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Is it legal to keep our dog after we separate?

As part of our Insights series, Is it legal to… we explore the law surrounding pet ownership when a couple separates. 

Dogs are more than just a man’s best friend, for many they are cherished family members and lifelong companions. According to Dogs Trust, 47% of us share a bed with our dog, 70% of us take our dog on holiday and 73% of us give our dogs a Christmas present. Without doubt the UK is a dog-loving nation!

When a relationship breaks down a common question people have is, “what happens about the dog?

How are dogs treated under the law in England and Wales?

A dog is considered property and there is no specific law stating what should happen with your pet during separation or divorce. This means that your treasured fur-buddy has the same rights as your dining room table, bedside cabinet, or even that overly-chewed dog toy you probably should have replaced months ago.

It may seem odd that there are no official rules about pets, and unfortunately there is no indication of this changing any time soon. Despite the love we have for our pets, the courts do not think of them as important as issues like sorting out arrangements for children and finances.

Where a couple is unmarried, the question of who owns the dog can come down to a number of factors. Even though you might be the one who feeds and looks after the dog, the court does not consider these as important as things like:

  • who pays for the vet bills?
  • who purchased the dog? and
  • who pays for its maintenance?

Less important is who has trudged round in the rain with the dog at 6am everyday.

What steps can I take to avoid court proceedings?

Before they get married or enter civil partnerships, many couples think about entering a prenuptial agreement, known as a prenup (or a postnup if entered during marriage/civil partnership). These are not legally binding, but the court does take them into account when deciding how to share out finances and possessions. You could choose to include your dog in a prenup, often called a Pup-nup! This can make it clear from the beginning of a marriage/civil partnership what will happen to your dog if you get divorced/dissolve your partnership.

Alternatively, if you would like to protect your pup and you are cohabitating with your partner, you could include the dog within a legally binding cohabitation agreement.

Where the court has previously been asked to decide a dog fight, the courts have suggested that there may be a better way to resolve the problem without going to court, including:

  • Negotiation – this can help you both find a cost-effective solution to who keeps the dog.
  • Mediation – this can help doggy parents find a common ground and come to an agreement.

If someone (including your ex-partner) has taken your dog without permission, you may wish to bring a civil claim in the Small Claims Court. Although it seems impossible to put a price on your furry companion, in reality, the value of a pet is usually under £10,000. The small claims track is often called ‘DIY justice’ and is set up for people to get help through the courts without needing a solicitor.

If you would like any advice about protecting your pet, before or after a relationship breakdown, or experience any difficulties with your pets post-separation, it is always advisable to seek professional advice from the Family Law team at Fosters Solicitors.

You can contact our friendly experts on 01603 620508 or email them directly. For more information on our separation and divorce services, please follow the link.

This article was produced on the 8th August 2023 for information purposes only and should not be construed or relied upon as specific legal advice.