Who Gets the Family Dog during Divorce?

Golden retriever Digby

My dashing dog Digby

“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.”                        — Roger Caras

Do you refer to your devoted dog as if he or she is a highly adored member of the family? If so, you may be surprised to learn that most family law courts consider your Frisbee- catching canine to be classified as personal property.

When a couple with pets decides to divorce, the question often comes up about who gets to keep the pets for the long term.  During the time I worked for several divorce attorneys as a family law paralegal, I remember seeing legal motions filed that asked the court to grant exclusive rights to one or the other of the parties for beneficial use of the family pet.

Since most courts consider pets to be personal property just like your coffee maker or favorite chair, judges usually follow the same guidelines they use to determine who gets to keep personal property when couples are dividing things due to divorce. Depending on where you live during divorce, your pets may be considered community property or separate property that is awarded to only one spouse during the divorce.

During the last several years, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) surveyed divorce lawyers throughout the U.S. and discovered a significant increase in the number of pet custody cases finding their way through the legal system.

Many divorcing couples consider their pet to be just like their child and some are not able or willing to come to a mutual agreement about which of them should keep the family pet following divorce.

Due to the increasing number of pet custody cases, some judges are becoming more open-minded and taking into consideration many factors that can help them reach a determination about where the pet will live after divorce.

In some states, courts have awarded shared custody, visitation and alimony payments after reviewing evidence and testimony provided by the dog’s owners and even expert witnesses regarding what is in the pet’s best long term interest.

Some judges take into account which person can provide the most attention, love and take the best care of the pet in a manner similar to deciding parental custody cases.

How can you decide if keeping the family pet is the best decision for you?

Here are a few things to ask when considering pet custody:

  • Do you have a flexible work schedule or access to a reliable person who can fill in for you to care properly for your pet while you are at work?
  • Do you have the financial means to provide for the pet throughout the expected length of the pet’s life span?
  • Do you have the majority of parenting time with the children who are attached to their beloved family pet?
  • Has your spouse neglected the pet’s basic needs or acted abusively toward the pet?
  • Who will have more space for the dog to exercise and play following divorce?

If at all possible, it’s best to try to negotiate a signed and dated agreement in writing with your soon-to-be-ex spouse before or during divorce to avoid the headaches and expense of filing legal papers with the court to determine who gets that dashing dog or curious cat.

If you have had the personal experience of splitting up the pets due to divorce, how did you work it out?



Please let me know your thoughts in the Comments Section below.


  1. Great article. Few people think about “who gets the pet” in divorce. I’ve seen people’s entire divorce decree go up in smoke when it came to this simple question. Most attorneys do not recognize the importance of addressing it early. It helps keep the divorce on the rails and the parties have a meaningful and respectful discussion as outlined above. Bravo for getting this information out there. If conflict over the animal does arise often using a mediator for this portion of the divorce dorks extremely well.

  2. Often I hear that divorce is like a death. While I understand what they’re saying, I disagree. 🙂 One thing that isn’t an issue in death, who gets the pet. Although, I did have to ask my son to bring my dog home. He had taken the dog to his house while I dealt with my husband’s (his dad) illness. Son just needed me to tell him I needed, and was ready to take care of the dog.

  3. While I have not personally been divorced, I have known way too many that have been through it. The family pet really is like family and I can’t imagine trying to have to navigate those waters. Thank you for sharing yet another painful, yet necessary to think about, side of divorce

  4. Gary A Campbell says:

    Part of the pain of any divorce is the conditional friends and family that are suddenly not part of your life anymore. While that is understandable under the circumstances, the loss of a dog that gives you unconditional love can really deepen the wound. I know when I got divorced, the love of my dog Misty was the one thing put a smile on my face even if it was for an instant. It took me years to get over my divorce and years more before I was truly in the right place to even date. I can’t imagine going though that without my dog. If people can just keep their humanity through the divorce process and remember that the other person probably is deally with pain and disappointment too. Taking the high road is divorce sometimes seems like a very lonely deserted path but if you can walk that path it does far less damage to the people and pets in this case that you love. Great article.