Although we may think of our pets as children, legislation doesn’t.
Under Canadian law, pets are regarded as personal property rather than family members. This means when a couple who lives together and owns a pet decides to separate, there are no laws regulating the determination of custody or ensuring the pet’s best interest.
In fact, Ontario courts have traditionally refused to apply child custody solutions to disputes over pet ownership. In disputes over personal property, if ownership cannot be settled, the court may assume ownership over the item, have it sold, and split the proceeds across both parties; the same procedure could technically apply to pets.
Needless to say, these processes don’t befit the emotional closeness we feel toward our pets. We love our pets. They see us in our most upset, joyful, and vulnerable moments, and love us the same throughout them all.
For many, pets may even offer a safe space that feels less attainable in human relationships. Animals and their guardians don’t need to be able to converse to feel close to or supported by one another—it’s enough to simply be together.
Moreover, to adopt a pet is to assume responsibility for it. Our pets rely on us for food, shelter, and protection. Pets are our dependents.
To liken them to personal property, like a painting or a couch, is to ignore the duties inherent to having a pet: we owe them our care because we chose to bring them into our life. A dissolved relationship between a pet’s caregivers does not have to mean losing quality of life for the pet, nor does it absolve the parties involved of their responsibility to their animal.
This issue is particularly relevant given how divorce and separation rates have skyrocketed following the lockdowns and stay-at-home orders established at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a—hopefully—precedent-setting case in 2021, a judge in Spain granted joint custody of a dog to a separated couple, declaring them both jointly responsible for the animal. Similarly, in 2014, France passed a law to consider pets living and feeling beings, rather than moveable goods. This legislation allows for pet-ownership disputes to be settled more like child custody cases.
Canada ought to take similar action. Establishing a legal precedent of investigating and acting in the best interest of pets will encourage lawyers and judges to think of pet-ownership more in terms of custody arrangements than personal property disputes. Doing so would equally encourage and legitimize official legislation recognizing the sentience of animals.
In the meantime, partners (or roommates) can create pet custody plans.
In the event of a separation, be certain the animal’s primary caretaker has been established. It’s useful to have food and medical bills—proof you’ve taken financial responsibility for your animal—and documentation of which partner has invested the most time into a pet.
Animals are our chosen family. Legal proceedings should reflect that.
Cassandra is a third-year English student and one of The Journal’s Copy Editors.
Break up, Divorce, pets, Relationships, responsible pet ownership
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