Pet guardian vs. pet owner

When I mentioned my former foster dog Cosmo was doing well with his new owner, someone suggested I should’ve used the word “guardian” instead of “owner.”

Perhaps someday I will call myself a pet “guardian.” Not today.

I am very aware of the words I use to describe my relationships with my pets. I’ve used the term “foster mom” and “dog mom,” and I do so lightheartedly.

I do not really believe Ace is my child; I don’t want him to be. I do not believe my parents are his “grandparents” even though we use the term for fun.

These kinds of beliefs deprive Ace of his dog-hood. He is not a human, he is a dog. He knows he’s a dog, and he’s happy being a dog!

A cat “guardian”? Ha!

My cats are an even better example.

I love my cats very much, and one of the things I love about them is their wildness. They don’t depend on me, at least not as much as I’d like to think. Most cats could survive just fine without people.

Beamer the creme colored tabby cat closeup

Beamer is a survivor. Pure animal.

When I need a reality check, I look to him.

Beamer doesn’t need me. I am not his guardian. If he could comprehend that statement, he would probably weave around my ankles politely and say, “Oh, you poor human. It’s OK.”

When Beamer was allowed outside, he caught and killed all kinds of small animals – bunnies, mice, moles, birds. He would be gone for days, even in January. We figured he slept in window wells, under vehicles or whored his way into other homes.

We live in an area now where our cats need to be indoors or closely supervised outside. I guess we are being their “guardians” in that sense.

I know Beamer was much happier when he was allowed to roam. He was free to hunt and run and climb and have sex and scratch and kill. I look forward to the day when we move to the country so my cats can be outside again. I hope this happens sooner rather than later.

Ace

My mutt Ace, on the other hand, is very much dependent on me. Maybe that’s why people believe they are guardians of their dogs. The love I feel for Ace is different than the love I have for my cats, and I think it’s because of this dependence on me. In that sense, I am like his guardian.

In another sense, though, Ace is my guardian.

When Josh, Ace and I are out backpacking, Ace will keep us both in sight, even if we separate. If Josh is setting up a tent and I am off gathering wood or taking photos, Ace will sit somewhere in the middle, watching us. If trees block his view he will travel back and forth between us. I like to think he’s watching out for his pack, but I don’t know what he’s really doing.

It doesn’t happen often, but every now and then when we are out late at night or early in the dark mornings, Ace will spy or smell a shadowy figure and growl. Maybe he’s scared. Maybe he’s protecting me. Maybe he’s only protecting himself. I don’t know.

Would Ace fight for me? I don’t know. Would I fight for him? I already do.

I will continue to do everything I can for this dog for the rest of his life. He is in many ways my best friend. He reads me like no one else can. He predicts my movements, senses my frustrations, seems to read my mind.

Maybe part of my problem with the term “pet guardian” is that Ace is better than that. I am not his guardian. We are partners in crime.

Legally, what is a pet guardian?

Used as a legal term, “pet guardian” is an attempt to change society’s relationship with companion animals. The idea is we shouldn’t own another living creature. That all sounds nice, but legally it’s not so simple. What it really does is remove the rights of pet owners.

As a pet owner, I have the freedom to decide what is best for my pets. As a pet guardian that freedom is taken away. Choices are made for me.

A pet “guardian” is required to act in the “best” interest of an animal according to a court system. So if someone decides you are not acting in the best interest of your pet, you will be forced to act accordingly.

Think these situations will never apply to you? I wouldn’t be so sure.

What about when you face decisions about euthanasia? The choice may be made for you. What if you decide to kennel your dog during the day to keep him safe? Not going to happen if the court decides this is not “best” for your dog. What if you decide to use a choke collar? What if you want to tie your dog in the yard for an hour? Allow him to stick his head out the window of your car? Allow him off leash?

As someone who works in the pet industry as a pet sitter and dog walker, these examples are scary. If pet owners are no longer owners but “guardians” I can only imagine what my insurance costs will be. I can only imagine the lawsuits that vets, boarding kennels and groomers could potentially face. Costs will go up for everyone, and there will no longer be such a wide variety of pet services. It will be too much of a risk for business owners.

