The Rise of Pet Custody Cases

March 11, 2020

A divorce can be a traumatic experience for a family. Custody battles bring out the worst in people and are often wrought with emotions. Recent developments have led, interestingly enough, to a new form of court custody battles to further divide the parts of splitting couples’ lives: fights not over minors, but over the family pet. 

Custody disputes over dogs, cats, and iguanas have attracted media in recent years, with a political and judicial impact. According to a recent TIME magazine article on the topic, “Divorce attorneys say these fights are becoming more common as state courts confront divorce laws that fail to recognize that in ever more homes, not every crucial bond is between humans.” In the past three years, three states have changed their divorce statutes to treat pets more as family members than as mere objects to be divided by couples, like sofas and TVs. Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C., have proposed legislation that would do the same.

Representatives in these states, such as Rhode Island legislator Charlene Lima, know the way in which they value their own pets is powerful, and is a feeling shared by their constituents. “There’s a perception that animal legislation isn’t as important as other legislation,” Lima says. “I think that’s a complete fallacy.”

“People who love their dogs almost always love them forever. The same cannot always be said for those who marry,” wrote Matthew Cooper, a New York County Supreme Court justice who ruled in a case deciding which person deserved custody in a couple’s quarrel over a miniature dachshund named Joey. Divorce lawyers and justices state that, given the size of their docketts and their levels of staffing and funding, courts are ill prepared to adjudicate pet-custody battles. They fully expect, however, that these types of cases will become more and more common into the future.

As of today, 80% of owners report that they view their pets as family members, according to a study from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Most cats and dogs are rescued from shelters or taken in as strays, showing pet-owners’ interest in animals’ well being, rather than their breeding.

Millennials, who’s 2018 birth rate is the lowest in 32 years, are more likely to own pets than any other generation. Their pets seem to take the place of the children they’re not having, judging by the deep-rooted sentiments they report having for their pets. Therefore it is unsurprising, and perfectly logical, that this newest married generation are battling over the animals in their lives when they file a divorce. 

The courts are, additionally, beginning to consider a pet’s wellbeing when deciding who to place it with, as they would a child. With animal cruelty having been criminalized in all 50 states, it is becoming standard practice to recognize, legally and logically, that pets are living beings with needs that need to be met.  

All evidence points to divorces being as mean and messy as they’ve ever been. Our increasing love towards our cats and dogs means that, unfortunately, our furry friends are often pulled into the mix. But, as was written by Matthew Cooper, “People who love their dogs almost always love them forever.” And that bond is stronger than all the vows, papers, and gold rings in the world.

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