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Determining your pet's worth

The final tally of cats and dogs affected by the recent pet-food scare has yet to be known, but a longer-term effect of the tragedy may be its impact on how the judicial system measures the economic value of pets.  

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"Traditionally, the damages recoverable for an animal having been killed is the market value of the animal -- what that animal is worth at the time of his or her death," says Joyce Tischler, founding director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, an organization that fights for animal rights.

But in the wake of the Menu Foods pet-food recall, and reports of at least 14 animal deaths by mid-March, a growing number of pet owners and legal professionals are pushing for a new way to measure a pet's economic value.

One problem with the current way pets' value is measured is that market value is not always enough to replace the animal. "If I damage your seven-year-old automobile and you paid $40,000 for it and it's currently worth $20,000, then you're entitled to $20,000," says Anthony Liuzzo, a professor of business and economics at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. "Likewise, if I kill your dog and you paid $80 for it and the dog is 7 years old and has a life expectancy of 14 years, in effect you would get half of the $80 that you paid for it. That becomes the measure of damages."

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The market value ignores a key factor in determining a pet's value to its owner, says Tischler. "There's an emotional bond, there's a relationship between a pet owner and a pet that's unique, and you can't just replace that by telling someone, 'Go to a pound and get another one.'" 

A new paradigm
Leaders in the field of animal law are working to get the courts to acknowledge that emotional bond. In a paper he wrote on the topic titled "Measuring the Value of an Animal Life: Economic and Legal Perspectives," Liuzzo argued that a pet's value should be determined by two factors: the animal's commercial contribution to the owner and its emotional contribution.

The commercial contribution is easier to compute. A Seeing Eye dog, for example, has a clear function that may save the owner the cost of hiring a full-time health aid to accompany him wherever he goes. Likewise, chickens that lay eggs have a commercial value in that they produce a commodity that the owner can either consume or sell.

Even companion animals may have a commercial value. "If I have a dog that protects my home from home invasion then the dog serves as both a guard dog and my pet," says Liuzzo. "If I have a cat that eliminates mice from the house, then it enhances my property value."

Measuring the emotional contribution of a pet is more difficult, but pet advocates argue that it can be done.

Next: "The cost of food, toys and veterinary bills can be used ..."
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