I understand where people are going with the whole “guardian” concept. I’m just not sure I want to be a part of it.

I believe in a humane life for every animal, not just dogs. I believe people should treat animals with respect and dignity and kindness. This does not mean treating them like people or assuming our emotions are their emotions. It means acknowledging them for the animals they are.

Black lab mix lying in the snow in the woods

33 thoughts on “Pet guardian vs. pet owner”

  1. Interested spin on these two distinctions. In our home, I am “mom” and my husband is “dad”. We love him like a child of ours, as much as we possibly can. It’s hard to explain to some people, but we are very aware of his “doghood” (to use your term) and enjoy keeping him as a dog and not a child. While still understanding his well being is completely in our hands – he depends on us to eat, to exercise, for companionship, and even to go potty without stressing him out by being forced to go inside (which would inevitably happen if we neglected him). In so many ways we are his guardian and it is our stewardship to look after his little life. We fight for him, we protect him, we are stern with him when needed, and we pin him down to dig thorns out of his paws or hair out of his ear.

    With all of that said, I believe, since they depend on us completely and it is our duty to make the vital and painful decisions. I am not opposed to euthanasia. If a day comes where Panzer’s quality of life is to such a point where he’s in too much pain to just function, it is my duty to protect him and to release him from that pain. What is my gauge of this? I don’t know yet, I would rather not consider it on such a young dog.

    I definitely agree more with owner and think that our rights as owners are vital. There is a fine line where an owner’s rights need to be stepped in front of, such as when an owner is not looking after the basic needs of an animal (thinking of those “Animal Cops” shows). As Panzer’s owner, it is my privilege and duty to act as his guard.

  2. Well said. I often struggle with using “owner” vs. “guardian” and I know I mostly say “owner” (laughingly…because I’m so not the one in charge) out of habit and yet can’t really see a solid reason to switch to “guardian.” I just don’t see “owner” as offensive when applied to my (very spoiled, very well cared-for) beagle. I just wanted to say that I appreciated your well thought out response.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Thanks so much! Yeah, I’m not in charge either. If I’m in charge, then why am I the one cleaning up puke and shit and drool every day? 🙂

  3. Very interesting article. As a farmer we have sheep, goats, pigs, bunnies and chickens. We also have cats and, our newest addition, a rescued puppy.

    I’ve never given it much thought, whether I am an owner or a guardian, a mom or a friend. What I do know is that I am blessed to share my life with them. While some of these animals are being raised for meat I don’t treat them any differently than those that we have raised as companions. I suppose if I had to pinpoint I would say I am a steward of the land that they live on. By making sure their property is safe and their needs are met they are capable of living a life that they are supposed to live, whatever their animal tendencies.

    We have indoor and outdoor cats. 3 of the indoor cats are holdouts from our life BF (before farming), 2 were rescued specifically to become mousers and 1 was rescued because my husband is a sucker and can’t say no to a starving bony cat nestled in a drain pipe. She too was supposed to mouse but decided she would much rather live inside, thank you very much. Our mousers roam freely during the day, but they wear geolocators, because at night, they come home to be locked safe and snug in the barn. I’m sure they are perfectly capable of surviving outside but late at night, when the coyotes howl, I nestle snugly in my bed knowing all our animals, especially the cats, are safe and secure.

    As a side note: I hope Beamer is neutered. Regardless of whether you consider yourself a pet owner or guardian it’s your responsibility to spay and neuter.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Thanks Racheal. Although I know plenty of responsible pet owners who choose not to spay or neuter their animals, all of mine are neutered.

      1. I know of a few too, Lindsay. Unfortunately, they are few and far between which is why I go with the blanket, spay and neuter statement 🙂 Again, great article, obviously got us all talking which is great!

