Do Dogs Have Legal Rights?

Golden retriever Cali with an empty food bowl
WHY is my bowl empty?

An article about dogs’ right to food caught my attention recently.

Dogs in the United States lack legal rights, although some (weak and ineffective) laws exist to criminalize some cruel treatment of dogs and other animals. It’s a question that comes up occasionally — in ownership disputes, custody cases, and sometimes in cruelty cases. But for the most part, dogs (and other nonhuman animals) are considered property, not beings with intrinsic value and rights. This question — and the many possible answers — is addressed in Citizen Canine, a book I enthusiastically recommend.

However, courts in other parts of the world are taking different approaches to legal questions concerning animal rights. The article linked above addresses a recent High Court decision in Delhi, India.

The decision concerns whether residents of a town or community have the right to feed and care for street or “community” dogs. India, like many countries, has an enormous stray dog population.

The court could have addressed only the rights and obligations of the humans in either side of the case: pro-feeding people who were opposed by people who believe the dogs are a health and safety threat.

While confirming the rights of the people to feed the dogs, the court went several steps farther: It also stipulated that the dogs have a right to food.

Significantly, the court spelled out that the dogs’ right to food and medical care stems from their existence as sentient beings with intrinsic worth. The decision even states that dogs have the right to engage in normal (for them) behavior!

In going beyond acknowledging that dogs need food and spelling out that humans have a moral obligation to care for — to protect and show compassion toward — all living creatures, the High Court went farther than U.S. courts have (yet) gone to establish something like legal rights for nonhuman animals.

Though there is also progress on the U.S. front, notably in a case involving Columbian hippos, dogs have a ways to go before U.S. law recognizes them as “persons” with intrinsic value and some of what we usually call “human” rights.

Cali says she’d be happy with a ruling that she has a right to (as much) food (as she wants) and that I have an obligation to provide her with food (on demand), just like those dogs in India got.