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Features - The Domestic Cat and the Law: A Guide to Available Resources

By Stephen Young, Published on December 17, 2001

Stephen Young is a reference librarian at The Catholic University of America, Kathryn J. DuFour Law Library. His research interests are primarily in the area of United Kingdom law, however in recognition of the holiday season Stephen offers this lighthearted piece on the domestic cat.


Historical Introduction

The relationship between Felis Domesticus (the domestic cat) and the law extends thousands of years.  In accordance with the ancient Egyptian laws of the 5th and 6th Dynasties, the cat, or “mau,” was regarded as a sacred animal (usually in the form of the cat goddess Bast or Bastet), and therefore protected from harm by humans.  Capital punishment was the traditional sentence for anyone found guilty of killing a cat (Herodotus, Histories Book II).  Even as recently as the 1st century B.C., the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus reported the killing of a Roman soldier who had been accused of causing the death of a cat.

[W]hoever kills a cat in Egypt is condemned to death, whether he committed this crime deliberately or not. The people gather and kill him.  An unfortunate Roman, who had accidentally killed a cat, could not be saved, either by King Ptolemy of Egypt or by the fear which Rome inspired.  [Diodorus Siculus, Library of History Bk. I, Ch. 83, §§ 8-9.]

Cambyses I, the first ruler of the 26th Dynasty and leader of the Persian army, provides further evidence of the status accorded cats in ancient Egypt during his siege of Pelusium in 500 B.C. (see Thurston v. Carter 92 A. 295 (Me. 1914)).  However, it should be noted that although the species was believed sacred, not all cats were deified.  The ancient Egyptians are also credited as being the first civilization to domesticate the cat over 3,000 years ago (see generally Michael Fox, Understanding Your Cat (1992)).  Realizing its value, the Egyptians put the cat to work protecting harvested crops from rodents and other animals.  A more complete history of the cat and its domestication is provided in the first two chapters of Bruce Fogle, New Encyclopedia of the Cat (2001). 

Throughout the centuries the domestic cat continued to be the subject of, and in some cases, subjected to various laws.   In 10th Century Wales the Laws of Hywel Dda provided many references to the domestic cat.   The three welsh codes, Venedotian, Dimetian, and Gwentian, derived from the Laws of Hywel Dda, even went as far as to assign a monetary value to the cat (see Llyfr Iorwerthm, A Critical Text of the Venedotian Code of Medieval Welsh Law (1960)).  The respectable legal status accorded the cat in early welsh law did not last for long.

In the Middle Ages the cat, in the words of the Supreme Court of Kansas, “fell to the lowest depths of superstitious disrepute.” [Smith v. Steinauf 36 P.2d  995 (Ks. 1934)]  Pope Gregory IX’s declaration of the cat as a diabolical creature created the perception that cats were the embodiment of the devil and a symbol of heresy [attributed to Pope Gregory IX’s papal bulletin, Vox in Rama (1232)]. The legal standing of the cat in Elizabethan England was no better.  Persons who kept cats were suspected of “wickedness” and were often put to death along with their cats under the authority of the Witchcraft Act, 1563, 5 Eliz. c.16 (Eng.).  Agnes Waterhouse, who owned a cat with the unfortunate name of ‘Sathan,’ was the first to be tried and executed as a witch under this law at the Chelmsford Assizes in July of 1566 (see Gregory Durston, Witchcraft and Witch Trials: A History of English Witchcraft and Its Legal Perspectives, 1542 to 1736 (2000) at 375 for a more detailed description of this trial).

Today’s laws no longer reflect the deification or superstition of cats; however they do provide some measure of protection for the animal, and increasingly they stress the rights and responsibilities of the cat owner.  Modern legal literature, both in hard copy and online, provides a wealth of material for researchers locating the law related to cats.  This article will attempt to provide a guide to some of the more useful sources of information in this area.   However, it is important to note that this is not a guide to the far broader topics of “Animal Law” and “Animal Rights.”  Both of these subjects, although obviously related to the narrower topic of “Cats and the Law,” are outside of the scope of this article.

The Legal Status of the Domestic Cat

The status of the domestic cat in common law is very clear: cats are property.  However, the common law standing of the cat has changed over the years from being one of property with no intrinsic value, to being valued chattel.  William Blackstone, in applying theories of property argued by Hobbes and Locke, provides one of the first common law definitions of the legal status of the domestic cat in his famous “Rights of Things” in 2 Commentaries On The Laws of England (U. Chicago Press 1979) (1769).  He distinguishes between animals raised for food and those “kept for pleasure, curiosity or whim [such as cats]…because their value is not intrinsic, but depending on the caprice of owners…” Further, he argues that with regard to animals classed as “domitae” (tame by nature), “[A] man may have as absolute a property as in any inanimate beings.” [2 Com. § 393]  Although the cat may have benefited from Blackstone’s assessment that it was a thing of property, it no doubt suffered from his failure to attribute any value to the animal.