        1. Lindsay Stordahl

          Oh gosh. I hear ya! Thanks for visiting my site and commenting! I love your site as well! I would also love to live on a farm. Can’t wait for that to happen!

  4. I’ve always found the alleged “legal” argument against guardianship lacking.

    We’ve defined a whole host of behaviors and responsibilities in a variety of ways in our legal system. It may not be the best system in all of creation, but neither is it the worse. And while I think the legalese mumbo-jumbo is just a way for those in power to confuse those without power, I think it is unfounded to presume we are incapable of defining “guardian” in a manner that permits “freedom to do what is best for one’s companion animal”.

    Your right to humanely euthanize a sick animal does not change because someone on capitol hill defines you as a guardian. That presumes there is a law in place that expressly prohibits the killing of a sick, wounded, dying animal. There is no such law. The opposite is more true than not (i.e. people have been charged with neglect for permitting such suffering to occur).

    Your right to kennel a dog does not change because someone on capitol hill defines you as a guardian. That would once again presume there is legal language expressly prohibiting the confinement of a dog in a kennel during the day.

    The problems you foresee are problems with defining “end of life care” and “confinement techniques” and “training tools”, not with calling people guardians.

    I have zero qualms with changing every single instance of “owner” in the code books to “guardian” because, guess what? The rest of the language is still the same – the law has not changed, but how we perceive nonhuman companion animals has. Nonhumans are not *ours* to do with as we see fit – that is what ownership implies. They are, however, under our direct care and their welfare and behavior is our responsibility – guardianship encompasses our entire relationship with nonhumans, not merely the significantly one-sided power imbalance of owning another life.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Good discussion, Marji. Thank you.

      The problem with being a pet “guardian” the way I understand it is that the law does take away certain freedoms from pet owners. If I am a guardian of Ace then I do not own him and I do not get to make all of the final decisions in regard to his care – that is a big problem. A court would legally have the right to make my decisions for me in regards to his care.

      Here’s a hypothetical example.

      Let’s say my 13-year-old dog gets hit by a car. He’s terrified of the vet already and I don’t want to put him through the trauma of several visits to the vet. In order to survive, he will need at least two surgeries and the cost will be at minimum $5,000. I don’t have the money. As a pet owner I might choose to euthanize my dog because I don’t want to put him through the pain and suffering and also to avoid going deeply into debt. As a pet guardian, that decision could be made for me. I may be required to do what is “best” for the dog based on what the court system decides. I may be required to pay for the surgeries, rehab, etc.

      Am I missing something?

      1. I think what is missing is how these laws are written, and that the laws are generally not significantly modified because of the terminology. I think it is a common misconception that by replacing “guardian” with “owner”, somehow the law itself changes. This is untrue.

        For example, Boulder eliminated “owner” more than ten years ago. However, their legal definition of “guardian” is “guardian means owner”. Other municipalities and cities use similar language or use guardian/owner. That means pet guardians have the same legal rights as they did when they were called pet “owners”. In fact, all of the cities that have implemented this wording change have made it clear that nothing has LEGALLY changed.

        It’s important to remember the change is symbolic. Unless new legislation is introduced that gives legal rights to law enforcement that were not present previously, nothing substantively changes if “owner” is replaced with “guardian”. The change that needs to occur to address your particular scenario would affect codes or ordinances that apply to “animal cruelty” or “animal neglect”, not “guardianship”.

        In your hypothetical example, if you lived in any of the cities (Boulder, Marin county, West Hollywood, etc) that currently use “guardian” instead of “owner”, no you would not be forced to do anything because of the name change. You still have the legal rights of an “owner”, but you are just now called a “guardian”. Nothing in these laws have changed. If someone is taking you to court, it is not because you are a “guardian”.

        On the flip side, let’s say you live in a city where you are defined as an “owner”. If you withheld treatment, you may be charged with neglect. If you knowingly caused undue suffering, you may be charged with cruelty. The same would be true if you lived in a city where you are defined as a “guardian”. The penalty will not have changed. The law will not have changed. Whether you are called an “owner” or a “guardian” does not change the legal penalties if your behavior qualifies as neglect or cruelty.

