORY!! please wake up and look at the number of pets being drop off at a shelter!!! our so call family our so call best friend our so call love ones!!! REALITY CHECK!!! WE KILL PETS ON A MASSIVE SCALE!!!

        • jefe68

          I know that. I adopted my dog.
          But your anger here is over the top.
          And if we were facing each other I might be calling the cops right now.

    • Emily4HL

      This is certainly true of some. Lots of pets are abandoned. Some agonize over it, others don’t. And some people will give up everything else before they give up a pet.

    • J__o__h__n

      I don’t think the many dog owners in my building really care about their dogs. Small one bedroom and studio apartments are not good homes for dogs. And having barking dogs is not being a good neighbor.

      • jefe68

        Depends on the dog. Some dogs do very well in small apartments. Some don’t. Interesting to note, Greyhounds are great apartment dogs as they don’t’ bark much and sleep a lot. all dogs need to walk however. But you are right, sounds like some of the people in your building are not the best owners.

        • J__o__h__n

          It is mostly yappy dogs although at least a few of them sound like big dogs. The worst one is the miniature schnauzer which doesn’t stop yapping. I can’t imaging anyone would want to own one of those.

          • jefe68

            Small breeds tend to be the worst kind of dogs for an apartment. Especially Jack Russell’s who need a lot of space to run.
            Their extremely intelligent but are ratters, which means they can have a nasty disposition when they are unhappy.

    • sickofthechit

      “Are you okay? Is there anything I can do?” charles a. bowsher

  • Emily4HL

    One thing that bugs me is young couples who have pets as children until the human children come around, and then completely relegate the pets to the background. I love animals and I still prioritize humans over animals, but the pets you have before children still deserve love and attention once you have human babies. The relationship will change, but it makes me sad when its severed…especially since pets and kids can be such good friends.

  • Emily4HL

    There’s no government assistance for pet owners down on their luck. If you have children, you can receive government support if you lose your job or your child gets sick. As always, some of these people shouldn’t have gotten pets in the first place, but sometimes you do just get the short end of stick.

    I’m not saying that there should be government support for animals, but the plight of pets put down or given up because owners can’t afford care suggests to me that the can charities never do enough to fix this problem. I’m so sick of the argument that charity will solve the problem if government support is removed. Lots of people seem more likely to support charity for animals than for people, and there’s still no where near the resources to help those in need.

  • Emily4HL

    OnPoint: How about “pet guardians?”

    • J__o__h__n

      Owners is fine. I really hate reinventing the language from simple words to descriptive phrases.

      • Emily4HL

        I’m not super against “owners” although I don’t like to use it myself, and I believe we need distinctions between humans and animals, so I don’t support personhood.

        I like guardian as something between an ownership-property relationship and a parental relationship. Personally, I don’t like being called an owner or the “mom” of my animals.

        But I’m also a bit of a language nut.

        • Mari McAvenia

          The critters who live with me are my friends. If anything, they “own” me.

  • Coastghost

    Dog: a quadruped mammal whose generally affable and obedient demeanor entitles him to be treated like a human being (cf. Human being: a biped mammal whose generally sullen and self-willed behavior requires his being treated like a cur.)

  • nj_v2

    Sorry, but taking relationships with pets seriously does not entail an owner thinking of themself as “mommy” or “daddy” to the animal. This would seem to be a sign of disfunction.

    • Emily4HL

      That’s why I like guardian. I don’t mind parent and I call them my fur kids, but I really don’t like it when the vet says “mom, you can stand over here…”

  • AC

    i secretly miss my dog more than my husband when i’m away on a long trip…..!!

    • HonestDebate1

      It may not be a secret, does your husband read this blog?

      • AC

        nope, but he suspects anyway – he brings her to the airport to pick me up….

  • J__o__h__n

    It is still fringe behavior no matter how many people succumb to it.