The American interpretation of the legal “thinghood” of nonhuman animals was provided by James Kent in Commentaries on American Law (12th ed., 1896).  Kent considered any animal regarded as “tame” to be the subject of absolute property.   More recently, Steven Wise’s Legal Thinghood of Nonhuman Animals, 23 B.C. Envtl. Aff. L. Rev. 471 (1996) has documented the historical development of the legal status of nonhuman animals.  The standing of the cat under the law as property, and eventually the subject of larceny, has developed considerably since Blackstone’s era.  No longer are cats viewed as valueless property, instead “the domestic cat is not a thing of naught, but the property of its master, and as such, entitled to the shelter of the law.” [Agnes Repplier, The Fireside Sphinx 179 (1901) quoting an unknown 1865 decision of Monsieur Richard, Juge de Paix of Fontainebleau]

Federal Legislation & Regulations

Although state and local law applies in the areas of most concern to cat owners and those representing the welfare of cats, the following federal legislation and administrative regulations should be considered essential documents in “cat law.”

Animal Welfare Act of 1966, 7 USC § 2131 (1994).
This section of the United States Code provides for the humane care and treatment of pets, the humane treatment of animals during transportation, and the regulation of the sale of pets.
Pet Safety and Protection Act 2001, S. 668, 107th Cong. (2001).
This proposed legislation is to amend the Animal Welfare Act to ensure that all cats (and dogs) used in research facilities are obtained legally.
Animal Welfare Regulations, 9 CFR § 2.1 (2001), and 9 CFR § 3.1 (2001).
The first of these sections of the Code of Federal Regulations provides for the licensing, registration and identification of pets and animals. The latter regulates the handling, treatment, care, and transportation of cats and dogs.
Quarantine Regulations, 42 CFR § 71.51 (2001).
This regulation governs the importation of cats (and dogs), particularly with regards to the need for rabies vaccination certificates and the general health of the animal.

Many states have legislated in areas such as anti-cruelty, vaccination, abandoned animals, etc. Anmarie Barrie provides a comprehensive (although somewhat non-current) list of applicable state laws in Cats and the Law (1990). Local ordinances often dictate the registration of cats, their free movement (“running”), and the actions of local animal control authorities. Many municipalities make their ordinances available on the Internet. FindLaw.com provides access to three useful sites for locating municipal ordinances.

Landmark Cases

Common law has assisted in clarifying the legal status of the domestic cat and defining the responsibilities of the owner. The following cases have been selected as important documents in the development of cat law; however, this is by no means a comprehensive list of relevant cases.

1. Legally Defined

In Thurston v. Carter 92 A. 295 (Me. 1914) the court held that cats were considered “domestic animals” and therefore covered by statutes protecting domesticated animals. Thurston’s value to researchers of cat law lies in its use of historical common law and civil law definitions of the species. In Commonwealth v. Massini 188 A. 2d 816 (Pa. Super 1963) the court incredulously held that the cat does not fall within the state legislative definition of “domestic animal,” and that cats have “…no intrinsic value in the eyes of the law.”

2. Constitutional Law

The most recognizable cat case in modern American law is arguably Miles v. City Council of Augusta, Georgia, 551 F. Supp. 349 (S.D. Ga. 1982). Its more popular title, “The Blackie the Talking Cat Case,” featured prominently in Blackie The Talking Cat And Other Favorite Judicial Opinions (1996). The plaintiff alleged that the Augusta police insisted that in accordance with a local ordinance he be required to obtain a business license for his cat (“Blackie”) to perform on the streets of the city. The court observed “[T]hat a talking cat could generate interest and income is not surprising. Man's fascination with the domestic feline is perennial.” The court found judgment in favor of the defendant and declared the ordinance constitutionally valid.

