Who gets the dog? Your in-depth guide to pets and divorce [Updated April 2021]

Children and their pets

When we first wrote this article on divorce and who gets the pet in 2018, nobody had even heard of coronavirus.

Now, over three years later, pet ownership in the UK has exploded during lockdown, with major pet food manufacturers struggling to keep up with demand. Sadly, as the UK eases out of lockdown, charities are also reporting that the numbers of unwanted pets being given up to shelters is increasing too.

So, we’ve updated our original article with new stats and figures, but the core message remains the same. If you want to keep your furry (or feathered or scaly) family member when you divorce, you need to get this sorted early.


Who gets the family pet after divorce

It’s often a major bone of contention in any divorce where non-human family members are involved: who gets the pets. In our own experience alone, we’ve heard spouses say; “S/he can take what they want, but I’m keeping the dog.” As the case of Ant McPartlin and custody of the family Labrador Harley showed, heated court battles and protracted proceedings can arise from disputes over pet ownership.

This isn’t unusual. Research by the Dog’s Trust charity revealed that:

  • 27% of dog-owners who were in a relationship said that their dog would be the most important thing they would claim if they split up
  • 20% said deciding who would get the dog would be as stressful as arrangements for children

Sadly, there has been a 290% increase over the last few years in the number of dogs being re-homed as a result of relationship breakdowns.

Others were taking a more practical approach, as:

  • 30% of couples were considering pre-nups (or should that be a pre-pup) to cover their pets


Need help with custody of a much-loved pet? Book your initial 1-hour consultation to discuss your situation, and how to keep your family together after divorce, human or otherwise.


Love me, love my (lockdown) dog

It’s hardly surprising that as a nation of animal lovers, we place our pets at the centre of family life. According to Statista, prior to lockdown.

  • 41% of UK households include a pet
  • 23% have dog/s
  • 16% have cat/s
  • 1% have rabbits, indoor birds or guinea pigs
  • Under 0.5% have hamsters, tortoises and turtles, snakes, lizards, domestic fowl, and gerbils.
  • Only 0.2% have horses and/or ponies.

The three lockdowns in 2020 saw a dramatic rise in pet acquisition, with UK households buying a staggering 3.2 million new pets. This boosts the number of UK households with a pet to 17 million. The ONS calculated that there were 27.8 UK million households in 2019. So, now over 61% of UK households include a pet.  According to the Pet Population Data survey by the Pet Food Manufacturers' Association (3), owners are getting younger too, with over one third of young adults aged 24-35 becoming first-time pet owners.


The feel-good factor

Over half of pet owners say their pets make them feel:

  • Happy (66%)
  • Loved (55%)
  • Relaxed (54%)
  • Comforted (51%)


Legal status of pets

Under the law of England and Wales, pets are considered to be chattels, which is a term to describe any item of property apart from land. Having said that, animals are afforded special rights that don’t apply to inanimate objects such as cars or jewellery (goods and chattels). We have criminal anti-cruelty legislation in place in the UK** that places a duty of care on an owner, and you are not allowed to legally buy a pet if you are aged under 16.

In addition, a new Bill, The Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill 2019-21, is progressing through Parliament. This Bill would enable courts to give those found guilty of animal cruelty a custodial prison sentence of up to five years, rather than the current six months maximum. (At the time of writing in April 2021, this Bill is on its second reading in the House of Lords.)


The Animal Welfare Act 2006

Cat looking urwards

According to the Cats Protection charity:

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 contains provisions which are aimed at preventing cruelty and promoting and ensuring the welfare of animals… In addition to cruelty offences, the Act now places an obligation on owners … to ensure that their welfare needs are met, emphasising the need:

  • for a suitable environment – place to live
  • for a suitable diet
  • to exhibit normal behaviour patterns
  • to be housed with, or apart from, other animals
  • to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease”


Pets and children

An estimated 73% of households with children aged under 16 include a family pet. The departure of a pet due to separation or divorce can hit children particularly hard. Suddenly, they are denied access to a beloved friend who will just listen, not judge, and offer (usually) unconditional love in return. At a time when their world is being turned upside down, a pet can be a constant that children depend on for companionship, reassurance and comfort. If that is removed, it can cause children further distress.