  • SherylT

    They are very good company, better than most people I have to deal with on a daily basis, but I never lose sight of the fact that they are not human. Still, when I lost my Emma to an error made by my former vet a few weeks ago, I was devastated. I miss her and mourn her every bit as much as I miss human beings I have lost. My dogs come to work with me every day, so we spend almost 24 hours a day together. I can’t imagine a life without dogs in it.

  • nj_v2

    Despite the warm, fuzzy tone the show is striving for, pet ownership can have a significant dark side.

    Check out the ecological consequences of the pet-food industry. Animal waste, when not collected and disposed of, often washes into storm drains or surface water bodies and contaminates them.

    Animals formerly used as pets, once escaped or released into the environment, have, become serious ecological problems. Exotic, non-native species can become invasive and destroy local ecosystems.

    Burmese pythons and iguanas in Florida, and chameleons in Hawaii are just some examples. In some areas, even feral dogs, which can run in large packs, can be dangerous to local residents.

    As usual, people often fail to recognize, acknowledge, and understand the full consequences of their decisions.

    • J__o__h__n

      Outdoor cats kill lots of birds.

      • jefe68

        There is a study that has more or less linked cats to causing the extinction of some bird species.

        • HonestDebate1

          That’s nothing compared to the Ivanpah Solar farm.

          • jefe68

            Ah yes, lets add some right wing anti-solar energy comments to a show about pets. If you did a little research into the some of the stuff you post to forward your right wing ideology and anti-solar energy screeds. If you did you would have found out that there are alternatives to the kind of solar panels that are being used at Ivanpah.

            By the way, if you did just a little bit of research you would have fond that more birds are being killed every year by windows in homes and businesses.
            Almost 1 billion are killed annually from flying into windows of homes throughout the US.

            In 2002, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimated that communication towers kill 4 million to 5 million per year, cars kill roughly 60 million, cats kill hundreds of millions.

          • HonestDebate1

            Your point?

      • nj_v2

        Hundreds of millions per year in the U.S. I’ll bet a lot of these owners recycle their bottles and buy organic food.

        “Exact numbers are unknown, but scientists estimate that nationwide, cats kill hundreds of millions of birds, and more than a billion small mammals, such as rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks, each year. Cats kill common species such as Cardinal, Blue Jay, and House Wren, as well as rare and endangered species such as Piping Plover, Florida Scrub-Jay, and California Least Tern.”


        It appears they’re not going to mention any of this on the air.

        • Emily4HL

          Cats that belong to families need to be kept inside–and exercised and played with to prevent obesity and boredom–so they don’t contribute to this problem. Alternatively, taken out on a leash or let out in an enclosure. The more cats inside and sterilized, the better for native birds and rodents.

          Feral cats are another matter that I haven’t seen any good solution for.

          • Mari McAvenia

            I have seen a neighbor walking her harnessed cat on a retractable leash. Both appear to be very happy. She assured me that no birds have met their demise under these circumstances. My own cats remain indoors with access to several screened windows ( yes, I have made comfy perches for them ) where they can watch the birds to their hearts’ content.

          • Emily4HL

            Leashes are great for cats. They allow cats to spend time outside while sharply decreasing many of dangers to and from outdoor cats. Best results when starting young, but all cats can adapt. We adopted an all outdoor cat last August and he tolerates it.

            I tether my cats outside while I work in my garden or on the computer on my porch because there are 3 and I have some mobility problems. I never leave them alone on the tether and want to work on teaching them to walk with me better.

            It isn’t a perfect solution and occasionally someone gets loose for a few minutes, but still a good compromise for them to play outside without being in so much danger or killing small animals. They ride in and out the door in a cat carrier since I don’t want them to go in and out on their own. We’re headed out now, actually.

            When we have a house someday, I’m looking forward to using purrfect fence to enclose a yard for them.

    • Emily4HL

      Cats are the main invasive species and threaten lots of native small animals. Trap-neuter-return might work if it was done 100%. Some conservationists argue for euthanasia instead.