        You might be interested in this paper: http://sjalp.stanford.edu/pdfs/Hankin.pdf – it discusses the very issue you bring up. I think it’s pretty balanced.

        1. Lindsay Stordahl

          Let’s just say there is legally no difference between the two. Then there is no reason to use the term guardian. If someone is treating his dog poorly, he is not going to change his behavior just because he is now considered a guardian vs. owner.

          I will make sure to read the paper you mentioned later this week.

          1. Legally, there is no difference- provided the laws are not changed in other ways. Simply changing owner to guardian has no legal significance and is purely symbolic.

            That said- symbols have POWER. Let’s say all laws referring to children were changed to make parents “owners”. Nothing else is changed- just that single word. You would still have the same rights and obligations to your child as you currently do, but now you get to say you ‘own’ him or her until they are 18.

            It would be symbolic, but it would over time change how society thought of children and their parents. There would be influence on attitudes- not just on the parents and kids, but on the government level Future laws may take a different course than they otherwise might have. It would also serve to codify how overall society is meant to view the relationship.

            Symbols can be quite powerful things. It would be interesting to look at areas that have redefined owner to guardian in say, 50 years, and compare abuse and adoption rates to areas still using ‘owner’.

            For the record- I don’t care if I’m called a guardian or an owner. At the end of the day what I am is RESPONSIBLE for my pets. Which has nothing to do with how well they can handle themselves, and everything to do with my level of commitment to their care. My level of commitment to my blind feral cat is the same as my level of commitment to my sighted cat. It’s also the same as my level of commitment to my fish. By choosing to have them in my life, I chose to be responsible for them – and responsibility is an all or nothing game. You either are or you aren’t.

          2. Sure there is, in my opinion. Think of the emotions associated with guardian versus owner. Think of the recipient of those emotions.

            When I think of my relationship with Mina and Celeste, I have positive feelings and associations with being their guardian. Being their “owner” discomfits me, as I have a hard time with the concept of owning another living being, be they human or nonhuman.

            It puts dogs and other nonhumans on the same level as inanimate objects, like cars and tables and rugs. I am not a guardian of a rug; I do not care if a rug is unraveled or dirtied or thrown out – the owner of a rug has no legal responsibility to provide good care to that rug.

            Language matters. How we talk about those sentient, living beings around us matters. When we shift how we refer to them – when we start calling them “she” and “he” and “them” instead of “it” and “what” and “that”, we start recognizing them as beings with interests, feelings and desires of their own. And when we start shifting how we refer to our relationship with those animals, I think that matters. It’s role modeling.

            I’m not going to champion the cause of guardianship in the legal system, because it’s just not top on my list of problems with our interactions with nonhumans. Like you, I will choose how I refer to myself and the animals in my life…and I am choosing guardianship.

  5. Terrific post. I have not even heard of this idea to change the label from pet owner to pet guardian, so guess I’m out of the loop on this one. It was interesting reading the comment from Marji. I don’t see a problem calling myself a dog owner. And changing the label to guardian will not change how I see or treat my animals. Will it change how some people see or treat their animals? I doubt it. I guess it’s all semantics, but I think we have “bigger fish to fry” than this one and to me, the label pet owner is not offensive.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      There are all kinds of laws meant to help animals that end up making life worse for them. A good example are the mandatory spay/neuter laws that exist in some cities. It sounds good, but most people truly want to spay/neuter their pets. The don’t because they can’t afford it or they lack the transportation to get there. What ends up happening is because they can’t afford the sterilization surgery, they either surrender their animals or they have their animals taken from them. These animals are taken to the pounds where many of them are killed. Cities and counties with mandatory spay/neuter laws end up killing MORE animals than before the laws were in place.

      Brilliant!

