Bucking the trend for sluggish Christmas sales on the high street a leading chain of pet stores this week announced bumper profits.  A director explained that the company’s success was in large part down to the fact that people now treat their pets as true family members. They are prepared to spend considerable sums ensuring their animal’s happiness and welfare.


Unsurprisingly, such devotion to a pet can sometimes lead to bitter disputes during divorce and family breakdown. Arrangements for children and financial settlements might be the main areas of contention in a divorce. But at Brookman in London we also see custody of a pet regularly becoming a subject of intense discussion in the course of our specialist family law work.

In 2016 reports suggested that solicitors had seen pet custody disputes rise by as much as a third.

The issue can become even more complicated in some of the international divorces we handle when parties intend to live in different countries after their separation.


Many of the cases in this area originate in the United States. There, many advocate applying a “best interests of the pet” test similar to that used to decide children arrangements. In England the Dogs Trust has carried out research showing that 20% of divorcing couples think deciding on a pet’s future would be as stressful as deciding on child arrangements.

Strictly speaking, the law in England and Wales views a pet as a personal possession – like a painting or a car. But it’s hard to imagine any family judge ignoring the unique nature of a pet. It would seem unjust to disregard completely the emotional attachment between a dog and the divorcing parties when deciding who should have ownership.


It is possible to separately agree the ownership, custody and other arrangements for your dog in what is sometimes called a ‘petnup’. It’s one way to take the issue out of the hands of the court and avoid the expense of asking a judge to decide ownership and with whom the pet should live.

Family courts are under pressure as never before. Pet ownership will not always be a pressing issue for family judges. Remember, the default position under the law is that pets are a piece of property. Custody will ultimately be decided on the basis of property law and this can lead to deeply unsatisfactory outcomes for both sides.

As with many issues in family law, it is often best to resolve issues over pets privately. If you would like to discuss this or any other aspect of family separation and divorce please call us on 44 (0) 20 7430 8470 or contact us online. We offer a free, no-obligation consultation to those who may be embarking on a divorce or who want advice on family law generally.

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