Are you an owner or a guardian?

A debate has been raging for years over the proper terminology to use when describing the relationship of a person to his or her pet....

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Mar 3rd 2008


A debate has been raging for years over the proper terminology to use when describing the relationship of a person to his or her pet. Historically, animals have been regarded as property in the eyes of the law. Therefore, people with pets have been called pet owners.

However, a growing number of people feel that the word “owner” does not do justice to the relationship between a person and a pet. Adherents to this school of thought often prefer the word “guardian.” They argue, quite reasonably, that people form intense emotional bonds with their pets, and that this relationship deserves a unique title. They point out thatmost people love their pets. Nobody I know would say that love their dishwasher or their sofa.

Members of the owner camp retort that calling oneself a pet guardian may have unintended consequences for people and pets. They point to the example of adults who are guardians of children, and claim that guardianship carries responsibilities that ownership does not. For instance, the owners of a sick pet can refuse veterinary treatment if they cannot afford it. The guardian of a child would go to prison if he declined medical treatment for the same reason.

Proponents of pet ownership ask what would happen in these circumstances if pet owners became pet guardians? And how would the change in terminology affect the availability of procedures such as spaying, neutering, and euthanasia? They point out that a child’s guardian cannot have him sterilized or put to sleep. Would an animal’s guardian be able to do these things?

As a veterinarian, this issue is a minefield for me. Pet guardians are offended if I call them owners. Owners think I am crazy if I call them guardians. I try to avoid both terms.

For now, the proponents of pet ownership hold sway in most quarters. But the guardian camp is gaining momentum. The guardians make some valid points, and I suspect that in the long run, if they can resolve the issues listed above, they will carry the day. Only time will tell.