Guardian, owner, dog mom, pet parent: What’s in a name?

October 27, 2010

After my rant last week about the term “pet parent,” I got to thinking about how much the language we use to describe our relationship with pets has changed just in my lifetime. And it turned into this week’s column on

Are you your cat’s owner? Your dog’s mom? Guardian? Caretaker? Pet parent?

There’s been something of a revolution in how we describe the relationship between people and the dogs and cats who share their homes. The once-common term “owner” has fallen out of favor — maybe not so much in newspapers, where it still seems to reign supreme, but in just about every other arena, including the legal one, “owner” is increasingly rare.

The trend against “owner” hit the big time in 2000 when Boulder, Colo., changed its local ordinances to use the term “guardian” instead of owner when describing pets. Boulder was soon joined by the California cities of Berkeley and West Hollywood, then towns in Arizona, Massachusetts and Wisconsin, as well as the entire state of Rhode Island. San Francisco made the switch in 2003.

The movement to call owners “guardians” has not been without controversy. Those who oppose it, notably veterinary organizations like the American Veterinary Medical Association, worry that it will lead to a rise in lawsuits, particularly in the area of malpractice. Others believe it’s the first step in an animal rights campaign to elevate animals to the status of humans under the law.

Politics and philosophy aside, many pet owners simply don’t like the word. I’m one of them; it sounds legalistic and patronizing. Even if it’s the wave of the future for ordinances and statutes, I’m never going to run into a dog park friend whose name I don’t know at the supermarket and say, “Hi there! You’re Bandit’s guardian, right?”

Read the rest here. And yes, the whole thing was just an excuse to use that picture of me lovin’ on Lita the pitty puppy again!

Filed under: pets, connected — Christie Keith @ 9:26 am


  1. Excellent article Christie. The term pet parent does seems similar to calling all dogs Fido and all cats Fluffy…marketing verbigage that doesn’t mean anything significant other than to play with people’s emotions (just like calling products green, human grade or organic…sorry another rant for another time). On a personal note, I’m not a big fan of the term “furr baby” it reminds me too much of the Gremlins knock off Furbies. :+)

    Comment by Jason Merrihew — October 27, 2010 @ 10:12 am

  2. I am my dogs’ personal assistant, mentor and activities director, a description I stole from someone else.

    Comment by Kim Thornton — October 27, 2010 @ 11:17 am

  3. The term “owner” is not rare in the law. It is the norm. “guardian” is the rare exception.

    In his book, “Redemption”, attorney and animal advocate Nathan Winograd writes about 19th century NYC:

    “Every year for a ninety-day period beginning in June, the New York City pound opened its doors to round up stray dogs with the help of
    local boys and men. The payment of fifty cents for each dog brought to the pound led to a profitable trade in dogs. ”

    “Stray or not, dogs were rounded up off the street, from yards, and from people’s arms, and turned into the pound. At the time, it was
    not possible to punish the thieves, because many courts hold that dogs were not property under the statistics for larceny.”
    – Nathan Winograd, “Redemption”, page 9.

    Classifying dogs as property helped put a stop to this kind of horror. It empowered law enforcement authorities to intervene and stop these thieves, and return dogs to their homes. So history shows that a classification of dogs as property increased protections for dogs.

    Some claim that classifying dogs as property enables owners to do whatever they want to their dogs, including acts of neglect or
    cruelty. This is simply NOT true. Laws prohibiting animal neglect, animal cruelty, and dog fighting have coexisted for many years at the same time dogs have been considered property in the eyes of the law.

    Dog owners are not free to commit asks of neglect or cruelty against their dogs, or to engage in dogfighting, not in any state in America.

    By classifying dogs as the property of their owners but also establishing limits against animal neglect, animal cruelty, and dogfighting, dogs are legally protected against both the acts of their owners and the acts of others.

    Guardianship opens up a Pandora’s box of confusion about the legal status of dogs. If we don’t “own” our dog then there’s no criminal
    larceny if a stranger steals him/her. Guardianship removes a protection that we take for granted, and sets the clock back more than 100 years to a time when dogs could be stolen from their owners with no legal repercussions.

    Guardianship undermines the ability of a dog’s owner to sue for damages in civil court if someone harms or kills their dog, which legally is damage to one’s property. In this way, guardianship weakens another existing legal protection for dogs.

