The $50 Dog Myth

December 2, 2011

The recent Medlen decision has once again raised the issue of how to put a dollar value on an animal.  If you do a bit of internet searching the popular belief you will find is that a dog is worth its replacement value which is alleged to generally be about $50; that it has always been thus in American law.  It's a lie.

Old Drum was shot by a neighbor in 1869.  "The farmer (Burden's brother-in-law) had previously announced his intentions to kill any dog found on his property; the dog's owner was suing for damages in the amount of $50, the maximum allowed by law... Vest won the case (a possibly apocryphal story of the case says that the jury awarded $500 to the dog's owner) and also won its appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court."

Well, there indeed is your $50 cap but that is $50 in 1869.  There's a little thing accountants call the "time value" of money.  Just as the price of postage stamps has gone from a single penny many years ago to 44 times that amount today, $50 in 1869 would have a current value of $808.82 in 2010 which is considerably less inflated than those postage stamps.  I don't know if the story of the jury award is true but, if it is, then they found Old Drum to be worth $8,088.24 in today's dollars.  These calculations are quite simple and based merely on inflation over the years.  There's an easy website if you'd like to run the calculations yourself.

And things have rather changed since 1869.  Prior to 1900 and well into the 20th Century and even today, animal care is primarily performed by owners.  However, the veterinary profession has been growing since it struggled into existence in about 1761 when the first "organized teaching" of the subject was established in Lyons, France.  While the modern veterinary professionals would have us believe that their profession has a long history in pet care, this is simply untrue.  Their focus until very recently was on human health and our food supply.  It is only the last few decades that the concept of medical care for animals by veterinarians has come into being and it didn't spring into being by accident.

A century ago, some 50 years after Old Drum was killed, there was no rabies vaccine as we know of today; infected animals were killed and human wounds were cauterized.  "The first rabies vaccine was developed in the early 1960’s" and it certainly wasn't common to vaccinate pets until long after that.  I grew up in a world where we watched animals closely for signs of rabies and animal bites were cause for fear.  It was during this time that the concept of "indoor only" for cats was born; it was the safest way to protect them from contracting rabies and reduced the chances for a bite to harm a human because, as ever cat owner knows, cat's bite even to show affection.  It was also a world where few confined dogs, especially pet dogs.

With a rabies vaccine came protection for the pets and humans.  Those in animal husbandry or with more than a few animals could vaccinate their own.  We more wimpy owners took our pets to friends or veterinarians.  I still remember the veterinarian we went to when I was a kid after we moved to Oklahoma in 1970.  We were the yuppies of the day, PET OWNERS who were incompetent to provide basic shots to our cats.  It was cause for embarrassment to us and always grins and giggles for the veterinarian and staff who were more accustomed to handling horses and cattle.  We all changed over the 4 decades since then.  Many owners are still quite capable of tending their own animals but there are way more of us less competent "mere" pet owners and the veterinary profession has evolved to provide the services we want but they are also looking after their own interests.

The veterinary profession has promoted laws that mandate ONLY they should give rabies vaccinations.  There is NO good reason for this other than their desire to have a monopoly that is foisted upon us all.  Most owners are quite capable of administering the rabies vaccine to their pets and it was done by many owners before these mandates.  It's quite simple but many of us are too wimpy (or uninformed) to do it.  Arguably, taking away the mandate would open the door to wider vaccinations at community clinics and by individuals so more animals would be vaccinated without that extra charge for a veterinary "exam" (that is often nominal, at best).  But, for now, the reality is that the veterinary profession has acquired something of a monopoly on giving rabies vaccinations to pets and that opened a HUGE door for them.  Veterinarians suddenly had access to enormous numbers of new mandated clients.

Veterinarians have used that access to encourage use of their services and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that...  Well, nothing wrong until they want to mandate use of their services at great cost to owners while simultaneously wanting to keep the value of animals at $50, stuck at the 1869 rate without even an allowance for inflation.  They would have us buy into the concept that even the costs they encourage us to incur should be disregarded in the valuation of our pets; that acknowledging the very real existence of these costs as part of our investment in our pets is somehow error.  You see, these very real costs are an inherent part of what is being called "sentimental" value in the Medlen case.  More than that, we invest our time, our attentions, our feelings and the veterinarians encourage this too; it's a big part of how they persuade us that we should incur $15,000 to attempt to save an injured or seriously ill pet.  But still they want the pet to be valued at $50 at the courthouse.

That we have feelings for our pets is nothing new at all; nor is the concept that a dollar value can be placed on them in a courtroom...  Nearly 150 years ago, there was a hunting dog shot by a neighbor.  The dog's owner sued (and won).  Here is part of what the owner's attorney said in closing argument to the jury.

Gentlemen of the jury: A man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he may be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer, he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounters with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens.

If fortune drives the master forth an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him to guard against danger, to fight against his enemies, and when the last scene of all comes, and death takes the master in its embrace and his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by his graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even to death.

This is Old Drum and many of our pets today too.  The veterinarians run businesses but they can't have it both ways.  They can't mandate their services be purchased by us and prey upon our sympathies to increase their income while simultaneously devaluing our pets.  Some now argue that Medlen is attempting to overturn 100+ years of settled law on the liability when an animal is injured or dies and the valuation of that animal.  This too is n untruth; every bit as untrue as the myth that dogs were worthless in 1869 or that owners didn't love their animals in 1869 and long before that.

Perhaps I will take a closer look at the claims made by those asking the Medlen court to reverse itself on another day...

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