Do Pets Have a Pet Parent, Guardian, or Owner?

Debra F. Horwitz, DVM, DACVB, Veterinary Behavior Consultations, St. Louis, Missouri

September 2018|Ethics|Web-Exclusive

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Do Pets Have a Pet Parent, Guardian, or Owner?

Dogs and cats have been living with humans for thousands of years, have co-evolved with people, and are integrated into our homes and lives. Does it matter what we call ourselves and our pets? What are the implications?

Owner, guardian, or parent? First, we must understand the terms that are used.



Companion animals have long been considered property; thus, we have been pet owners. Ownership is "the legal relation between a person (individual, group, corporation, or government) and an object. The object may be corporeal, such as furniture, or completely the creature of law, such as a patent, copyright, or annuity; it may be movable, such as an animal, or immovable, such as land."1

Legal Implications

When you own something, it cannot legally be taken from you without certain lawful proceedings. This deals with the concept of possession that developed from a legal system whose principal concern was to avoid civil disorder. The general principle is that a person in possession of land or goods, even as a wrongdoer, is entitled to take action against anyone interfering with the possession unless the person interfering is able to demonstrate a superior right to do so, usually adjudicated in court.2



More than 10 years ago a movement arose, spearheaded by the group In Defense of Animals,3 to alter the way companion animals are classified. Owners would become pet guardians, with the hope that guardianship would encourage people to provide better veterinary care, prevent loose and stray pets, promote friendly pet behavior, and adopt pets from shelters and rescue organizations instead of breeders.

Legal Implications

Legally a guardian is "A person lawfully invested with the power, and charged with the obligation, of taking care of and managing the property and rights of a person who, because of age, understanding, or self-control, is considered incapable of administering his or her own affairs."4 Furthermore, the guardian must always act upon the best interest of the one in their care.

Although guardianship does not sound problematic—we all hope to fulfill our obligations to care for our animals—legally there are very specific meanings. A guardian is subject to legal intervention and if one person believes another is not acting properly as an animal’s guardian, the court can be petitioned to intervene and remove the ward from care. Claims have also been made that the terms guardian and owner were meant to be used interchangeably and that classification does not signal a change in the laws governing the care of pets.5

This has yet to be settled in a court of law. A handful of court cases have allowed recovery for mental anguish or emotional distress, although the prevailing law still considers animals as property. 

A 2003 study examined the attachment of pet owners from 2 northern California cities to their dogs, based on the cities’ designation of owners or guardians. The results showed most people’s feelings about their pets were the same, whether or not they were labeled guardian or owner.6 However, the law is ambiguous about whether or not a pet guardian can be taken to court for not performing his or her obligations.


Pet Parent

The term pet parent has been frequently used in the past ~10 years. A parent in the strictest sense is "a caregiver of the offspring in their own species." In humans, a parent is the caretaker of a child, including foster parents.7 Human children become independent, acquire language, and communicate by sharing their thoughts and emotions. Dogs and cats remain in the toddler stage of life (ie, they are usually fully mobile, eliminate without help [perhaps not always], eat and sleep on their own), but they do not have language and need help navigating the human world. However, is there any harm in calling ourselves a "pet parent?"

Legal Implications

You have certain parental rights usually mitigated by being a parent. We are not parents to our pets. In a family law context, parental rights refer to a parent's rights to make important decisions and take certain actions on behalf of their child. Such rights are generally deemed automatic for biological parents, as well as adoptive parents, foster parents, and, in some cases, legal guardians.8

No Matter the Label

Whether cared for by an owner, guardian, or parent, every pet deserves to be as free as possible from15:

  • Discomfort and exposure
  • Fear and distress
  • Hunger and thirst
  • Illness, disease, and pain
  • Inability to perform normal behaviors

Answers According to Research

Recent research has sought to determine whether human and dog brains are similar and, therefore, if so, whether dogs experience the world the way humans do. One study involved 13 domestic dogs who were evaluated by their owners using a behavioral questionnaire (CBARQ) that estimates dogs’ aggressiveness.9 The dogs were trained to stay still in an MRI machine so the activity in their amygdala (ie, an area involved in aggression) could be measured while they watched their caregiver offer food to a fake dog or put the food in a bucket. According to the researchers, "More aggressive dogs had more amygdala activation data while watching their caregiver give food to a realistic fake dog than when they put the same food in a bucket," and they concluded that the amygdala activation showed an emotional state perhaps akin to jealousy.9 

After the study was published, other behavioral researchers began offering counter explanations of the findings. Some posited that the dogs were upset because another dog was given food and they were not, or that the dogs were upset because they could not access the food.

One researcher advised caution10: "We should be cautious about the use of labels such as guilt and jealousy when describing the emotional responses and behavior of companion animals because these kinds of attributions can influence the ways in which owners/guardians respond to their pets." "Dog owners are notoriously anthropomorphic and only too ready to believe that the guilty look11 or the jealous rage displayed by the pet reflects a level of cognitive and moral awareness and culpability that probably doesn’t exist.10 Too often, the consequence of such misunderstandings is that the animal gets punished for a crime it is unaware of committing."12,13

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New research has also uncovered that dogs respond to the salient features of facial expressions in people with different sides of their brain and dogs are sensitive to emotional cues conveyed by human faces.14 "A bias to turn the head toward the left (ie, right hemisphere) rather than the right side was observed with human faces expressing anger, fear, and happiness, but an opposite bias (ie, left hemisphere) was observed with human faces expressing surprise." What exactly this means is not clear. 

We have come a long way in imaging the canine brain, but we still cannot tell what the dog is thinking. All the explanations are inferences usually based on how we, as humans, react to and think about situations. Because we have co-evolved with dogs, we do share many social features but our dogs still remain a mystery in many ways. Anthropomorphic interpretations of dog behavior without ruling out other causations can lead to misunderstanding.


Ultimately, what we call our relationship with our pets does not matter as long as we understand the animals’ reasonable expectations. We must respect our pets as sentient beings who deserve kind, humane treatment. We must be aware of what they need to be fulfilled and happy; meet their needs for social contact, freedom, control, food, health, welfare, and the ability to perform normal behaviors; and we must always remember that they see the world through their eyes, ears, and brain—and we cannot know for sure what exactly they are thinking.

What do you call yourself in relation to your pet and why? Are your pets your "fur babies," "children," or another name?


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