To their owners, pets are part of the family — not mere commodities.
Legally speaking, it's murkier than that.
On Tuesday, a federal judge will hear oral arguments on a proposal that would bring to $32 million the amount pet food makers and distributors would pay to settle hundreds of lawsuits over contaminated pet food that last year killed or sickened thousands of animals.
The arguments are likely to delve into the legal status of pets.
One pet owner, Donna Elliott, of Fries, Va., for instance, sent U.S. District Judge Noel Hillman a picture of her late boxer, Abby.
"How do you answer the statement on the claim form, what was the value of your pet?" she asked. "My companion was everything in the world to me."
Like others who objected to the details of the settlement, she implored Hillman to launch a criminal probe of the companies involved.
The case began in March 2007, when Streetsville, Ontario-based Menu Foods Income Fund, recalled millions of containers of pet food that were believed to be sickening pets suddenly and by the thousands. Menu's products are sold under some 90 different brand names.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration later found that the food contained melamine, a chemical used to make plastics. The chemical was traced to contaminated wheat gluten imported from China.
Hundreds of pet owners sued.
In April, lawyers representing more than 200 named plaintiffs and dozens of companies announced they had struck a deal for pet owners in the United States and Canada.
Owners would be able to be reimbursed for medical expenses, euthanasia, burials, the cost of replacement pets and other costs. Even those who did not keep any receipts for either the pet food or the costs of the pets' illness and death could get up to $900 per animal.
Plaintiffs' lawyers in the case are requesting payments of $6 million from the fund.
If any money is left after all plaintiffs are paid, it would go to animal-welfare charities.
But the agreement did not include any money for the humans' pain and suffering from injuries to their pets.
In one court filing this month, the parties that struck the settlement explained: "This settlement does not pretend to do what it cannot — which is to make people fully whole for their incomprehensible losses," the filing said. "The settlement is, however, a reflection of strenuous efforts to secure the maximum economic relief available."
Notices of the settlement went in ads in publications from People magazine to Cat Fancy magazine.
As of Sept. 30, more than 9,500 people in the United States and Canada had made claims, while just over 100 people had preserved their rights to sue separately. Relatively few — 28 — had filed objections to the settlement.
But it's the objectors who might be most passionate.
One, Deborah Hook of Half Moon Bay, Calif., said her cat Boo was her best friend. She sent Hillman a copy of a memorial she'd written to the feline and a petition signed by more than 200 people asking for a criminal case to be brought against the pet food companies.
It was not clear whether Hillman might give final approval for the settlement on Tuesday.
People who want to make claims have until Nov. 24 to submit their information.