  6. I haven’t commented in a while, and I feel bad about that.
    In response to Marji, no matter what common sense says (and I agree that common sense says we should be able to define things in a reasonable matter) “gaurdian” and “owner” are already defined legal terms. The way the law works, “guardian” always has the same meaning, whether you are referring to a guardian of children, guardian of an adult who is not capable of making decisions, or guardian of an estate. There are specific responsibilities that go with every one of those things, but the word guardian also means that you are not the owner, you are not the final decision maker, that others (specifically the court system) has every right to overrule your decisions if they believe that for whatever reason you did not act in the best interest of whatever you are guardian of.
    And let’s be very clear in this. You could have acted in the best interest of your entire family as a whole, but if you did not act in the best interest of the thing you are specifically guardian of, then you are subject to being overruled by court decisions and possibly fines or imprisionment.
    Guardian has a very specific legal meaning. And like Lindsay, it’s not one I want applied to my relationship with my dogs.
    Am I their owner? It certainly feels more like they own me. But legally, I need to be their owner. There is a reason that legally, you are rarely the “guardian” of your spouse or your children. However, you are considered their owner. Or put more properly, your spoude and children are considered your property. (This used to be wives and children were considered property of the husband, the definition has expanded a bit.)
    Being an owner not only gives you expanded rights to make decisions (unlike being a guardian), it also gives you expanded rights in protecing your “property”, and gives you greater legal recourse when something happens to that property.

    I don’t mind changing the vernacular, though I most often call myself a dog mom. I am well aware that it is very different from being a mom to a human child. (I can’t crate the kids while I’m at work 😉 ) But when it comes to the legal, there needs to be full consideration of what terms mean and what the precedents are.
    Legally, I have every intention of remaining my dogs’ owner. But you can use whatever word you want to describe that relationship.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I always know I’m on the right track when you agree with me. The most important point could be exactly what you said, that you can use whatever word you want to describe the relationship with your dog. Some people prefer “servant”!

    2. I really appreciate your comment here, and the simple statement of guardian not being a term that you want applied between you and your dog. Maybe I’m off base, but I can’t help but think of livestock. In farming areas, if I kill a cow with my car, I owe the owner all of the income that that cow could have provided and if it’s a male, wow, all of the income his seed could have provided too. Would this be offered to a guardian of a cow? No way.
      So what’s the difference between a dog and livestock?

    3. More than a dozen cities have changed “owner” to “guardian”. They have chosen to define guardian in different ways, but almost exclusively the cities have defined guardian as an owner. Some use it interchangeably (e.g. guardian/owner). I don’t think any of the cities that have implemented the change have defined guardian in a different manner as they did an owner.

      That is to say, these cities do not define “guardian” in the same manner as a “guardian of a minor” or “guardian of an estate”.

  7. I don’t think ownership carries lessened responsibility than guardianship. People can have sentimental or emotional connections to inanimate objects and care for them extremely well. To me, to own means “to have,” and to maintain high standards of care for anything that falls into that category.

    1. I agree. I actually wouldn’t have nearly as much a problem with the word “guardian” if it didn’t bear with it the connotation that being an owner was somehow “less fit” than being a guardian.

      I own my dog — I selected him out of many other candidates and I paid for him (or rather, I paid the fees of the rescue organization. But the fact that I consider myself a dog owner does not lessen or trivialize the immense sense of responsibility, care, companionship and friendship that I have with this amazing living creature.

      This connects with a previous post, about rehoming a dog. I commented there that I agreed with Lindsay that there are legitimate reasons to rehome a dog (I won’t repeat all the reasons/scenarios here). As a guardian it would be an immense failure on my part to rehome, but as an owner, I see it as one aspect of responsible pet ownership. But that is a crucial difference between dogs and kids — only in the *most* dire of circumstances would I separate myself from my kids (e.g., sending children to live with family due to extreme violence/war/poverty).

      1. Lindsay Stordahl

        That’s a good point that no one brought up, and I strongly agree with you. Sometimes it is best to re-home an animal. There is already enough negativity surrounding the idea of “giving up” a dog. The term guardian implies that pets are for life. That is not necessarily a good thing for the dogs or the humans.