3. Property Law

In Livengood v. Markusson, 164 N.E. 61 (Oh. 1928) the court held that the owner of a pet cat has a property right, and is therefore entitled to recover the possession of the cat by replevin proceedings. In both Ford v. Glennon 49 A. 189 (Ct. 1901) and Helsel v. Fletcher 225 P. 514 (Ok. 1924) the courts have held that a household cat should be regarded as property, although Helsel refused to accord the cat the status of valued property. In Smith v. Steineauf 36 P. 2d 995 (Ks. 1934) the court went one step further and declared “…the worth of the cat as a contributor to the felicity of the home is alone sufficient to require that it be regarded as property of the owner in the full sense of the term property.” More recently, the court in People v. Sadowski 202 Cal. App. 3d 332 (Ca. 1984) affirmed a conviction of grand theft for the taking of a cat without the owner’s permission. The courts have also held that an owner or “possessor” of a cat can claim for mental damages for harm done to their cat. In Peloquin v. Calcasieu Parish Police Jury 367 S.2d 1246 (La. Ct. App. 1979) the possessors were allowed to sue for mental injuries sustained when their cat was destroyed at an animal center. Punitive damages have been awarded in some states when defendants have intentionally or maliciously killed a cat. In particular see Wilson v. City of Eagan 297 N.W.2d 146 (Mn. 1980).

4. Cruelty

In Celinski v. State, 911 S.W.2d 177 (Tx. Ct. App. 1995) the Texas Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s conviction of the appellant for committing cruelty to two cats. Specifically, the appellant was found guilty of microwaving and poisoning the cats. See also the listings of state anti-cruelty statutes at the Animal Rights Law Center website.

5. Tort Law

In American caselaw the domestic cat has been classed as animals “mansuetae naturae,” or not predisposed to harm humans (see Bernke v. Stepp 184 P.2d 615 (Ok. 1947)). As a consequence the owners of cats are limited in the liability to which they can be subjected. However the exception to this rule is in cases where the owner (or keeper) has prior knowledge of the cat’s propensity to bite or scratch (see Rickrode v. Wistinghausen 340 N.W. 2d 83 (Mi. 1983). Also see Clark v. Brings 169 N.W.2d 407 (Mn. 1969) in which a babysitter injured by cat sought to recover from the cat’s owners. The court ruled that the injured person must prove that the particular animal was dangerous and posed a risk, and that the owners had prior knowledge of the animal’s harmful propensities. The court rejected the argument that cats be classed as “useless” animals (i.e., providing no economic utility), and instead asserted the distinction between domestic and wild animals. See also Marsalis v. LaSalle 94 S.2d 120 (La. Ct. App. 1957), and Goodwin v. E.B. Nelson Grocery Co. 132 N.E. 51 (Ma. 1921) regarding prior knowledge of a cat’s tendency to bite or scratch humans. Recently the court ruled in Spradlin v. Williams 736 N.E.2d 119 (Oh. Com. Pl. 1999) that homeowners were responsible for protecting guests (including housekeepers and other service workers) from the owner’s “dangerous” cat. However in Burton v. Landry 602 S.2d 1013 (La. Ct. App. 1992), the court determined that the homeowner was not responsible for injuries incurred by a worker in the house when the cat accidentally got “underfoot.”

6. Trespass

In the quintessential “cat and the canary” case of McDonald v. Jodrey 8 Pa. C.C. 142 (Pa. Com. Pl. 1890) the court stated that the owner of a cat is not responsible for the “predatory” habits of the species, only for the known “mischievous tendencies” of the animal. See also the landmark case of Buckle v. Holmes [1926] 2 K.B. 125 from the English Court of Appeals (Civil Division) which held that an owner of a cat is not liable for the damage caused when the cat trespasses. At the time of the decision this case aroused quite a bit of interest in the law of cats on both sides of the Atlantic (see case notes in 25 Mich. L. Rev. 207, 3 Cam. L. J. 76, and 13 Cornell L. Q. 150 for commentary on this case).

Recent Texts

Although there are few monographs specific to cats and the law (see Barrie below), there is a wide range of publications addressing the subject of “animal law” in general. A fairly comprehensive bibliography of animal law publications is available from the International Institute for Animal Law (this bibliography is also searchable on the AnimalLaw.com website). The following is a representative collection of recent (i.e., post 1995) texts of interest to cat owners and people representing the interests of cats. Although it includes some texts specific to the topic of animal law, those that are chosen are seen to be of particular relevance to cat owners and those representing the interests of cats.

