Many people think of their pet – whether it be a dog, cat or a rabbit– as part of the family. This is why “custody” of a pet can form part of family financial proceedings and negotiations.

In England and Wales, the legal treatment of a pet is as personal property, just like cars, jewellery and other personal belongings.

The property test involves considerations including:-

  • Who paid for the pet?
  • The Certificate of Registration.
  • Who paid for animal insurance?
  • Who paid for the vet?
  • Who paid for food, litter and supplies?

Although pets are treated as property, people often have strong emotional bonds with their pets and think of them more like children. This can lead to long and expensive arguments over ownership during divorce proceedings. It may also explain why there are few reported cases in England and Wales.

By contrast, other countries adopt a “best interest” test towards family pets. There are several reported cases in the US and Israel, and Switzerland has even amended the Civil Code to clarify this matter.

The “best interest” test is one that family lawyers are familiar with as it is normally applied to disputes concerning children. The following factors could be important:-

  • Living arrangements. If one party keeps the family home then the pet will have familiar surroundings.Where will the children live – presumably with the family dog?
  • Who does the animal have a strong bond with – who feeds the animal!
  • Which claimant is able to give more time to the animal?

An expert in animal law at Northumbria Law School has recently called for change in how decisions about the custody of pets are made in divorce proceedings. In her recent paper she called for a more flexible approach that includes aspects of the animal’s welfare.

To avoid disputes over pets which can be extremely bitter and costly, couples are increasingly including provisions for their pets within prenuptial agreements.