    Guardianship is well-intentioned, but it creates a legal quagmire.

    Guardianship does nothing to protect dogs. It does the opposite, by weakening existing protections for dogs.

    Comment by LauraS — October 27, 2010 @ 11:57 am

  4. I think you should use that picture whenever possible. It’s so sweet!

    Comment by PJ — October 27, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

  5. City councils can declare people to be “guardians” all they want, it doesn’t change their status (stati?) as owners under the law.

    Believe me, when the dingus city council member who “feels” that “animal rights” is a great thing because she wuvs Mr. Fluffypants gets bitten by the neighbor’s dog, that dog is going to have an *owner* whose homeowner’s policy is going to be invoked.

    Comment by H. Houlahan — October 27, 2010 @ 5:50 pm

  6. Hi,I Dont think that I am the mum to my beautiful
    darling Lola (a 17 month old German Shepard/Rottie
    cross, but you see they are given to us to be our
    children,they come to us to heal our pain so we must let them go to be with other people who need
    them,I have had 2 beautiful souls taken from me over the last 12years 1 from cancer the other from a stroke, both rescue dogs,(as is my Lola).I love them to much if the truth be told but
    Thats my way.but I still know they are dogs so I respect them as much as a person can,(All I Want is the people that abuse and hurt any animal to be dealt with the same way they treated the Animals they Mistreated)GOD WILL ALWAYS TAKE THEM TO HIS HEART AND THEY WILL NEVER FEEL PAIN AGAIN.

    Comment by gem lomath — October 29, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

  7. I OWN my dogs, they are my PROPERTY! I love and care for them, I call them my babies,I see to it they have medical care and shelter and good wholesome food. But make no mistake, I OWN them.
    A guardian has no legal rights of ownership, therefore a dog can be taken from them, and they have NO recourse under the law.
    Dogs are NOT people they are animals..loved and cared for YES, but animals none-the-less. They do not have rights. Only human beings can have rights, because only human beings make laws, enforce them and understand what rights MEANS..
    As human beings it is incumbant upon US to care for those who cannot care for themselves..pets fall into this category. There are laws to see to it that we give them proper shelter, food and when required, medical attention.
    I am a dog OWNER and I will not be referred to as their Guardian..they guard me and my home if there is a threat to either.

    Comment by Darlene — October 30, 2010 @ 8:21 am

  8. “guardian” vs ” owner” has very complicated legal and political issues, far more complicated then you mention. Big deal that you dont like the sound of guardian. Some people dint want to call black people African Americans, and were reducing then to a property.
    You have to look at the bigger picture: what will be better for society and for animals. May be legal responsibilities that will come with the change of the term will result issues as animal abandonment and failure to treat them because guardians may be obligated to cover the cost. But at the same time in a long run it will fix the problem of puppy mills, animal fighting, excessive overbearing.

    To: Laura S.
    If you are a guardian of the dog and your dog is stolen, the person will be prosecuted by STATE and will be punished. You fail to mention that in “Redemption” Nathan Winograd tell a history of a founder of ASPCA, who was the one to push a law about animal welfare.His goal was not to make animals your property, but to give them some kind of protection from abuse.

    To: Darlene.
    You clame that animals have no rights. Dont you think that the only conclusion that one can make from you statement is that ONE is allowed to do whatever he is pleased to an animal. Yes animals can not make law (hello, they dont have human voice to speak, and they dont have thumbs to write) but people can create laws to protect a living breathing being. Unfortunately, most of us ( you clearly belong to this category) think they we are superior being, and are so scared to be “downgraded” to an animal level. May be if we overcome this fear, we will be able to respect and treat animals as a being, who feels pain, who needs care.

    sorry for my spelling .. was in a rush

    Comment by gala — November 3, 2010 @ 11:40 am

  9. Gala – could you please explain to us stupid folk how exactly a name change will cause things to change??

    How a name change will provide more funds for *existing* laws to be enforced?

    How a name change will allow for more funds to hire more people to actually investigate and prosecute animal abuse?

    How a name change will provide the impetus to the court system to hand out stricter sentences for animal abuse?

    How a name change will actually, once and for all, define “abuse” in a way that everyone agrees on?

    Because I can see how money and education can have those effects, but not simply a change in terminology.

    No more than a change to “African American” caused racism and inequality to disappear.