AnnMarie Barrie, Cats and the Law (1990).
This 1990 publication is highlighted since it is the only text specific to the subject of cat law. Barrie provides information on many topics of interest to cat owners. Although the text is written for the layman it is still a valuable guide to the legal aspects of cat ownership.
Jordan Cornutt, Animals and The Law: A Dictionary(2001).
Although the focus of this publication is on wild animals, there is also useful coverage of domestic animals (including cats) and the laws and regulations pertaining to them.
William Wynn, It’s The Law: Pets, Animals and The Law (Forthcoming 2001).
Pamela Frasch et al., Animal Law (2000).
This recent casebook provides an introduction to the subject of animal law. It does not address the subject of animal rights, but is an excellent source of information regarding the legal status of animals (including cats) as defined by case law. Also included is an overview of state anti-cruelty statutes.
Harvard Student Animal Legal Defense Fund, Guide to Animal Law Resources (1999).
This 41-page guide is an excellent source of information related to animal law. Included in this publication are references to important animal law cases, Internet resources, and a bibliography of animal law resources.
E.P. Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (1998).
First published in 1906, this text documents the medieval belief that animals were criminally liable and thus subject to prosecution. It serves as an excellent historical treatise on the legal status of animals (including the domestic cat).
West Publishing, Blackie The Talking Cat And Other Favorite Judicial Opinions (1996).
The title case is likely to be of most interest to cat owners and representatives of cat’s interests. The rest of the publication, while entertaining, is largely not related to the subject of cat law.
Gary Francione, Animals, Property and the Law (1995).
This is an excellent resource for information on the development of the legal status of animals. The text also provides discussion of anti-cruelty statutes and “legal welfarism.”

The following self-help publications may be of use to cat owners wishing to bequeath all or part of their estate for the care and protection of cats:

  • Barry Seltzer, How to Leave Your Estate To Your Cat (2000).
  • Richard Faler, Pet-Trust: A Last Will and Testament for You and Your Pet (1998).

Periodicals

The following periodicals provide coverage of animal law in general, and occasionally discuss the rights and responsibilities of domestic animals in particular.

  • Animal Legal Defense Fund, Animal’s Advocate.

  • Northwestern School of Law of Lewis and Clark College, Animal Law (1995-).

  • State Bar of Texas, Animal Law Reporter (1999-).

Additional Secondary Sources

The major legal encyclopedic works, American Jurisprudence 2d and Corpus Juris Secundum both contain topics that may be of value to the researcher. See in particular 4 Am Jur 2d, Animals §§ 7, 116, and 3A C.J.S., Animals § 4. Also see Stuart Speiser et al., The American Law of Torts § 21.48 (1990) for a summary of the law of torts as it applies to the domestic cat. The following American Law Reports annotations and law review articles also provide valuable information on the law as it relates to the domestic cat.

  • Cheryl Bailey, Annotation, Liability for Injuries Caused by Cat, 68 ALR 4th 823 (1989).

  • Cheryl Bailey, Annotation, Liability of Owner of Operator of Business Premises for Injury to Patron by Dog or Cat, 67 ALR 4th 976 (1989).

  • James Payne, Annotation, Cat as Subject of Larceny, 55 ALR 4th 1080 (1987).

  • Jay Zitter, Annotation, Measure, Elements, and Amounts of Damages for Killing or Injuring Cat, 8 ALR 4th 1287 (1981).

  • Annotation, Construction and Application of Ordinances Relating to Unrestrained Dogs, Cats, or Other Domesticated Animals, 1 ALR 4th 994 (1980).

  • R. P. Davis, Annotation, Law as to Cats, 73 ALR 2d 1032 (1960).

  • Gerry Beyer, Pet Animals: What Happens When Their Humans Die? 40 Santa Clara L. Rev. 617 (2000).

  • Note, The Transition from Property to People: The Road to the Recognition of Rights for Non-Human Animals, 9 Hastings Women’s L. J. 255 (1998).

  • Note, In Defense of Floyd: Appropriately Valuing Companion Animals in Tort, 70 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 1059 (1995).

  • Note, Solving the Pound Animal Controversy: A Proposed Amendment to the Animal Welfare Act, 15 Vt. L. Rev. 369 (1991).

  • Peter Barton, How Much Will You Receive in Damages from the Negligent or Intentional Killing of Your Pet Dog or Cat, 34 N.Y.L. Rev 411 (1989).

  • Comment, Rights for Nonhuman Animals: A Guardianship Model for Dogs and Cats, 14 San Diego L. Rev. 484 (1977).

  • Harry Hibschman, The Cat and the Law, 12 Temp. L. Q. 89 (1937).

  • S. Alderman, Legal Status of the Cat, 20 L. Notes 204 (1917).

Organizations & Groups

There are a large number of organizations, associations and other assorted groups at the local, national, and international level providing general information and assistance to cat owners and those interested in showing cats. This includes The International Cat Association, The Cat Fanciers’ Federation, The American Association of Cat Enthusiasts, and The American Cat Fanciers Association. The following list includes only those organizations and groups providing information on legal resources for the cat owner or cat representative.

Animal Legal Defense Fund. Formed in 1979 the ALDF, which also includes a large number of law student chapters, has been “pushing the U.S. legal system to end the abuse and cruelty visited upon countless millions of animals each year.” Included on their website is a section on Legal Information and a link to the proposed Animal Bill of Rights.

