Why Pets Are Companions And Not Property During Separation Disputes

Companion animals are integral members of many family households. According to the National Pet Owner’s survey, carried out by the American Pet Products Association, pet ownership has risen by over 30% since late 1980. The rise in pet ownership growth has also been a factor in the more frequent passage of more comprehensive laws and similarly encouraged more conversations outlining the benefits of pet companionship and the reciprocal relationship between the human guardian and companion animal.

Despite the growing importance of the human guardian and pet companion relationship, it was not until the late twentieth century that the courts and the law began changing their view that pets are exclusively personal “property” like household assets that would be divided after a divorce. Under this definition of companion animals as “property” anyone could mistreat, harm, or kill someone’s pet without consequence or legal ramifications.

In many jurisdictions, the view of pets as personal property has changed! Top animal and pet institutions, joined by some high authority websites, have come out strongly against treating pets as property and want companion animals to be considered as any other member of the family.

One good example came from an article in the New York Times suggesting that there should be a moral imperative to treat pets well considering they have the emotional and sentience level comparable to children. Other esteemed journalist websites, including The Huffington Post and The Guardian, also recently published compelling articles on this subject.

On January 17th, 2017 Alaska became the first state in the United States to update their divorce legislation to reflect the changing belief that animals are no longer personal property. In response to this very encouraging development, The Animal Defense League has said: “Alaska has become the first state to empower judges to take into account the ‘well-being of the animal’ in custody disputes involving non-human family members.”

By amending the divorce statutes (HB 147) a court of jurisdiction will be able to consider the “best interest” of the disputed pet during divorce proceedings. In the past the animal would have been placed with the “rightful owner” who would have been the spouse with a stronger legal claim based on ownership. The best situation for the pet would not have been part of this discussion.

In a precedent setting case a couple going through a divorce from Alaska were assigned joint rights to their pet. Although this may not seem like a major milestone to most people who view their pets as important family members, this was a significant step towards a more balanced view of companion animals having legal rights and an important stake in what happens after divorce instead of being regarded as someone’s personal property.

Illinois was the next American state to follow the modern view of animals as sentient beings and pass a law consistent with Alaska. Similar to the state of Alaska, the legislation would recognize that pets should have legal rights in divorce cases; whereby the well-being of the companion animal was a major consideration during the dispute. The well-being and what is in the “best interests” of the pet ultimately became the major factor that a judge considered when rendering the decision.

In the United Kingdom, a constituent article in the Treaty of Lisbon by the European Union in 2009 strongly referred to animals as sentient beings. This article sparked a promise by Micheal Gove, the environmental secretary, to incorporate the recognition that animals are not property into British law. This recognition was also spoken to in the French National Assembly in 2015. Later in that same year, other jurisdictions such as in the province of Quebec, Canada and also throughout New Zealand followed suit and granted animals the same recognition as sentient beings with feelings and emotions.

Many of us can agree that every pet and companion animal should have legal rights. Dogs in particular form bonds with their guardians and can express a range of emotions and their best interests should be considered. It is a positive step that countries and states are beginning to consider the well-being of companion animals in divorce disputes, as opposed to treating them like furniture. Hopefully in the future, more jurisdictions will amend their divorce laws to recognize companions as “sentient beings” and take into consideration their “best interests” as the laws evolve to catch up with social values.

Pets are valuable members of our families. Companions have feelings, personalities, and they form strong bonds and attachments to their human guardians. As such, it is time for the legal system to recognize their sentience in more progressive laws and the courts should grant them separate legal status and consideration to reflect modern society’s views of animal sentience.