The PAWS Act: A Warmer, Fuzzier IRS

A pet proposal to encourage pet adoptions.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Today is #NationalAdoptAShelterPetDay, so I thought I'd post my own pet proposal for the tax code: a deduction for adopting shelter pets. Right now, many animal shelters are 501(c)(3) charitable organizations, a category that includes corporations or foundations "organized and operated exclusively . . . for the prevention of cruelty to children or animals." In other words, if dogs or cats are kept in a shelter, the government won't tax the donations that keep them fed and cared for.

But as soon as those dogs or cats are adopted and go home, the government's help ends. That doesn't make much sense, because adoption and home life are much better ways of preventing cruelty than keeping the same animals in shelters forever. And while adopting a pet isn't purely self-sacrificing—just look at them!—it still performs a service to the pets themselves and to society at large, which the government ought to encourage. (People also love their adopted children, but they still perform a great service by adopting them, which is why the tax code supports adoptions as well as foster homes.)

So my proposal is to amend the Internal Revenue Code to provide a deduction for the ordinary and necessary expenses of caring for a pet adopted from a 501(c)(3)-qualifying shelter. (The deduction could be capped at some predetermined limit, perhaps based on an IRS estimate of the national average.)

Because it would only apply to charitable shelters, the deduction wouldn't encourage "puppy mills" or breeding for sale. And because it only reduces, rather than eliminates, the expenses of caring for a pet, it wouldn't be a money-maker for animal hoarders. Instead, it would simply take the support we already give to shelter pets and extend just as much incentive to get them out of the shelters and into loving homes.

Best of all, the proposal has a perfect cringe-inducing and Congress-ready acronym: the "Pet Adoption, Welfare, and Support (PAWS) Act of 2019." (Attention Hill staffers: imagine your boss's free local-news airtime for endorsing the PAWS Act from the neighborhood shelter!)

And if any of you do decide to adopt a shelter pet sometime soon, you might be lucky enough to find some like these.

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  1. Not a bad idea, but here’s a better one:

    Outlaw these damn acronyms. If you want to give a bill a name to make it easy to identify do so. Call it the Pet Adoption Act, or something. But as soon as a bill gets one of these “cute” annoying names it should be unanimously voted down.

    1. *checks weather report for Hell*

      We… We… We agree on something!
      Now, do you also think anything named “So-and-so’s Law” is a Bad Idea and should similarly be circular-filed?

      1. Yes.

        If laws have to have names, as opposed to just numbers, the names should be simple and descriptive.

        “chem_geek’s law” is nonsense, purely some sort of PR move, and not a very good one.

        1. Yep, I agree.

          I don’t mind a SLIGHT positive spin. “The Bail Reform Act” is fine, even if we can disagree as to whether it was a real reform. At least it’s not particularly deceptive– it changed the bail rules.

          But anything beyond that slight positive spin– anything like the Affordable Care Act or the PATRIOT Act or anything like that– is just awful. I mean, why not call it the Protection and Uniform Promotion of Particularly Important Shelters Act? PUPPIES! Who can be against PUPPIES?

    2. This is cuckoo. People adopt pets from shelters because they want pets.there is no justification whatsoever for keeping dogs and cats in shelters forever. The problem is too many dogs and cats and too few people who want to adopt them.the only solution is spaying and neutering and if the government is going to spend money on this problem it ought to be to support spaying and neutering

  2. Excuse me, but the pictures you linked to are cats.

    1. Dogs rule, cats drool.

  3. Bleah. How about just not using the tax code to manipulate people into doing what you want?

    1. Amen.

    2. That ship is halfway around the world by now, Brett.

      1. So it’s halfway here?

        1. It will get here one fine day, one Spring.

          Sorry about the ad. Worth it for the song.

      2. So? Turn it around and sail it back.

    3. Agreed. Don’t require me to subsidize, through the tax code, the things you like to do. This kind of thing is, should be ruled, unconstitutional.

    4. Agreed. Adding another pet project into the list of deductions makes the tax code worse, not better, no matter how good the intentions.

  4. What is our federal budget deficit again?

    Cats are nice, we have two but they are not children and there is no benefit to anyone but ourselves.

    Our cats were strays, never got to a shelter. Why should we not get the deduction as well? Equal protection!

    1. Children don’t hunt mice for you.

  5. I’m sure Congress would pass a law like that, after of course adding a couple of riders to grant several million dollars to well-connected people to make a study of shelter animals. Plus abolishing trial by jury and habeas corpus for anyone accused of cruelty to animals.

    Then they’ll have the campaign advertisements ready to denounce anyone who votes against the bill.

  6. I must have an evil mind, because the first thing I thought was, someone will adopt a shelter pet, take the deduction year after year after dumping the animal along some rural highway (or worse), and then hit another shelter to adopt another pet. Who would know?
    Sort of like how some not-so-wonderful foster families take in a kid for the income that’s innit. But at least there are social workers who are supposed to regulate those.
    …which brings to mind: would you offer the same deduction for fostering a pet? My daughter is fostering four Wheaten Terriers (or mixes) now, and gets nothing for her generosity but the joy that it brings her to take care of them….