      I also grapple constantly with the food issue. If we feed all pets high quality meat and no by products, we have to produce a lot more meat. Yet my cats need to eat meat…

      Lots of people don’t think about these problems, but lots do. These ethical issues are among the most common discussions on my facebook newsfeed full of young adults striving to do the right thing for pets and the planet.

  • nj_v2

    People keep rabbits as pets. Other people keep rabbits to kill for food. How are people proposing laws to further “protect” “pets” going to reconcile this?

    • J__o__h__n

      What about people who keep rabbits to feed them to pet snakes?

    • HonestDebate1

      The best way to protect any animal is to eat them.

  • kivenaberham

    no caller in onpoint regarding this topic will call in and talk about themselves abandoning their so call best friend to death at a shelter. facts are American miss treat their pet or so call love one on a MASSIVE scale!! we kill more pets then most countries in develop nations. and the massive death of pets are due to job lost! and income gaps. so
    ya. this show is proof of American need for propaganda!! we need our LIES!!! TO LIVE ANOTHER DAY!!!
    one other thing. leonela hemsley have a long history abuse her employees, nazi who run death camps love their dogs. but have no problem showing affectionate toward their pets. so ya i believe psychopath have no problem have pets and loving them at the same time HATING people around them. so don’t think having pets make you more “Humane”

    • sickofthechit

      I am sorry if you had to abandon your best friend to death at a shelter. Know that however long you were friends, you made a positive difference for them. that’s the best any of us can hope for in this world. charles

  • Donna Ellery

    I wonder if our denser, closer relationships with animals is a result of our becoming less enchanted with our culture & the alienation it creates, people and policies in general?

    • miracatta1

      The best relationships I have are with my cats. Words usually get in the way or cause trouble. Humans are a real pain, something I look forward to getting away from.
      The cats and I share mutual respect and love, have a good understanding of privacy and need for space for both cat and human.
      They can’t fully function in human culture, but humans wouldn’t do too well in cat culture: giving birth on your own, hunting your food, knowing how to hide from predators, ability to jump high, climb, and run fast.
      It’s ridiculous to give human legal rights to cats. Cat’s don’t expect you to hunt for rats or use the litter, either. To each species their own.

  • sickofthechit

    I am considered rude by some guests in my home because I have insisted that a sleeping cat need not be disturbed if another seat is available for that person. It’s always ok to pick up the cat as you sit down and offer your lap, but if you think you have a right to a seat just because you are a person, that does not play here and you will be scolded for being selfish. I am childless and have four cats. One a survivor of a litter of 5 my then fiance and I adopted 12+ years ago. The other three were “foster” kittens from a litter that had been left by the side of the road. The foster period was to be 6 months at which time they were to be sent to live on a horse farm. That was 10+ years ago. charles a. bowsher

  • Therese

    pets are great but are we trying to escape the difficult human relationships in favor of easier pet relationships?

  • http://tombstone001.blogspot.com/ tombstone001

    What we are talking about, may be you can do a show about this, is acually reducing the status of our humans to a level less than our pets.
    Monies spent on pets sometimes could be better spent on children espe ially by people with low in omes.
    Pets have been promted as near humans by the pet care industry and by the media that gets funding from the same

  • J__o__h__n

    I prefer wild animals. I live near a park and enjoy seeing the animals as the seasons change. It is fun to get to know which locations certain animals prefer and under which conditions they are likely to appear. There is a heron that comes out only on cold clear evenings. One afternoon last year I counted 15 rabbits on my way home. A swan appeared about a month ago and is still there. Each year it is great to see the new ducklings and goslings.

  • AJNorth

    As may have already been observed here, dogs have masters; cats have staff.

  • Mari McAvenia

    Unrelated cats will “adopt” each other in the right environment. My 12 year old neutered male cat adopted a female kitten 10 years ago. They are best friends, funny playmates and they regularly groom one another like a mother cat does with her young. I know that they would miss each other if they were separated at this point. My job is to make sure that doesn’t happen.

