Matt’s Blog: California Demonstrates Legislative Leadership on Animal Protection

October 20, 2023

an elderly woman holding a small white dog in front of her laptop

By ASPCA President & CEO Matt Bershadker

In a very welcome and encouraging step for animals in need, California has passed two new laws that address the modern needs of pet owners and model how states can step up to act in a bipartisan and powerful way to help their most vulnerable animal residents.

Signed by Governor Gavin Newsom earlier this month and strongly supported by the ASPCA, the two laws expand access to critical veterinary telehealth services (A.B. 1399) and secure pet-friendly sheltering sites during natural disasters and extreme weather events (A.B. 781).

In a heartening demonstration of compassion taking precedence over politics, both bills received near-unanimous, bipartisan support, and the new laws will go into effect on January 1, 2024. 

Veterinary Telehealth Is a Lifeline

Authored by Assemblymembers Laura Friedman (D-Burbank) and Josh Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), A.B. 1399 empowers licensed veterinarians to establish veterinarian-client-patient relationships through video technology

This fix is not just a convenience or short-term response to the pandemic—it’s an ongoing necessity, especially for pet and livestock owners in remote or underserved areas with few or no veterinarians. These owners and others sometimes face prohibitive financial, logistical and geographic obstacles getting their pets to a clinic, and they deserve the safe and convenient solution that’s been available to human doctors and patients for years. 

We often hear stories from animal owners that in-person visits cause severe stress and exacerbate medical conditions in their pets and that scheduling these appointments can force long delays in care. By facilitating virtual connections to veterinarians, this new law will also help address the critical nationwide veterinary shortage that’s making access to pet care more difficult.

This policy change was desperately needed in California. According to the Veterinary Care Accessibility Project, California has a Veterinary Care Accessibility Score of 47 out of 100, a failing grade in access to veterinary care. 

Prior to this law, California had prohibited veterinarians from giving advice and direction to pet owners using telemedicine unless the owners could bring their animals into the veterinary hospital. It mandated that veterinarians conduct new in-person examinations each time that an animal (even a regular patient of the vet) had a problem, making California one of the most restrictive states in the nation in terms of access to veterinary telemedicine.

With this action, the California Legislature and Governor Newsom recognize that matters of pet healthcare should be left to veterinarians and their clients, not to politicians. This new law follows the enactment of a similar measure in Arizona earlier this year, and we hope the reasonability, logic and compassion driving this policy will travel far beyond California’s borders to make telemedicine broadly available so veterinarians can determine when to use this vital tool to provide the most effective care possible to their patients.

Protecting Animals in Crisis

The second law is in response to a significant vulnerability faced by animals and their families, especially given wildfires and other natural disasters faced by Californians. A national ASPCA survey revealed that 83% of pet owners live in a community that faces natural disasters, and a recent survey of California pet owners found that 70% do not have emergency housing secured for their pets. Additionally, more than half of the respondents in California would not evacuate unless they could take their pets with them. Making matters even more dangerous, some research estimates that 80% of people who prematurely reenter an evacuation site do so to rescue a pet.

You don’t have to be a statistician to understand that increasing the number of emergency shelters accommodating pets is a lifesaving necessity to protect pets and people.

Authored by Assemblymember Brian Maienschein (D-San Diego), A.B. 781 ensures that when an emergency shelter, warming center or cooling center is designated, at least one co-shelter facility is also established with the ability to house companion animals, keeping residents from having to choose between seeking shelter and staying with their beloved pets.

Including dedicated co-shelters in every disaster preparedness plan will help pet owners be more prepared for disasters and enable them to manage the care of their animals during emergencies. It will also help animal owners feel less anxious and fearful over the fate of their animals during a crisis and ensure smooth intake and processing procedures for evacuees with animals. 

Put together, these two laws will save countless animal lives by providing California animals with the meaningful protection and care they need and deserve. I commend California leaders for acting with such compassion and commitment, and I hope to see other states soon following their lead