The “chattel” status of dogs is a peculiarity of the English legal system. Many countries in Europe, such as Germany, Austria, France and Spain, have declared that pets should be treated as members of the family in the eyes of the courts, ensuring that judges consider the welfare of animals in the time to make a decision. In October last year, a Spanish judge formally awarded shared custody of a dog to an estranged couple, ordering their border collie, Panda, to alternate between living with each of its owners for a month at the time
It is possible that the British could reach a similar agreement with the help of a lawyer, but Zoë Bloom, founding partner of BloomBudd, believes that such agreements are unlikely to come to fruition.
“The advice I give my clients when they want to fight over the family dog is to get a puppy,” says Bloom. Divorce cases involving dogs are some of the most frustrating to deal with. “We all become obsessed with our pets and they become part of the family. I have two dogs myself. But divorce is about empowering people by helping them live independently.”
Some of Bloom’s wealthiest clients spend thousands of pounds in custody battles for their dogs.
In one case, a couple who had settled their divorce in China reopened proceedings in England specifically to address their poodle issue. “In the end it cost both parties at least £20,000 each,” he says.
The couple agreed to share custody of the pet, but, according to Bloom, “my client was unable to follow through on this arrangement because he was traveling a lot.” Over time he became less attached to it and eventually the dog went to live with his ex-wife.
“Things that seem very important at the beginning of a breakup often become less important as time goes on and people gain independence,” she says.
Meanwhile, Mill recently handled a case where a couple wanted the dog to live with him, but also wanted his wife to be required to walk the dog four times a week, pay monthly pet maintenance and split future bills from the veterinarian
“His wife would have been delighted with the dog, but she didn’t want to share a situation,” says Mill. “I wouldn’t accept full custody of the dog, but I wouldn’t let him go either.” For now, at least, the dog lives with the husband who claimed full-time shared custody. “His wife hasn’t committed to anything legally but is still helping out with walks and general care as she’s concerned she might otherwise give the dog away. So far she’s drawn the line at ‘dog maintenance’ .
One way to avoid these situations is through a “petnup,” a prenuptial agreement that states who should get the dog in the event of a divorce.
“A ‘petnup’ is not binding on a judge,” explains Mill, “but such agreements are influential. Making an early decision about who should have your dog is a good way to minimize conflicts.”
What if your ex-spouse takes the family dog out for a walk and never comes back? Unfortunately, Mill believes you’re unlikely to get your dog back without an expensive fight. “Once the dog lives with someone, regardless of how that was, it’s very difficult to force a change of physical ownership.
“It’s possible to get a judge involved, and it might not even be a difficult legal argument. But it would certainly be a long and expensive process.”
Have you struggled to keep your pet? Tell us about your experience in the comments section below
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