Denver Bar Association
March 2005
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The Law of Pets: Going to the Dogs

by Marshall Snider

A Look at a Bizarre Colorado Statute

Someone once said that the best people he knew were dogs. We all know folks who treat their pets like people. There are now pet day care centers, pet overnight camps, and pet cemeteries. People leave their estates to their cats and set up trusts for their parakeets. Some people talk to their pets as if the poor animals could communicate (when all they really want is to be petted, to get a treat, or to go out — or is it to come in?).

Fortunately for animal lovers, the Colorado legislature, never a body to fail to recognize the needs of our community, has joined this trend toward anthropomorphizing pets. In the Colorado Open Records Law, the General Assembly has created a privilege between veterinarians and their patients; the statute actually establishes a veterinary-patient-client privilege. (Think I’m making this up? Check out CRS § 24-72-204(3)(a)(XIV).) Under this law a state custodian of veterinary medical information is entitled to deny an open records request for pet treatment records.

At last, Colorado’s dogs, cats, birds, horses and ferrets can tell their medical woes to their veterinary doctors without fear that the information will wind up on the front page. Every bark, whinny, tweet and meow is as sacred as the privileged information we humans give our doctors, lawyers, accountants, clergy and bookies.

As enlightened as this law might appear, it raises more legal problems than it solves. First of all, it is a privilege between the vet, the animal and a "person in interest"
(usually, the pet’s owner). This structure inserts a third party not usually seen in privilege statutes. Can an owner waive the privilege over the howls of protest of the poodle? What if Mr. Ed contracts an embarrassing disease; can Wilbur let the vet sell the story to The National Enquirer? Can a greyhound authorize the vet to tell all about its hernia surgery even if the owner wants to keep that dark secret until after the fifth race?

And where does this leave issues of notification; can the vet violate a spaniel’s privacy and inform his owner when the poor mutt wants to get neutered? Is there implicit in this law some kind of owner notification waiting period?

If the legislature treats pets like people in the public records law, the inevitable question is whether that makes them persons for other purposes. Can your pit bull contest your will? Can tabby sue for damages when she runs her head through the pet door that you forgot to unlatch? Do horses have collective bargaining rights? When you get home from having your will drafted, will your parrot complain, "Polly wanna codicil?" Can you discriminate against tiny, whiny, obnoxious dogs?

Some of these issues are bound to reach the national political scene. Should we ban gay pet marriages? As an alternative, should we let our pets enter into civil unions? Or should we just let them keep doing it in the parks and alleys, as nature intended?

You think this is all absurd; that animals will never get the same rights as people. Well, not too many years ago you also probably scoffed at the idea that a kid could sue his
parents, that a semi-naked woman would perform at the Super Bowl half-time show, or that George W. Bush could become president of the United States (not once, but twice, for heaven’s sake). As ludicrous as those events may have seemed in days gone by, they have all come to pass.

Obviously, the legislature has just gotten started. There is a long way to go in sorting out the various statutory rights and obligations of our animal companions. But we Coloradans can be proud that our legislators are in the forefront of the most significant legal initiative of the 21st century. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Restatement of Animals gets its start right here in our beautiful state.


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