Legal Resource

What To Do If You Are Involved in a Custody Battle Over Your Companion Animal

Our animal companions are family. So it’s no wonder that when we split up with our spouses or move out of our family home disputes can arise about who gets to keep the animals.

This is a basic overview of what to expect if you are involved in a custody battle involving animals, along with helpful tips. It’s not a substitute for an attorney.

Courts may consider various factors in resolving animal custody disputes

These can include things such as:

  • Who purchased the animal,
  • Who is the animal’s primary caretaker, and
  • Who will provide the animal the best quality of life

While most courts will award custody based on who is determined to be the animal’s legal owner, this is not always the case. In 2017, Alaska became the first state to pass a law requiring courts to consider the animal’s interests in “pet custody” cases. Since then, several states have enacted similar laws that either expressly empower or require courts to consider the care or interests of companion animals during such disputes, rather than treating them like mere property.

It’s expected that this model will become more common, and that more and more courts will consider an animal’s interests when determining custody. Your attorney will be able to advise you of the law in your state.

Proof of “ownership”

Because animals are considered property in the eyes of the law, it will likely be helpful to offer proof that you were the one who adopted the animal — or if the animal was purchased, that you were the one who purchased the animal.

Here are some factors to consider:

  • If you were not the one who originally brought the animal home, do not give up. There are other factors that may be helpful in substantiating your claims of being primary caregiver of the animal and thus the one who should be awarded custody, despite the fact that you did not adopt or purchase the animal.
  • Information that may help to validate your claims as primary caregiver includes receipts for:
    • veterinary care,
    • grooming,
    • training classes,
    • food, and
    • other items purchased for the companion animal.
  • If your neighbors saw that you were always the one who walked the dog or took them to the park, they may be useful witnesses who can confirm your consistent interaction with the animal and therefore be helpful to your case.

Alternatives to custody

A judge may award you visitation or partial custody of your animal companion, even if you are not granted sole custody. Be sure to pursue all available options.

Again, your attorney should be able to give you guidance on these issues.


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