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Pets and divorce - 'Who gets the dog?'

View profile for Layla Babadi
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Pets are seen by many as part of the family and when a divorce takes place, the questions surrounding who will look after the family pet can add considerable distress to an already stressful time.

Often the situation becomes quite fraught, but a specialist solicitor can help you through this process.

How does the law treat pets during a divorce?

Legally speaking a pet is treated as a ‘chattel’ – an item of property.  This may seem strange when a pet can have strong emotional bonds, but being treated as a chattel keeps the matter more straightforward. 

What does this mean in terms of who gets to keep the pets?

As a pet is treated as a chattel, the law says that the person who purchased the animal has the strongest claims on them after a divorce. However this may not always be the case – for example if a pet was a gift, if there are children involved and if the primary carer of the pet is not the individual who bought it.

The starting point for the court will be to identify who paid for the family cat or dog etc as they would usually retain ownership.  However, the court could look at other factors when deciding who the ‘rightful’ owner is such as:

  • If the pet is microchipped, the name registered on the microchip.
  • Who pays for the upkeep of the pet – food and insurance etc
  • Who primarily cares for the pet – takes them on walks etc

If after looking at these factors it is still not clear, the court may look at the best interests of the pet, so for example which party has the best environment for the pet to live in (such as a garden compared to a flat etc).

The power of the courts in pet custody cases

Depending on the circumstances, the court may have the power to grant ownership to one party in a divorce.  However, if there is no clear owner of the family pet, the court could grant joint ownership, with an agreement being made between the parties over who will look after the pet and when.  This is easier with dogs than cats, as cats tend to be more set into a local environment than dogs.

Should the court believe that no party is a suitable owner of the pet, they can, in rare cases, make an order to sell the animal.

How to avoid conflict over pets in divorce cases

At an already stressful time, the anxiety over who looks after the family pet can cause additional heartache and it may be worthwhile looking at mediation in relation to the pet.  This involves reaching an agreement through a third party or mediator and is a route some divorcing couples decide to take.

In some cases couple draw up an agreement before they marry agreeing what should happen to a pet should they get divorced.  This can be called a ‘petnup’, but it’s something that is rarely used in practice.

If you are concerned about the future of your pets during a divorce, please contact our family law specialists.  They will be able to answer any questions you may have on divorce in general, or more specific issues such as pets and how they will be treated during the process.