Dog Ownership Laws: Covering Custody Disputes & Stolen Dogs

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Dog sitting with parents (caption: Dog Ownership Laws: custody disputes and stolen pets)Most dog owners consider pets part of our families. So what happens if a dispute arises over who owns a dog? Who gets to retain custody of your family dog when a couple divorces? Or how do you prove ownership if someone steals your dog? Understanding dog ownership laws can help you keep your furry best friend for good during a trying time.

Article Overview

Pet Custody Disputes

A majority of dog ownership disputes involve custody when a couple separates or divorces. Who gets the dog in a divorce?

Written Agreements Are Legally Binding

Of course, the ideal solution is to settle ownership through written dog custody agreement forms that both you and your spouse agree upon. You could even consider a pet prenup.

Most judges will simply honor a written pet custody agreement between divorcing parties because, in the eyes of the law, pets are personal property — unlike with child custody, where the judge doesn’t always solely rely on such an agreement.

How Do Courts Determine Pet Custody?

If you can’t come to a pet custody agreement with your partner, the unfortunate reality is that you’ll have to let a judge decide. Claiming custody of a dog can be different than child custody issues. Why? Because state laws consider dogs and other pets as tangible personal property (like a car, furniture or similar objects), rather than “people.”

For this reason, often the first factor a judge will consider is whether your pet is community or separate property. A pet is considered separate property if one person acquired the pet before the relationship (or if the pet was a gift to only one of the parties during the relationship). In many states, the pet will then go to that person.

On the other hand, a pet is considered community property if both parties acquired the pet during the relationship and can both provide records of proof of ownership. In this case, the judge will then consider many of the same factors as when determining child custody. These can include:

  • What’s the physical environment that each pet parent can provide for the pet?
  • How much time does each parent have to spend with the pet? What are each person’s work and personal schedules?
  • Which person has been the primary caretaker of the pet?
  • Who’s able to pay for pet care?
  • Are there children who have a bond with the pet? In this case, a judge will likely try to keep the pet and children together.
  • Is there a history of domestic violence or drug use? If so, a judge may deem this individual an unfit pet parent.

The good news for responsible pet parents is that today’s legal system is making some strides in treating dogs as part of the family. Some recent court decisions have allowed for shared custody, visitation and even pet alimony — most of these involve dog ownership, rather than cats or other pets.

Graphic showing pet parents with judge in middle deciding who gets custody

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How Do I Prove Dog Ownership?

There are several ways you can prove ownership of your dog if he gets lost or stolen and someone else is falsely claiming your dog is theirs. In most cases, this involves records that you should already have in place, including:Microchipped Dog Walking: Microchips for Dogs

  • Registration & license
  • Veterinary records
  • Microchip records
  • Adoption records
  • Transfer of ownership agreement
  • Pedigree registries
  • Recent photos and video of you with your dog

Tip: Always keep your records up to date and keep copies in case you ever need to prove that you own your dog.

Why Microchipping Can Make All The Difference

Microchipping your dog and registering you as the owner is one of the best ways you can prove ownership, especially when other evidence falls short. Just watch this brief video below. In this case of a nasty custody battle over a lost pup, it would be the pivotal deciding factor.

Was Your Dog Lost Or Stolen?

If you suspect your dog was stolen, be sure to read our article about stolen dog laws., which includes tips on what to do if you suspect someone stole your dog. We also have some helpful information on how to find a lost dog and tips to prevent your pet from becoming lost.

What do you think about the concept of a pet prenup?

About The Author:

Sally holds a BA in English from James Madison University and began her 25-year writing career as a grad student at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism & Mass Communications. She’s been a pet parent since college years (and spent her whole childhood with pets).

Now as a parent of two teenagers, she’s made sure to raise her daughters to learn how to love and care for pets (and other animals) in the most responsible and loving ways. As a result, she and her daughters now have 5 rescued dogs and cats who essentially rule their home! Sally has also volunteered over the years to help raise funds for various animal nonprofit organizations.

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