American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. The APPMA was founded in 1958 as a not-for-profit association serving the interests of American pet product manufacturers and importers. The value of this website lies in its Products and the Law section which provides access to a bill tracking service (subscribers only), laws and regulations, and a variety of other information. Cat owners and their representatives may be interested in this perspective from one of the industries supplying their pets.

Animal Rights Law Project. This project, housed at the Rutgers University School of Law, focuses on all aspects of the rights of animals. Included on this site are listings of state anti-cruelty statutes, and a useful “library” of articles related to the topic of animal rights. Links to reviews of recent publications and information for animal rights activists are also included. Perhaps of most value to owners of domestic cats is the section on Companion Animals in Rental Housing. This section provides access to federal and selected state law regarding the issue of housing and pets.

Animal Welfare Institute. The AWI was founded in 1951 as a not-for-profit organization to reduce and prevent cruelty to animals inflicted by humans. The emphasis of the organization’s website is on laboratory animals and wildlife, however the organization does provide useful information on the humane transportation of animals and other issues of interest to cat owners.

American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Founded in 1866 as the first humane organization in the western hemisphere, the ASPCA is one of the world’s largest and most visible organizations representing the interests of animals and pet owners. Included on the ASPCA’s website is the “Legislative Action Center” and a current awareness section on issues and legislation. Information on recent state and federal legislation impacting animals and/or pet owners is detailed and analyzed.

The Cat Fanciers Association. The CFA, a non-profit organization, was founded in 1906. Its stated objectives include the promotion of the welfare of cats, the registration of breeds, the licensing of cats, the management of cat shows, and the promotion of the interests of breeders. The CFA Legislative Committee provides members of the public with information regarding recent animal control legislation.

The Humane Society of the United States. The Humane Society was formed in 1954. The HSUS provides an excellent Legislation section on its website for tracking federal and state legislation related to animals (both domestic and wild).

International Institute for Animal Law. The IIAL was formed as a non-profit group to provide resources for the representation of animals in legal forums around the world. The Institute’s AnimalLaw.com website provides access to “legislation and legal matters pertaining to the rights and welfare of animals.” This site includes a search engine for locating legislation and proposed legislation at the state and federal level related to animal law. Soon to appear on the site is a section for model laws related to animal rights and welfare.

National Animal Interest Alliance. The NAIA was formed to “protect and promote humane practices and relationships between people and animals.” On the organization’s website is a section on Animals and the Law. This section includes timely articles related to this topic and provides links to THOMAS and the Federal Register.

Society for Animal Protective Legislation. The SAPL was formed in 1955 as a mechanism to lobby Congress for more federal legislation to protect animals. The organization’s website includes status of current legislation affecting animal welfare, a history of federal animal legislation, and action alerts regarding new or pending legislative activity.

Miscellaneous Websites

Numerous websites devoted to the care and welfare of cats exist on the Internet. Most of them lie outside of the scope of this article, however The Cat Site should be mentioned as being one of the most extensive Internet resources for information on the species. The following sites are more specific to the law of cats.

  • The Tiger in the House. Originally written in 1922 by Carl Van Vechten, this text is now available as an e-book. Included within this publication is an informative and amusing chapter on The Cat and the Law.
  • Lemon Law for Dogs and Cats. Produced by the Better Business Bureau of New York, this site provides useful information for consumers who purchase a cat (or dog) in the state of New York.
  • Cats, There Ought’a be a Law.” Although this article focuses on feral cats and how local governments are addressing the issue, it is still useful information for all cat owners.
  • The Legal Beagle. This is a feature of a North Carolina online community for pet owners. Despite its title this column provides advice on legal matters for all pet owners.
  • The Legal Ins and Outs of Pet Ownership and Housing.” This article written by counsel for the ASPCA provides useful advice for one of the most common legal problems faced by cat owners.

Conclusion

The domestic cat is the most popular pet in the world [Discovery Online, The Ultimate Guide to House Cats]. There are approximately 73,000,000 owned cats in the United States. Three in ten, or 34,700,000, U.S. households own at least one cat. One half of cat-owning households (49%) own one cat; the remaining households own two or more cats [American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, 2001-2002 National Pet Owners Survey (2001)]. In light of these statistics it is perhaps surprising that the domestic cat has not been featured more prominently in U.S. law. However, it would be wrong to conclude that common law has ignored the cat. As this guide indicates, whether it is the application of the theory of scienter, the law of nuisance, or even landlord-tenant law, the domestic cat has played a role in our legal system.