  • Rachel Canada

    If we are moving toward personhood for cats and dogs how will this affect our approach to shelter animals? Would euthanasia for overpopulation become a legal impossibility or would only animals with a human guardian be awarded the rights of personhood?

    • Emily4HL

      An interesting question and a huge part of the issue concerning feral cats. Personally, I’m glad that I can offer my pets euthanasia if necessary–its a right I wish people had.

  • kivenaberham

    this whole topic STINKS of 1% social interest. meaning that topics like paparazzi rights to photograph celebrities children, something only the rich 1% have a problem with. really? if you are dirt poor. what are your social priority. basic pets rights or human rights.

    • Jim

      About time someone speaks up. Absolutely, this topic is all about the 1%.

    • Jim

      In addition if food is scarce someday which is conceivable I would not be surprised if these pets become BUSH MEAT.

  • Dee Dee B

    .. I was feeling pretty good about this show UNTIL the idiot guy actually had the stones to equate the transition of ” dogs to human status” with People of color being allowed full citizen rights. I was appalled.. The interviewer even tried to toss him a clue telling him (twice) how offensive it is to equate the 2 situations and the moron at that point acknowledged that but then repeated it and said ” well this is the comparison ” they” are making.. Totally disgusted how clueless and offensive people are in 2014

  • anne sweeney

    Great Program !

  • Roberta Chadis

    I only heard the first 10 minutes of this interview and it sounds like I missed a lot of controversy. The comments are quite valuable, thank you!

  • ExcellentNews

    The fact that you may love an animal (or an object) more than you love other humans does not mean that they ARE equal to humans or deserve personhood.

  • Vicki Bamman

    I haven’t yet read all the comments (but I will) and perhaps this has been “noticed,” but I believe the aging “Boomer” generation strongly influences the rise in popularity of pets. As the “Boomers” become more and more settled and their adult children move away and build their own lives, these elders turn to easy substitutes–dogs and cats. And Boomers have the resources to pamper their four-legged family. I own and operate a pet services b usiness (including doggie daycare in a commercial location) and observe that many of our clients are retirees (or pending), and, yes, they are generally at least somewhat affluent.
    As the 55+ age group continues to influence social trends, dogs and cats will continue to be growing social and economic markets.

    • jefe68

      People have always owned dogs and have pampered them, this is not a new phenomenon.
      As one can see in the paintings by Velasquez and Landseer.

  • Stacy21629

    This veterinarian is 100% opposed to the idea of ‘pet parents’ and ‘animal rights’. Animals should be treated humanely and with compassion, but they do not and should not have rights on par with human beings.

    • jefe68

      And the other thing, how would they know what a human right is? My dog has killed other living creatures (moles), has been a few scrapes with other dogs and has almost killed a pig, long story… if he was my son he would have been in and out of trouble with the law by now.

      He’s a dog, and they don’t really understand the concept of the rule of law.

      • J__o__h__n

        Apparently no one does according to Leather Dave.

        • jefe68

          Good one.

  • Sabrina Sojourner

    STOP using the comparison of how African Americans became recognized as human as the legal road map for your cause. We are, and have always been, human. White supremacy’s inability to recognize our humanity has nothing to do with this. To continue to use that argument is to continue racist thinking and action.

    • Kevin

      I respect your feelings, and I certainly agree that the animal liberation movement and civil rights movement were different in important respects, but I’d like to point out that the idea behind the comparison isn’t to liken African Americans to animals. The idea is that our treatment of animals represents a form of institutionalized discrimination.

      • Sabrina Sojourner

        While I still disagree with the comparison, in my opinion your failure to acknowledge the point of the comparison in the discussion and naming the problem with the comparison supports white supremacy.

  • jefe68

    I agree, and I love my dog. He’s a part of my family, but, he’s a dog. I’m always amazed at how some folks use their pets as a mirror of themselves.

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