A British report showed that in 2020 divorce rates in the UK soared by 122 percent during Covid lock-downs. This trend proved to be a global problem, affecting not only the couples involved, but their pets too.

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Pets in most countries are regarded as family members. But very few nations offer them legal protection in custody battles. Family courts simply regard them as possessions, pretty much like vehicles or electronic goods or, in one case I recall, a garden gnome.

On a number of occasions, while living in the UK, I have seen bitter breakups centered on who gets to keep much-loved dogs, cats, or some other animal, like a giant tortoise for one couple.

Well, that’s not the case in Spain. At the beginning of the year, the country approved an animal welfare law that allows lawyers, for the first time, to address custody disputes over pets in the event of a divorce.

It’s an issue that really needed to be addressed, because Spain has the second-highest divorce rate in the world, following Luxembourg. Though there is no official data for the last couple of years, the divorce rate remains at over 60 percent.

María González Lacabex, from INTERcids, a legal organization specializing in animal protection, said:

It’s a step forward and it says that in separations and divorces, the arrangement that will be applied to the animals will take into account not only the interests of the humans, but also of the animal.

Guillermo Díaz, from the center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens), added:

We are the only species that recognizes the suffering of others and as such we have an obligation to prevent that suffering. Animals were not considered different from a television in divorce cases.

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The sole opponent of the legislation came from Vox lawmaker Ángel López Maraver, above, former president of the Spanish Hunting Federation. He described the law as:

Insanity, nonsense, stupidity. It humanizes animals and dehumanizes man.

In the UK, pets are ‘chattels’

Meanwhile the UK’s Pets Mag reported last year that divorce lawyers have experienced an increase in issues relating to pet ownership and relationship breakdowns, with some clients opting for a so-called “pet-nups” to avoid disputes should they separate.

Laura Bond, a family law specialist warned that whilst owners may consider their four-legged companion as a family member, the Courts in England and Wales do not necessarily take the same view. She said:

The current law in England and Wales provides that a pet is a ‘chattel’ in the same way as a TV, sofa or painting. It is therefore simply an asset to be distributed in the same manner as other material possessions. There are exceptions in divorce cases for very high value animals (e.g. a race horse or champion show animal), or if a pet is directly linked to other financial considerations, for example where the family income derives largely from breeding or showing animals.

However, for the average family pet there is no legal argument to make about the animal’s welfare or needs, and the Court may be reluctant to get involved in disputes about pet ownership. It is possible that this will change in the future and the English Courts will start to adopt a more welfare-based test, but until that time pet owners may be surprised and disappointed to discover the reality of the position.

Research suggests that one in four divorces in the UK involve a dispute over the ownership of pets.

The El País and Pets Mag report prompted me to dig deeper into an issue that, to be honest, I’d never really thought much about.

From Time magazine’s Melissa Chan I learned that, in 1897, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that citizen-owned dogs were personal property rather than sentient animal companions.

But nowadays, according to Chan’s 2020 report, 80 percent of owners view their pets as family members, rather than mere possessions.

Last year, PhysOrg reported on a book Just Like Family: How Companion Animals Joined the Household. In it, sociologist Andrea Laurent-Simpson wrote that American family structure was rapidly changing to include nonhuman species, “and the implications are huge.”

Laurent-Simpson said:

American pet owners are transforming the cultural definition of family. Dogs and cats are treated like children, siblings, grandchildren. In fact, the American Veterinary Medical Association found that 85 percent of dog-owners and 76 percent of cat-owners think of their pets as family.

Courts in the U.S., according to Michigan State University, are slowly beginning to depart from traditional property analyses.

They acknowledge that pets cannot be treated the same as personal property. Case law has slowly started to recognize the importance of pet custody cases. Alaska, California, Illinois and New Hampshire have existing statutes allowing judges in divorces with pets to determine custody in contested cases.

This allows judges to take the care of a pet into consideration when determining sole or joint ownership. For determining custody, questions such as ‘who walked the dog?’ and ‘who took the cat to vet appointments? are now permissible criteria.

Image credit: Barry Duke

From my vantage point, the Spanish have done the right thing by introducing this new legislation, and have set a precedent for other states and countries.

My hope is that I will never have to engage in a legal fight over our beloved Fifi, above, a 14-year-old Miniature Pinscher. She is central to the lives of both me and my husband Marcus. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that our relationship is made all the stronger by our mutual love for this little animal. Neither of us can imagine life without her.

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Veteran journalist and free speech activist Barry Duke was, for 24 years, editor of The Freethinker magazine, the second oldest continually active freethought publication in the world, established by G.W....