Add in the effect of lockdown with rising cases of domestic violence during lockdown, and pets can become the unwitting object of abuse too, adding to the children's distress.  A report by Battersea Dogs and Cats Home said that:

“Police numbers have shown a rise in domestic violence cases and, with research demonstrating a clear link between violence against people and violence against animals, we can very sadly also expect an increase in cases of animal abuse.”

Pets in rented accommodation

If your divorce results in you leaving the family home, finding suitable rental accommodation for you and your pet/s can be remarkably difficult. Many landlords will simply not let you keep pets, severely limiting your choice of accommodation and location. The rental accommodation that does, may be further away from your work, your children and your existing social network and support. It may also be just plain unsuitable - it’s hard for a free-roaming cat, a large energetic dog, or a rabbit used to a run on grass in the back garden to adjust to life in a flat, for example.

Benefits of pets for landlords

If you’re struggling to find landlords willing to take pets, an article in the Daily Telegraph offers some advice. The article suggests that ‘pets considered’ rentals can be a good move for landlords looking to increase their pool of potential tenants, since:

  • Pet owners can be charged a (small) premium
  • Pet-owning tenants will probably stay longer as it’s tricky to move onwards
  • Dogs provide round the clock security for a property
  • Not all dogs are the same - landlords can ask for a doggy CV and references!

That’s why there are a growing number of letting agencies offering pet-friendly rental accommodation under the Dogs Trust Lets with Pets initiative. As Susie Jones, Development & Relationship Coordinator at Dogs Trust, says:

“Dogs Trust knows from experience that some people will go to extraordinary lengths not to be parted from their pets. People have moved areas or rented larger homes than they need simply to keep their pets with them. We hope that the Lets with Pets campaign will encourage and support more landlords and letting agencies to take up a ‘pets considered’ approach to letting their properties.”


Caring for a pet on your own

Pets need care as much as any other member of the family. However, it’s important that if you’re the parent taking the pet, you have both the time and resources to look after it. Pets are, as every owner knows, expensive. They need to be insured, fed, vaccinated, have regular health checks, be groomed, cleaned, exercised, homed in specialist heated tanks or aquariums - and be loved too.

When a relationship breaks down, therefore, it can put both a considerable extra financial and an added welfare obligation on the person who takes the pets. At a time when you need to continue working to keep the income coming in, you may need to arrange extra care for pets, including doggy day care, pet walkers, kennelling or livery when away on business, and more. A suitable financial settlement can certainly help cover the expenses, but the considerable time involved should be factored in too.

Co-parenting a pet

In an ideal world, most couples would envisage them sharing a loved pet between them, perhaps alternating care as they do with the children. In practice, it almost never works. Dogs could travel with kids in the car from one home to another, but they will often find it unsettling to constantly be changing locations. With outdoor cats, this kind of co-parenting is almost impossible, as they will be exposed to different dangers in different locations, not to mention other territorial felines.

Pets as bargaining chips

Sadly, some absent parents have used family pets as methods to gain extra contact with their children. If the absent parents have the family pet(s), children are more likely to want to visit them. We have even heard of clients who have bought a puppy to ensure the children want to visit as often as possible, much to the resentment of the other parent who sees this a deliberate attempt to manipulate.

This is not a constructive way forward, and certainly not one we would suggest, given that a dog is for life, not just for the kids. Do bear in mind that many breeds of dogs, cats and almost all horses and large birds will potentially outlive the average UK marriage!


No home for the dog

Dog an back of sofa

Sometimes, the best option for your pet may be a new home altogether. By far the best way to re-home an animal is through an established and reputable rescue centre. As Becky Fisher, Rehoming & Welfare Manager at Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, said:

“Determining who keeps the family pet can be one of the toughest decisions to make when going through a divorce or separation. At Battersea, we understand home circumstances change and the most difficult but responsible decision may be to bring your dog or cat to a rescue centre, where the best possible home will be found through a detailed adoption process.”

Never advertise your dog for sale or “free to a good home”. Many buyers from these kinds of ads are not genuine, have only profit in mind, and will use the dog for illegal puppy farm breeding, fighting or worse.


Pet ownership and pedigree ownership

While most family pets are just that, pets, some have a considerable monetary value too. Pedigree pet animals and livestock will have a registered owner, and taking on the animal’s care could potentially involve transferring ownership. This takes time and will involve keeping cordial relations with your ex, as the paperwork can be quite involved. For pedigree dogs registered with the Kennel Club, for example, only the registered owner can transfer ownership.

