As pet status rises in households, Idaho bar prepares its members

Anne Wallace Allen//March 20, 2014

As pet status rises in households, Idaho bar prepares its members

Anne Wallace Allen//March 20, 2014

Heather Cunningham with her dog Maisie Mae at her law office in downtown Boise. Photo by Glenn Landberg.
Heather Cunningham with her dog Maisie Mae at her law office in downtown Boise. Photo by Glenn Landberg.

Animal law is typically a low-paying specialty, the domain of lawyers willing to trade their time to help an animal.

But as pets take on a larger role in the household, and in the share of the household budget, the specialty will probably become more lucrative.

Boise lawyer Heather Cunningham said she has often taken animal-related cases because she likes animals and sometimes is the only lawyer willing to step in. The calls include such situations as arguments over pet custody, dog bites, fair housing lawsuits and disputes over the trapping or killing of a neighbor’s pet.

For example, divorces have triggered an increase in animal-related cases. Disputes between roommates, unmarried partners, and others also prompt custody cases. Custody dispute cases that involve pets are still rare, but lawyers around the country agree they’re becoming more common.

Cunningham, the chairwoman of the animal law section of the Idaho State Bar, is hosting a seminar April 10 on several aspects of animal law, including litigating family law disputes over animals. She has enlisted several speakers, including Adam P. Karp, a lawyer licensed in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, who practices only animal law at his office in Bellingham, Wash.

Cunningham, who specializes in eminent domain law at Davison, Copple, Copple & Copple, LLP, said she was amazed Karp is able to run a full practice on animal law.

“When people have problems with animals and law, most lawyers won’t talk to them because there is no money in those cases,” Cunningham said.  “That’s because the current state of the law is that a dog is treated like a vase, and so it has no market value, unless it’s some specialized breeding dog or whatever. The value of most animals, if you have even a highly papered horse, isn’t worth the cost of litigation.”

Cunningham noted that the law rarely keeps up with changes in society, and that could be the case here. While dogs used to sleep outside and cats weren’t allowed on beds, in recent years these companion animals have been treated as four-legged family members.

animal law - catAmericans spent $17 billion on pet products in 1994, and an estimated $55 billion on those products in 2013, according to the American Pet Products Association. The trade group regularly releases news and research about the health benefits of spending time with pets.

Animal law has seen a corresponding increase, at least in the area of custody disputes. According to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, which surveyed its members last month, pet custody cases have increased nationally over the last five years. The AAML found that dogs were more often the object of disputes than cats. One-fifth of the lawyers surveyed said courts allow pet custody cases more frequently than they used to. About that many respondents said courts are increasingly allowing pets to be deemed assets in a divorce.

More than a quarter of the AAML respondents said they had noticed more couples fighting over the custody of a pet in divorce cases.

Cunningham is not a matrimonial lawyer, and refers questions about custody cases and matrimonial law to Karp.

Karp said custody disputes only make up about one-fifth his work. Most of his cases involve veterinarian malpractice or disputes over dog misbehavior. He’s co-counsel for a family in Filer whose dog was shot by a police officer. At the seminar, he also plans to talk about some of the other cases that come his way, such as the obligations of the finder in a lost-and-found dispute, guidelines for when a veterinarian can put a lien on a dog for an unpaid bill, what the responsibility of the homeowner is when a neighbor’s wandering cow crashes through a garden fence.

Cunningham also works with lawmakers to strengthen Idaho’s laws against animal cruelty. She would like to see a law changed to have judges treat animals in custody cases as “quasi-property,” meaning they can take into account factors beyond market value.

The animal law section of the Idaho Bar was formed about a year ago, and includes about 40 lawyers from around the state. Cunningham said the April 10 seminar is also aimed at non-lawyers interested in animal issues. The purpose of the seminar is to bring attention to several areas in which lawyers should be paying attention to animal issues, such as including provision for pets on a will.

“I’ve done tons and tons of animal law pro bono over the years,” Cunningham said. “Part of why I am interested is educating more lawyers is to take on those cases, so I don’t get all the calls.”

The seminar is noon on April 10 at The Law Center, 525 W. Jefferson Street in Boise