      2. I think this is one of the reasons people want the term changed. Not to make you feel guilty if you HAD to, but to make people feel like pets are less disposable. You say that just the change of term would change your feeling about re-homing a pet. It is a hope that changing the term would make people less likely to dump pets in the street when they no longer want them.
        When you own something, when you you no longer care to have it, you just discard it. When you are the guardian of something, then you are to take care of it and it is a different mentality.
        Sometimes it is best to re-home a pet, but maybe with a shift in mindset people would think about it more and if they had to, do so in a more responsible manner than many do now.

        1. Lindsay Stordahl

          If someone believes animals are disposable, I’m not sure it would make a difference to that person whether the term was “guardian” or “owner.” But I know what you mean, and that is one of the reasons behind the change.

  8. I like the term ‘pet parent’. Whatever you call it, it’s what is in your heart that matters. If I happen to say ‘owner’, it doesn’t mean I feel any differently about my relationship to animals or my responsibilities. An abuser calling herself a guardian wouldn’t be any less inclined to abuse animals either. Her issues run way deeper than a label.

    We get way too hung up on terms and labels, in my opinion, placing too much importance on what they’re supposed to mean and then pass baseless judgements. There are bigger problems to get all worked up about than finding offense where none was intended.

    As for legalities, the law defines the terminology, not the other way around. 🙂

  9. Interesting blog entry. My initial thoughts were the use of “mom” or “dad,” or some other type of parental title (“mommy,” “daddy,” etc.) While I’ll put a backpack or a coat on my dog if it’s too cold, I do not dress him up like some doll or kid. I really dislike when people call me “Jeffrey’s mommy.” ugh! I’m NOT his mother! I’m his owner! And Jeffrey is my DOG! If I wanted kids, I would have had them. I have a dog. I have a cat. I’m their owner and they are under my charge and care, but they’re not my children, nor are they my substitute children (since I don’t have children, nor do I want them.)

    I think that’s the only thing that gets me as a pet owner. I don’t correct the vet or vet techs when I take them for a visit, but I have told friends and family that the dog is my dog, not my kid and I’m not their mother. It’s just so odd to me when people do that. Odder still are those who dress their dogs up like some doll or play thing.

    BTW, I get the philosophical discussion over “owner” and “guardian,” and how we don’t “own” another life or living creature. And there are great discussions on here regarding the legality of owning animals, etc. I won’t go into that because I’m not a lawyer. The only thing I can say is that the law states right now that I am their owner and responsible for their behavior, and I’ll leave it at that.

    I don’t consider my dog or cat an object, but I do consider myself their “owner” rather than “guardian.” If anything, technically, I’m their “care taker,” since I’m not really guarding them, but I do walk the dog, clean and feed them, and clean out the cat’s litter box. That’s more of a care taker role rather than “guardian.” It is especially true when they are ill (as my cat is diabetic and I give him shots 2x/day.)

    That said, “owner,” “guardian,” “care taker,” “pet parent,” whatever, all of that is splitting hairs and playing semantics. It is whatever the person is comfortable with (like I am NOT comfortable with “mommy” and HATE being referred to as such). By the same token, if someone tells me they’re their dog’s “mommy,” and they dress up the dog, well, I’m not going to tell them how to relate to their dog, even thought it’s not what I would do. It’s not *MY* relationship. All I need worry about is my relationship with my dog and cat (and fish!) and my boyfriend and how we “run” our pack.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      It’s a difficult subject, but you summed it up quite well! Really, it’s up to each person to decide her own relationship with her own pets. Care giver is probably a good term.

      I totally put Halloween costumes on my cats last year. Don’t hate me 🙂

  10. Thanks for telling me about this post. I enjoyed it and the comments following even more. Great discussion topic. I’m a pet owner, a fur mom and a dog mom. Guardianship is something that is very new to me. I’m not comfortable with the PC’ness of these terms, but the legalities are fascinating.

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