Duty To Treat Animals Depends On State Laws


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How many times have you seen a patient with a serious but treatable condition that your client just refused to treat? Have you ever felt that the lack of treatment bordered on cruelty or abuse? The law may agree with you.

Every state in the union has a statute that addresses animal cruelty. Obviously, state laws differ, but at least some of them require some level of veterinary care for animals. Others do not come out and explicitly require veterinary care, but those laws have later been interpreted to require such care by the courts.

In general, there is no duty to help others under the common law. Certain relationships create a duty of care such as that between a parent and minor child. But without some sort of state “good Samaritan” statute, one is legally allowed to walk right by a stranger bleeding to death on the sidewalk.

Similarly, one can, under the common law, ignore the distress of one’s own animal.

Any legal duty to treat an animal thus arises from state law, specifically the state cruelty statute. For example, Minnesota law states that “No person shall overdrive, overload, torture, cruelly beat, neglect, or unjustifiably injure, maim, mutilate, or kill any animal, or cruelly work any animal when it is unfit for labor, whether it belongs to that person or to another person.” 

Interestingly, for the purpose of this law, Minnesota defines an animal as “every living creature except members of the human race.” So, not just horses, dogs and cats, but rabbits, mice and, one can only assume, insects and spiders.

This statute does not explicitly state that failure to provide veterinary care is a violation, but a court could certainly construe a lack of veterinary care to fall under the term “neglect.” To the best of my knowledge, there are no published cases using this law to require veterinary care in Minnesota. However, there are some cases in other states that have addressed just this issue.

In Texas, for example, a woman was prosecuted and convicted under the state cruelty law for failing to treat a dog with a severe dermatological condition. The relevant Texas law states, “A person commits an offense if the person intentionally or knowingly: fails unreasonably to provide necessary food, water, or care for an animal in the person's custody.”

The court interpreted “care” to include veterinary care. In spite of the fact that the woman attempted to treat the dog herself with homemade sulfur dips, was living on $400 a month Social Security benefits and had no means to transport the dog to the veterinarian’s office, the court still held that she had a legal duty to provide veterinary care for the dog.

In New York, however, a court came to a very different conclusion. The applicable New York law states, “A person who...deprives any animal of necessary sustenance, food or drink, or neglects or refuses to furnish it such sustenance or drink...is guilty of a class A misdemeanor.”

Using this law, a case was brought against a man who refused to address his dog’s very large mammary tumor. The owner told an investigator that he was not providing medical care for the dog due to his limited finances and his personal views on treatment for cancer. In this case, the court ruled in the owner’s favor, stating that the anticruelty statute was too vague to allow the public to know specifically what level of veterinary care was required for their animals.

The court grappled with the very real question of what level of care is sufficient to avoid prosecution. Did the owner have to have the tumor removed? Did he have to provide chemotherapy or radiation therapy if those were warranted? Would he open himself to prosecution if he did too much and the dog suffered as a result? Would he be required by law to spend more money than he had in order to treat his dog?

In the end, the court did what courts often do and suggested that this was a question better left to the state legislature.

“If we, as a society, have arrived at the point where we feel that the provision of medical care to alleviate or avoid pain and suffering is a duty undertaken by pet owners toward their pets,” the court said, “and that failure to fulfill this duty should be a crime, it is incumbent upon our Legislature to enact a provision that clearly sets the standard for—and gives notice of—the proscribed conduct.”

This uncertainty of where the lowest level of acceptable care lies is precisely the problem that we as a society face in this sort of case. It is very easy to say that owners have a duty to provide veterinary care for their pets. However, it is not so easy to create a law that encompasses all the potential situations in which an owner and a pet might find themselves.

Is routine care enough? Or must one provide advanced care such as chemotherapy? Who gets to decide? Does it matter that an owner legitimately cannot afford care? Should we require some sort of assurance that an owner can afford at least the minimum level of health care before he is allowed to own a pet?

We have all been in the situation where the client driving the Mercedes and wearing expensive clothes tells us she is unwilling to pay for lifesaving treatment for her pet. In this case it might be easy to judge that the client has a legal duty to provide that treatment.

But what of the 80-year-old widow who desperately wants to but cannot afford care for her only companion, a geriatric cat with cancer? Should she also be required to provide that care?

Courts can and do make these sorts of decisions when medical care for a child is involved. To my mind, it is an open question whether they should do so when the patient is a pet.

Dr. Barghusen practices in Bloomington, Minn.

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