Personhood for Pets? How the Human-Animal Bond Has Evolved

Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
/ Source: Live Science

Since humans first domesticated cats and dogs, these furry friends have taken on increasingly important roles in people's lives. Now, a growing movement aims to recognize Fido and Felix not just as pets, but also as legal citizens.

"It's kind of remarkable when you think about how theoretically different these animals are from us," David Grimm, author of "Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs," told Live Science. "Our last common ancestor with [dogs and cats] was probably more than 100 million years ago. Yet it's these two animals we've formed the closest association with."

A guest embraces a chihuahua during a birthday party for Camila, a one-year-old Dachshund, at Pet Central spa in Mexico City, Mexico.Rebecca Blackwell / AP

Journey to personhood

Today, there are animal anti-cruelty laws in all 50 U.S. states, with penalties that include fines or prison time. But they're still considered property, "no different from a toaster in the eyes of the law," he said.

Now, a growing effort seeks to grant personhood to animals, including cats and dogs. Driving this movement is an increasing awareness of animal intelligence and their emotional capabilities.

Research on the canine mind has exploded in recent years, Grimm said. Dogs can understand pointing, an ability that chimpanzees lack, and research also suggests dogs are capable of empathy, and perhaps even abstract thought.

Cats are much harder to study, because as any cat owner knows, it's tough to get a cat to do what it's told. However, cats are known to be intelligent creatures too, Grimm said.

Yet not everyone supports the push to treat animals as fellow citizens.

Veterinarians worry about malpractice lawsuits, which could become even more costly if animals were granted personhood. Scientists worry that recognizing pets as legal persons could make it impossible to use animals in research, where they are used for basic science and for testing clinical treatments. Farmers are also concerned that if dogs and cats were considered "people," cows and chickens could be next — a move that could put an end to the livestock industry.

On a personal level, Grimm, a cat owner himself, marveled at how much humans' relationship with cats and dogs has changed over time. "Ten thousand years ago, [a cat] was a wild animal that would rip your face off if you got too close," he said. "Now, it's purring in your lap."

- Tanya Lewis, Live Science

This is a condensed version of an article that appeared on Live Science. Read the entire story here. Follow Tanya Lewis on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+.

Copyright 2014 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.