    Comment by K.B. — November 3, 2010 @ 3:03 pm

  10. Dear K.B,
    Oh, no no , I do not assume that the change of terminology by itself will change the attitude and behavior. But it’s a good start. “Guardian” has to become a legal term that bares legal responsibilities and has to be enforced by law.

    You make a great point that education and money have a great power to change things. 100% agree. I am not suggesting to substitute educational programs with a change of a “guardian” term. It is simply a supplement that can help enforce the law to protect animals and to prosecute those who mistreat them.

    I am not delusional, I know it is far from happening any time soon. But I have to admit, it is hard for me to fathom that people who care for animals would disapprove the change because they dont like the way “guardian” sounds. Hard to justify a decision of an animal lover to be against this campaign. Who I DO expect to be against is a big-buck business, like American Cannel Club, who ,by the way, do oppose the term change. From their website “The American Kennel Club supports the use of the term “owner” rather than “guardian” when referring to the keeping of dogs. The AKC believes that the term guardian may in fact reduce the legal status and value of dogs as property and thereby restrict the rights of owners, veterinarians, and government agencies to protect and care for dogs.” Doesn’t make any sense to me. Does it to you?
    Now lets see why they REALLY are against the change! If the “guardian” term does, in fact, becomes legal, it has a great potential of reducing the demand for dogs ( which will be ideal for solving the problem of overpopulation in a long run, as it will stop a lot of irresponsible people from having one in the first place) . As you know, decrease of demand = decrease of supply. less breeding, less puppy mills.
    And what will that mean for a Kennel Club? LESS MONEY! If you wonder how? this will explain: “Puppy mills comprise 80% of the AKC’s business. It registered 917,247 puppies in 2003 at the cost of approximately $25.00 per puppy.”

    would love to hear what you think

    again, sorry for spelling, like always in a rush

    Comment by gala — November 5, 2010 @ 4:58 pm

  11. “Puppy mills comprise 80% of the AKC’s business. It registered 917,247 puppies in 2003 at the cost of approximately $25.00 per puppy.”

    Comment by gala

    Citation, please? Where did that figure come from?

    While the AKC has make it shamefully clear that it supports high-volume breeders for the pet market — something that the people who compete in AKC sports DO NOT agree with, by the way — their motives are a little more complicated than just registration income.

    I don’t necessary agree with their point of view, and actually, I don’t personally care that much about this debate, for the reason Heather Houlahan cites upstream:

    City councils can declare people to be “guardians” all they want, it doesn’t change their status (stati?) as owners under the law.

    Believe me, when the dingus city council member who “feels” that “animal rights” is a great thing because she wuvs Mr. Fluffypants gets bitten by the neighbor’s dog, that dog is going to have an *owner* whose homeowner’s policy is going to be invoked.

    Comment by H. Houlahan — October 27, 2010

    Comment by Gina Spadafori — November 5, 2010 @ 5:22 pm

  12. gala, it is a crime to steal somebody’s property and because my dog is legally my property that’s why I could get my him back and have the offender criminally prosecuted if somebody stole my dog.

    If the guardian movement succeeds locally, next stop will be state legislatures where the property status of dogs would be upended.

    African-American, black, negro, colored — these terms are/were popular usages.

    The guardian movement is not about changing popular usage, it’s about fundamentally changing the legal status of dogs.

    Guardians do not have the legal rights that owners have. And that’s the point. These terms have defined meanings under the law.

    AR groups want to redefine us as guardians of our dogs in part so that dogs become wards of the state, and no longer OUR dogs. AR groups conveniently get laws passed to give humane societies and SPCAs quasi police powers over animal issues. They want our rights reduced to those of mere guardians in order to increase their power to seize and resell our dogs.

    Comment by LauraS — November 5, 2010 @ 8:51 pm

  13. LauraS, you are deploying logic against someone who is immune to it–someone who thinks that the way to decrease dog “overpopulation” is to make having a dog less attractive and thus to decrease the number of homes that will acquire dogs.

    Comment by Lis — November 6, 2010 @ 7:33 am

  14. TO: LauraS….could you please explain why would SPCA need YOUR dog and who are they going to resell it?

    Comment by Gala — December 6, 2010 @ 9:47 pm

  15. Yuck.

    Comment by The OTHER Pat — March 27, 2011 @ 1:19 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment


Recent Posts

Recent Comments


website design by Black Dog Studios