Disputes over Pets: A Dog’s Chance at Achieving the Cat’s Meow

Pets are very loved by their owners and often viewed as family members akin to children. However, the law does not treat family pets the same as it does children for the purposes of custody and access.

For children, the court is always guided by the “best interests” of the child.  In contrast, under the law, animals are considered personal property. As such, disputes between people claiming the right to possess an animal are determined on the basis of ownership, or agreements as to ownership, rather than considerations of “the best interests” of the pet.

That being said, the law in jurisdictions outside of Nova Scotia may be starting to recognize a more nuanced approach for addressing possession of pets in separations involving married couples. Courts are able to treat a pet’s status as family or matrimonial property to ground an order for possession of, or essentially access to, that pet by a former spouse.

With respect to common law couples, in the recent Nova Scotian decision of MacDonald v. Pearl, 2017 NSSM, Adjudicator Richardson noted: “…the fact that people in a common law relationship may view their pets as akin to children gives rise to the possibility of agreements—whether express or implied—as to what might happen to the animals in the event the people separate”.

In MacDonald v. Pearl, the Small Claims Court addressed a dispute over two Yorkshire Terriers, brothers Henry and Daniel. Essentially the court determined that Henry was purchased by Mr. MacDonald as a companion for Ms. Pearl because Ms. Pearl was lonely. Accordingly, Ms. Pearl was awarded Henry.

The other dog, Henry’s brother Daniel, was purchased by Mr. MacDonald because Mr. MacDonald did not want to leave Daniel, the last of the litter, alone.  Mr. MacDonald was awarded Daniel, which somewhat ironically separated the siblings.

In a case involving sibling children, the court will heavily consider the children’s bond to each other when analyzing their best interests. As indicated above, because pets are classified as personal property, the court is not able to consider their best interests, and so the court cannot consider the relationship between animal siblings.

With the state of the law as it is now, working out an agreement on pet ownership or access directly between the parties is the best way to properly recognize the love and companionship people share with their pets, as well as what arrangements are in the pet’s best interests after separation.