    1. Unfortunately, I suspect (know) that you are right. We already have an oversupply of a-holes who abandon dogs when they no longer are cute or convenient. We might discourage them by putting pet ID chips in each dog, but I think it probably is a bad idea to create economic incentives for bad behavior.

      1. I’m going to agree here. Maybe it is a bad idea.

    2. Yes, this has always been my concern for offering deductions for pets or shelter adoptions. It just encourages people to take in the pet but not care for them or keep them. There are enough irresponsible owners out there; let’s not give them extra incentive to be so.

  7. As an owner — or maybe an ownee — of a shelter dog, I must nevertheless reject this as more flavor-of-the-month tax policy, of which we have entirely too much.

  8. Bah. Who need another deduction for what is basically an entertainment object?

    In other news, I’ve decided to adopt 600 cats from the local animal shelter on December 31st. I then made a large in-kind donation to the local Chinese food restaurant. I claim both deductions.

  9. Not only is this proposal mind numbingly stupid, it’s just another giveaway to the rich to boot. The current standard deduction is 20,000 per couple, so very few people poor or lower middle class people will be able to take advantage of the deduction, and even if they could the lowest tax bracket is 12%, so it would be of limited value to them anyway.

    And what is the government interest in promoting pet ownership anyway?

    1. “And what is the government interest in promoting pet ownership anyway?”

      In case of famine, duh.

  10. Reading this, I had to check my calendar: It seems more appropriate for the beginning of April, than the end.

    While I have several rescued dogs, and support pet adoptions, I think a better idea would be to QUIT trying to micromanage the tax codes and instead do away with it and start over: Get rid of most of the waste and abuse inherent in it, and then people will find the change on their own to adopt dogs.

  11. As a matter of philosophy and principle, I am opposed to using the tax code as a tool of policy. However, as the very happy owner of a shelter dog, I could get behind this.

    1. As you might gather from my response to ButWhatDoIKnow above, I have mixed feelings about this.

  12. Flawed logic:
    (1) Pets are cool; therefore:
    (2) Let’s rewrite the tax laws to benefit pets!
    The existing 501(c)(3) exemption should be repealed; the goals are worthwhile, but not an appropriate basis for the federal government to be subsidizing through tax policy; private organizations which share Mr. Sachs’ — and my own — fondness for pets can and should do this.

  13. Why not let people eat them if they really want to instead of outlawing it if we’re having such a problem? How’s that for a modest proposal?

    1. Libertarianism for the win.

  14. Almost thirty comments in and not a gratuitous profanity or slang insult in sight! Hope springs eternal for the Conspiracy.
    But seemingly not for my beer from Professor Kerr.

  15. Seems to me you aren’t taking into account the harms as a result of the additional complications to the tax code as well as the pressure for any other kind of (claimed) pro-social act to be given similar treatment.

    I’m skeptical that this would substantially encourage the adoption of pets and I tend to think any exception to the tax code should require substantial evidence of significant benefit for the reasons mentioned above.

    1. “additional exceptions to the tax code…”.
      Are you serious?

  16. Why should the taxpayer have to subsidize pet ownership?

    Perhaps instead of encouraging pet adoption via tax breaks we ought to encourage adopting real life living breathing humans. How about that for a public policy?

    1. Like I say, try setting a child to catch mice, they won’t do it, or if they do you meet all these legal technicalities. But a cat will catch mice without even being asked.

  17. One of the things I most dislike about progressives in general is the way they skip logical steps. They go straight from, “We like X” to “Let’s pass a new federal law, maybe a revision to the Tax Code, to promote more X!”

    Lost are many important steps. Start with: Granted that we like X, do we want more of X?” Continue with: Granted that we want more of X, can X be accomplished in ways that don’t involve more government? Continue with: Has it been established that government actually CAN produce more X? Continue with: Granted that we have accurately identified and are willing to bear the costs in abridgment of personal liberty inherent in all such social legislation, why should this be done on a federal, national level instead of a state or local level? And so forth.

  18. Am I the only person who thinks America has lost it’s collective mind over pets?

    Some people take more care of their dog’s diet than their families. I see people treating their dogs and cats better than their neighbors.

    1. No, I see it all the time too and am completely disgusted by it.
      For example, it used to be that in disaster shelters animals were prohibited, for good reason. Now we have to let people bring their “fur babies” in, and thereby exclude me due to my serious allergies.

  19. Making animal shelters not tax-exempt would improve things in so many ways.

    – Slightly lower the national debt due to more tax revenue.
    – Slightly lower the national debt due to lower overhead of administering non-profit organizations.
    – Not make non-pet-owners subsidize pet owners.
    – Equalize the cost of housing animals in animal shelters or in one’s home.

    I think animal shelters need to be more aggressive in finding good homes for stray animals. The following would be an effective strategy:

    – For each animal, post a photo and a deadline by which the animal must be adopted, otherwise it will be executed.

    “Euthanized” is the wrong word. It means a mercy killing. There is nothing merciful about killing a healthy animal. It’s an execution and should be called one. This language will drive home to the public that something bad will happen if they don’t step in and adopt the animal. Some will die, most will get adopted.

    1. Why am I immediately reminded of a cover photo on the National Lampoon magazine from years ago (January 1973), showing a gun to the head of a dog and the cover line “If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll kill this dog.”

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