Pets: Family or property?

ANIMALS are living organisms of non-human being. Since time immemorial, humans and animals have always lived alongside one another in every aspect of life.

Almost every household have animals to be kept as pets namely cats and dogs or even rabbits, for example. Having said that, there is a grey area as to the real legal status of a pet.

Tradition of the Roman Law conferred the idea of dividing all the world’s entities into two categories – persons and things.

A general view would perceive pets as a property rather than an individual for they do not have the same legal status as humans.

However, what of the instance for families who do not regard their pet as a property but rather, as an additional family member who holds deep sentimental value? What will transpire if this additional little furball family member being taken away?

As reported in the news on September 2022, a bizarre abduction incident involving an emotional support cat named Snow happened in Sarawak.

According to a Facebook post by the Malaysia Animal Association, the owner found her cat missing and had appealed to the public for help through social media. However, the owner received a message from an unknown number on WhatsApp.

The unknown person claimed to have abducted the cat while including photos and videos of Snow and had demanded RM 6,000 as ransom or Snow will be thrown into a nearby river.

The owner lodged a police report and urged the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to intervene but to no avail, with a police offer urging the owner not seek out the cat.

The owner had also approached MCMC to get the phone number belonging to the kidnapper traced, that which the initial investigating officers claimed would be hard to detect.

However, the owner was told that MCMC can only deal with the investigating officers of the case.

In response to this matter, the Malaysia Animal Association had urged the authorities to act for it is a serious crime that must be eradicated.

On top of the incident being a first to be reported in Malaysia, there is an absence of provision under the Animal Welfare Act 2015 addressing the issue of abduction or kidnapping of pets.

Therefore, a question arises on whether there is a precedent action taken by other states on this pertinent matter.

Looking through the international lenses, in 2021, the United Kingdom (UK) was working on an effort to criminalise pet abduction in light of pet theft reports amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the UK Government’s Pet Theft Taskforce, the new crime will prioritise the welfare of pets as sentient beings, recognise the emotional pain to the animal and its owner and recognise that pets are cherished as more than just pieces of property.

In addition, it is important to note that the move which is to be tabled under the Kept Animal Bills is imposed upon pet dogs only.

Referring to the jurisprudence view, Aristotle opined that human could behave rationally compared to animals who lacked such rational attributes and so are unable to direct their actions. As such, animals shall be treated as instruments for human beings.

Development happened, which saw moral philosopher and author Peter Singer arguing that intelligent humans cannot claim a superior position compared to animals.

(Pic credit: ProductNation)

However, Singer allows animals to be exploited as in animal testing, noting that it could be justified if an experiment on a small number of animals can cure a disease that has affected tens of thousands.

These days, the centre of animal rights theory makes reference to Tom Regan’s “The Case of Animal Rights” whereby author rejected utilitarianism and embraced the “subject-of-a-life” principle which cares about inherent value that could be found in a large majority of animals which thus make them equal among all beings.

Overall, it can be said that animals are the intermediate of two status that could defind themas a person or a property. This is because animals – especially pets – hold an emotional value to a person.

For instance, in the aforementioned case of Snow the cat, if the owner were to get a new cat to replace the missing Snow, the value and memories will not be the same as the new cat is an entirely different feline altogether. Therefore, replacing a cat will not be the same as replacing a broken television or a table.

However, it does not change the fact that an animal is a property in the eyes of the law in most nations, whether it is private property or property that belongs to no one.

Ultimately, the question remains on the future paradigm of jurisprudence in recognising the legal status of an animal especially pets in a reasonable way so as to ensure every case could bring adequate justice to every living being. – Jan 5, 2023


Sarah Idris Izham is a third-year law student at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) while Dr Nabeel Mahdi Althabhawi is a senior lecturer attached to the public varsity.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.


Main pic credit: IAMS Malaysia

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