Pet Custody Laws

Disputes over custody of family pets often are highly emotional.
i The spitz-dog and cat on a neutral background image by Ulf from

Pets are valued members of many families, who love and cherish them as much as they do their human members. While pet custody laws are designed to settle disputes over pet ownership, they generally view pets as property and regulations vary widely from state to state.

Custody Battles With Local Law Enforcement

Animal care and control officers can confiscate pets accused of showing aggressive behavior or attacking a person. Depending on the state in which the alleged attack occurred, the accused animal may be quarantined for a certain amount of time to check for signs of rabies or may be sentenced to euthanasia. Pet parents of confiscated animals must check local ordinances to determine the best course of action for trying to regain custody of their beloved pet.

Custody Battles Between Private Individuals

Pet custody disputes between private individuals have become increasingly common in recent history. The most frequent disputes of this nature occur between romantic couples who have parted ways, but cannot reach an amicable agreement over who gets custody of the family pet. To the dismay of doting pet parents, most state animal laws view pets as no different from other personal property, like a lamp or a dresser, and few take the best interest of the pet into consideration when dividing property.

Third-Party Custody Battles

Third-party custody disputes over pets occur when someone wants to take or keep possession of an animal that formally belongs to someone other than an ex-partner. Generally, these kinds of disputes involve allegations of pet abuse or neglect from which the third-party wants to protect the animal. Pet custody laws typically give preference to the owner of record in third-party custody disputes, but if abuse or neglect can be proven, the third party sometimes can gain ownership of the animal successfully by working with local animal care and control officers, or filing a civil or criminal suit against the original owner.

Pet Custody Agreements

A pet custody agreement is the best defense against future conflicts over pet custody. People who plan to buy or adopt a pet that will be shared with another person can protect the best interest of the animal by entering into an agreement that details how the pet care responsibilities will be divided, and anticipates how those responsibilities will be affected in the event of a break-up or any separation between the human caretakers. Pet custody agreements should be as detailed as possible and a signed copy should be kept by each party involved. While a pet custody agreement may not prevent future disputes entirely and could be overruled by a court ruling, pre-existing agreements are given considerable weight in the legal arena and could minimize conflict significantly during a dispute.


In legal cases regarding pet custody disputes, the person who feeds, bathes, and pays veterinary expenses for the family pet often is given preference even if the animal is registered officially under the other party’s name.

Since many victims often will stay in harm’s way to protect the family pet from an abuser, some states have enacted legislation that includes pets in domestic violence restraining orders and requires local animal control officers to take the pet to a shelter when the victim is taken to a safe house.

Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.

the nest