Measuring Damage to Animals: How Much is Your Dog Worth?

In a recent case, the Massachusetts Appeals Court addressed the proper measure of damages to compensate a pet owner for injuries to his dog.

An unprovoked attack by the defendants’ unleashed German shepherd caused the plaintiffs’ Bichon Frisé, Peppermint, severe internal injuries, external bruising, and wounds to the head, neck, abdomen, and chest. Emergency surgery was successful but expensive, with veterinary costs ultimately amounting to over $8,000.

The sole issue in the appeal was whether damages should be capped at the market value of the dog, regardless of the reasonableness of veterinary costs necessary to treat the dog’s injuries. Noting that the common law considers dogs (like other animals) to be property, the court stated that diminution in market value is the common method of measuring damage to property, but that replacement or restoration costs have also been allowed as a measure of damages where diminution in market value is unavailable or unsatisfactory.

Recognizing that more complex and resourceful methods of ascertaining value must be used where the property is unusual, the court found that reasonableness is the touchstone for determining whether, and to what extent, veterinary costs can be recovered and will depend on the facts of each case.

The court stated, “[a]mong the factors to be considered are the type of animal involved, the severity of its injuries, the purchase and/or replacement price of the animal, its age and special traits or skills, its income-earning potential, whether it was maintained as part of the owner’s household, the likelihood of success of the medical procedures employed, and whether the medical procedures involved are typical and customary to treat the injuries at issue. Although the owner’s affection for the animal may be considered in assessing the reasonableness of the decision to treat the animal, the owner cannot recover for his or her own hurt feelings, emotions, or pain. Nor is the owner entitled to recover for the loss of the animal’s companionship or society.”

The court concluded that “[i]f it is reasonable in the circumstances presented to incur the veterinary costs at the time they are undertaken, then the owner of the injured animal may recover them even if they exceed the market value or replacement cost of the animal and whether or not the procedures are successful.

In the case of Peppermint, the Appeals Court affirmed the trial court judge’s award of the full amount of veterinary fees where the veterinarian testified both as to the reasonableness of the performing the procedures and that the costs were necessary, fair and reasonable.