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This is undated photo released by the Scheele family of their pet dog Shadow, killed when he wandered onto someone's property and shot.

This is undated photo released by the Scheele family of their pet dog Shadow, killed when he wandered onto someone's property and shot.

By Devin Dwyer For ABC News

Can Animal Lovers Sue for Emotional Distress in Pet’s Death?

What’s a dog’s love worth?

That’s the question before the Vermont Supreme Court today in a case that could create a new legal doctrine for animal lovers who sue when their beloved pets die from acts of malicious intent.

Sarah and Denis Scheele of Annapolis, Md., who brought the case, lost their mixed-breed dog “Shadow” in 2003 when a man fatally shot him after the pet wandering into his yard.

Lewis Dustin, 76, of Northfield, Vt., pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of animal cruelty and was given a year probation. He also was ordered to perform 100 hours of community service and pay $4,000 to the Scheeles for the costs of adoption, medical bills and cremation.

But the Scheeles say that doesn’t come close to covering the emotional cost inflicted by the traumatic incident and loss of companionship, equating the death of Shadow to the death of a child.

“Shadow was our little boy, our son, our child,” Sarah Scheele wrote on her Web site JusticeforShadow.com. “We loved him as if he were our own flesh and blood.”

The couple filed a civil suit against Dustin in 2006, pressing the courts to recognize Shadow as a “member of the family, not mere property.” They are seeking $6,000 in damages for “emotional distress” and loss of the “solace, affection, friendship, and love that they shared” with Shadow.

Courts across the country have typically treated pets like property, limiting the ability of plaintiffs to collect damages for emotional loss.

The Scheeles’ lawyer Heidi Groff told ABCNews.com the Vermont high court has left the door open for pursuit of damages in situations like this one.

“The Vermont Supreme Court has previously said…that they recognize a special relationship between dogs and their owners and that that is a unique relationship that should and could be recognized by the court,” she said.

The incident occurred during the Scheeles’ July 2003 visit to relatives in Northfield, Vt., a small town south of Montpelier. Shadow wandered into the neighboring yard of Dustin, who fired an air pellet rifle at the dog to scare him off his property.

Dustin, who did not attend today’s hearing, declined to comment on the case when reached by ABCNews.com other than to say that he did not intend to kill the dog. His attorney David Blythe did not immediately return calls for comment.

“Suddenly, Shadow let out a horrific yelp,” Sarah Scheele wrote on her Web site. “I screamed, ‘Shadow! What’s the matter sweetie?’& My mind then registered the ‘pop’ noise that I had heard and I yelled to my husband, ‘Denis, I think Shadow has been shot!'”

Should Pet Lovers Be Compensated for Emotional Loss?

Scheele said her husband ran to the neighbor’s house and confronted Dustin, who said he had a problem with dogs on his property and aimed at Shadow’s butt. Shadow later died en route to the veterinarian.

“We cannot sleep, we cannot eat, we cannot laugh & all we can do is cry,” Sarah Scheele wrote. “Denis has trouble focusing on work & not being able to put [away] the horrific memory of Shadow running and leaping into his arms screaming in pain. … As his mommy, I feel so lost. I can’t sleep and I can’t stop crying. My days are so empty without my little boy.”

The Vermont Supreme Court ruled earlier this year against a plaintiff who sought damages for the emotional loss from a cat’s death by veterinarian negligence.

“Pets are not property,” Martin Mersereau of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals told ABCNews.com. “In the law’s eyes they are, but things are changing. Animals are family members, animals are loved — in many cases — like children.”

The Scheeles’ case, he said, is helping to facilitate change in how the courts view killings of beloved animals. Of the average 500 animal cruelty complaints filed with the group each week, he said, the majority involve pets harmed — often shot — while outside unsupervised.