People get very upset when a pet animal is abused or killed. The number and intensity of their outraged comments typically are nearly as much as for crimes against people.

Emotionally there may be great similarity in compassion for pets and people, but legally the difference is night and day. Even the most cherished dog or cat is treated like property under the law.

This conflicted regard for animals that become companions to people is sharply clear in the disturbing killing of a Navy veteran’s service dog in Stafford Township.

The criminal case recently concluded with the landlord who killed the dog, a 3-year-old Pomeranian named Diesel, sentenced to 90 days in county jail and five years probation.

Diesel’s owner, who was renting a room, had left the certified therapy dog alone for a few hours one day in May 2017. When she returned, the landlord told her the dog died after suffering a seizure. She doubted that and reported the dog’s death to Stafford Township police.

An examination of the dog’s body — called a necropsy for animals rather than an autopsy, the equivalent for people — found Diesel had been killed by blows to the head that broke his neck. A detective with the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reviewed the necropsy report and the landlord was charged in the death in August 2017. Then in February, he was indicted, accused of causing serious bodily injury and death to a dog, a third-degree offense.

This past June, the landlord pleaded guilty. This month he was sentenced. In addition to three months in county jail and half a decade on probation (during which he is prohibited from owning or working with animals), he must perform 30 hours of community service and undergo anger management training.

He was sentenced under tougher penalties for animal cruelty enacted during the Christie administration in 2013, after a pit bull owner who starved her dog and threw it down a trash chute received no jail time.

Even so, multiple commenters to this newspaper felt 90 days wasn’t enough jail time for the landlord. Many felt a stronger sentence was merited because Diesel was a therapy dog for a veteran.

Arizona seems to be the only state that takes into account whether a dog killed or abused was a service dog. Normally, it punishes animal cruelty with a fine up to $2,500 and/or imprisonment for six months. When the victim is a service animal, the maximum penalty is increased to $150,000 and 18 months.

Given the way people love their pets, perhaps some legislator is looking into adding additional protection for service animals under New Jersey’s animal cruelty law.

Yet even as many dote on their pets or feel wounded to read about harm to an innocent animal, society tolerates an enormous amount of legal killing of pets. Each year, about 670,000 dogs and 860,000 cats are euthanized.

That’s nearly a quarter of the 6.5 million companion animals that wind up in U.S. animal shelters annually. Increasing the 3.2 million that are adopted would help.

In the long run, though, people need a fuller understanding of their fellow animals and much better management of their relationships with them. And that goes for the whole range of animals — from companions to property to those remaining wild.

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