Family & Divorce

Tug of War – Who gets the dog?

Many dog owners would consider their dog to be a member of their family. It is therefore not surprising that pet ownership and pet custody disputes arise when couples are in the process of separating or when uninvolved individuals are claiming ownership and custody for the same dog.

03 Jan 2023

Team name
Emma Boys-Smith

Emma Boys Smith

If an agreement cannot be made between parties, then it may be necessary to apply to court.

Current Law

What may be surprising to dog owners is the way in which the court view dogs. In England and Wales, the legal system does not consider dogs as family members and provides no specific legislation on ownership of pets. Instead, they are regarded as chattels and in essence viewed as an item of furniture. More specifically in the family courts, judges tend to take a dim view on disputes regarding family pets during divorce and financial proceedings.

Apply to the Court and Court Powers

Usually, dog ownership disputes and dog custody claims are heard in the Small Claims Court with applications being made for declaration of ownership under the Torts (Interference With Goods) Act 1977.

The court has the power to determine who is the sole owner, if the dog is to be jointly owned or if the dog should be sold and the proceeds split. The following will be considered when making this decision:

  • Who purchased the pet
  • Was the pet purchased prior or during the relationship
  • Whose name is registered with the Kennel Club, Veterinary practice or on the pet’s microchip
  • Who usually provides for the pet
  • Who pays for the vet bills, insurance and day to day expenses
  • Whether the pet was purchased as a gift

As well as determining the dog’s sole owner, the court may also make an order for:

  • The return of the dog
  • Damages for wrongful retention of the dog

How can I avoid going to Court?

The court process may allow you to obtain an enforceable order but it can be timely and costly. Therefore, it may be more beneficial to try to agree matters mutually through mediation before applying to the court.

Couples that are planning to get married or cohabit may wish to consider drawing up a prenuptial or cohabitation agreement to include what will happen to your pet if your relationship were to break down and who has ownership over the dog.


M&P Commentary

Emma Boys-Smith, Trainee Solicitor in the Dispute Resolution department, said;

“Our dispute resolution team is happy to assist with preparing a court application in respect of dog ownership and dog custody disputes.

Should you wish to discuss mediation and or would like to know more about drawing up a prenuptial or cohabitation agreement, please contact our family department who would also be happy to assist”.



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