This is how the American Veterinary Medical Association describes the human-animal bond: "a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and well being of both." The AVMA recognizes that the human-animal bond exists, that it has existed for "thousands of years," and that it has major significance for veterinary medicine because "as veterinary medicine serves society, it fulfills both human and animal needs."

I can’t argue with any of that, which makes the AVMA’s stand opposing non-economic damages for harm to an animal resulting from veterinary malpractice hard to understand. The AVMA Policy on "Compensatory Values for Animals Beyond Their Property Value" acknowledges that market value alone might be inadequate compensation for the loss of an animal. Other economic factors, including purchase price, the animal’s age and health, its breeding status and pedigree, any special training the animal has had, and the vague "particular economic utility to the owner" all can contribute to the "real monetary value" of the animal.

Conspicuously missing from the AVMA policy, though, is any suggestion that an animal’s sentimental value to the owner has even a penny’s worth of monetary value. In fact, the AVMA categorically opposes the recovery of any so-called non-economic damages by an animal owner who wins a malpractice lawsuit.

And there, as Hamlet said, lies the rub. The love and affection an owner has for his or her animal seems to be a pillar of the centuries-old human-animal bond, a relationship the AVMA touts as "mutually beneficial and dynamic," a relationship that includes "emotional, psychological, and physical interactions."

What’s going on here? Is the human-animal bond important or is it not? And if the human-animal bond is important, why is compensation inappropriate if the bond is destroyed through someone’s negligence? It’s hard to divine answers from the AVMA’s seemingly contradictory policies on the subject.

More Harm Than Good?

A cynical view is that the human-animal bond is deemed important only when it encourages owners to spend more on veterinary care for their animals, but there’s more to it than that. Animals are the personal property of their owners in all 50 states. While there are exceptions, state laws generally limit awards for damage to person property to replacement cost, without sentimental value of the property being a factor. Rather than making policy, the AVMA is simply riding the coattails of existing law when it comes to non-economic damages.

A more compelling argument that frequently is raised predicts adverse long-term effects on animals and their owners if non-economic damages become the norm rather than the exception. Veterinarians who lose a malpractice lawsuit typically do not dip into their own pockets to pay the damage awards; that’s the purpose of liability insurance. But if damage awards go up because non-economic damages are thrown into the mix, insurance premiums will quickly follow. Like any business, insurance companies need to bring in more money than they pay out.

Veterinarians might be willing to absorb some small increases in insurance premiums, but sooner or later, higher premiums will be passed on to the animal owners. Some owners will pay more for animal care; some owners won’t, or can’t. The AVMA speculates that animals will be harmed if this happens, and they’re probably right. If insurance premiums soar high enough, some veterinarians will abandon their practices. It’s already happening in human medicine, where doctors are abandoning litigation-prone practice areas due to high insurance premiums.

We’ll consider some possible solutions next week. In the meantime, how do you feel about monetary compensation for the sentimental value of an animal harmed through someone’s negligence?  Is it fair to put a dollar sign on the human-animal bond?