...Even before the recent pet-food scare, legal experts say there has been a growing legal recognition of pets' value. Today 42 states have made cruelty to animals a felony, compared with seven states that had felony provisions before 1994, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund. In 2000, Tennessee created a statute allowing noneconomic damages if a pet is killed or injured by negligence, though caps them at $5,000. And recent civil judgments have nodded to people's emotional attachment to their pets: A default judgment last year in Washington state awarded a man $50,000 for the intrinsic value of his cat, Milton, and an additional $25,000 for emotional distress after Milton was killed by a neighboring dog that had a history of aggressive behavior.
Animal-rights groups say that most animal law is based on a long-ago era when pets didn't have the vaunted role they now enjoy in many households -- and when Americans didn't spend nearly as much money on them. In 2006, Americans spent nearly $39 billion on food, veterinary care, supplies and other services for their pets, up 35% from 2001, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, an industry group in Greenwich, Conn.