Pets a part of family law?

(NC)-Designer jackets for dogs, spa treatments for cats — compared to the rest of the world, North Americans’ affection for their pets verges on obsession. And when a couple splits up, the battle over who gets Fido can be as emotional as any child custody hearing.

“Whatever one’s personal opinions may be, the bonds of affection that develop between humans and their pets are part of our social reality, and legislators had better take account of it,” says Alain Roy, a law professor at the Université de Montréal.

“We are seeing more and more divorce cases where the couple’s pet becomes part of the litigation,” says Roy, whose research on the contractual aspects of marriage is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

In law, he explains, one is either a “person” or a “thing.” When a couple separates, the courts have no other choice than to treat the noble dog or precious cat the same as a sofa or power tool. In these cases, the judge must award ownership of the animal to one person or the other, and, if need be, assess its monetary value and divide that in two.

“In my view,” says Roy, “we need to amend the l so that it no longer places pets in the same category as a couple’s silverware or home theatre system.”

With controversial issues like same sex marriage dominating debates around family law, pet custody may seem trivial. But, Roy is convinced he’s not barking up the wrong tree.

“This issue requires serious judicial attention,” he says.

And the three-quarters of Canadian pet owners who celebrate the birthdays of their dogs and cats each year are sure to agree.

Adapted with permission from an article by Mathieu-Robert Sauvé in Forum, no. 17, Université de Montréal, January 2005. For more information about SSHRC-supported research, visit the Council’s website (

– News Canada