Microchip passwords

For pets, perhaps the most important thing you need from your ex is the account number and password for your pet’s microchip. By law, all dogs must be microchipped, but you can also microchip cats and rabbits. As the pet’s keeper, you are then responsible for registering and updating that microchip with an online service such as Petlog. Should your pet escape or be stolen, and its collar removed, anyone finding that dog will scan its microchip to establish who it belongs to. If the details are incorrect or out of date, there is no way to trace you and bring your dog home.

Divorce and horses

Woman kissing horse

When horses are involved, the costs and amount of time involved can be considerable. Equine World calculates that keeping a horse or pony will cost up to £10,000 each year, including livery, feed, bedding, vet’s fees, insurance, shoes, and other essential costs. And that’s before the cost of tack for the horse and riding gear for their growing rider.That’s why it is particularly important for a divorce financial settlement to include provision for the care and homing of horses. A horse is a major commitment, and if you need to move away as a result of your divorce, you will need to consider:

  • Finding suitable stabling/grazing and/or livery at short notice
  • Moving horses and ponies to a new location, and associated costs
  • Time and effort required for rehoming horses if you are under financial strain
  • Stress of rehoming to all concerned
  • Problems of finding rental accommodation close to horses
  • Ensuring continual access for children to their horses


Children and their ponies

As the parent of any horse-crazy teenager knows, the bond between child and pony can be very strong. Often, it’s also their major hobby, their social world, sport, and maybe a career ambition too. If both parents can be involved, it can ease the financial and time demands, and creates a common ground between the separated parents and the kids. Consider the benefits of:

  • Quality time with children driving to and watching competitions
  • Enjoyment of a shared enthusiasm/hobby
  • Stability and security of keeping a loved pet for children at a difficult time


Horse passports

As with dogs, a horse must be microchipped before it is six months old by a qualified vet. Under the Horse Passport Regulations 2009 legislation, all horses must have a horse passport before it can be sold or moved. So, if you need to relocate a horse, pony, or donkey as a result of splitting with your spouse, you’ll need their horse passport with them at all times.

Each passport is linked to the animal by their unique microchip code, and acts to prove its identity. If you gain custody or ownership of a horse as part of your divorce settlement, you will need to inform your Passport Issuing Organisation (PIO) within 30 days. If you cannot provide a valid horse passport for an animal in your care, you may be liable for an unlimited fine.

Pets and divorce in Alaska: the future

It may seem an unlikely location for forward-thinking divorce laws, but Alaska is leading the way in pet-inclusive divorce legislation. In January 2017, Alaska became the first US state in the country to pass legislation that requires courts to take into consideration “The well-being of the animal”. It also empowered judges to assign joint custody of pets, and allows courts to include family pets under protective orders for domestic violence.

As specialist animal law professor David Favre said:

“For the first time…a companion animal has visibility in a divorce proceeding beyond that of property — that the court may award custody on the basis of what is best for the dog, not the human owners.”.

The legislation was warmly welcomed by organisations such as the Animal Legal Defense Fund, whose US attorney noted that:

“The law is starting to catch up to the reality of the special place that our pets hold in our lives and in society.”


Caring for all the family after divorce

Much as the current laws in the UK may disagree, at LGFL we always consider pets to be part of your family. As dog and cat owners ourselves, we know first hand the bond that builds, and how difficult it can be when pets are suddenly not there for whatever reason. Our aim is to ensure that, like all your family, they are provided for in any divorce settlement. We also appreciate that any ‘pet custody’ agreement should cover the welfare of the animal and its day-to-day care, not just paying for the bills.

Anne Leiper & Rita Gupta and their pets

If you’re struggling to come to an agreement that includes all the family members - four-legged, feline, fishy, feathered or furry – do contact us. Our sympathetic and pragmatic approach to divorce has won high praise from clients and from the Legal 500. Call us to arrange a free 30-minute consultation at our discreet offices just outside Reading, located just five minutes from the dog-friendly Wellington Country Park!.


** The Animal Welfare Act 2006 (England and Wales), Animal Health & Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006 and the Welfare of Animals Act (Northern Ireland) 2011