Dog Ownership Laws: Covering Custody Disputes & Stolen Dogs


Last Updated: April 6, 2023 | 4 min read | 21 Comments

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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 if you die? 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.

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.

Infographic: Pet custody considerations

How Do I Prove Dog Ownership?

Microchipped Dog Walking: Microchips for Dogs

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:

  • 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.

How Do I Legally Transfer Ownership Of A Dog?

If both parties are in agreement, legally transferring ownership of a dog is pretty straightforward. Typically, all that’s required is a transfer of ownership agreement signed by the previous and new owner. At a minimum, this form requires information about both parties and basic information about the pet. However, some counties, cities, and states require the form to be notarized and additional details.

You can find sample forms online, but be sure to check on your local and state laws about exactly what’s required. Here’s a brief rundown of information to include if you want to cover your bases:

  • Full legal names, addresses, and contact information for the previous and new owner
  • Basic pet information: name, breed, gender, age, weight, color, etc.
  • Medical information, including records of vaccinations, veterinary checkups, and previous treatments
  • License/tag number and any microchip or other registration numbers
  • Notorized signatures of both parties

To avoid any possible future disputes, it’s wise to include as much information as possible and make it clear that both parties are agreeing to a full transfer of rights and responsibilities regarding the 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.

What Happens To Pets When Owners Die?

In addition to considering who will care for your pet after a separation, it is also vital to plan for who will look after them in the case of your untimely departure.

Add A Pet Clause In Your Will

Pet care after death is often overlooked, but you should account for it in your will and estate planning. Ideally, you would designate a caretaker and an amount of money to be left for the care of your pets.

Personal Story: Who Will Look After My Dogs When I Die?

Michelle and Alex S., the founders of Canine Journal, recently reworked their wills and were asked with the question of what would happen to their dogs if they passed unexpectedly.

We do not have human children, but our two dogs (Lily and Barley) are our kids. So, when preparing our wills, our attorney asked if we wanted to make any provisions for them. While we had not considered this before, we definitely want to make sure they are taken care of in the event of our passing.

We talked to some good friends who are also dog lovers and asked if they would be willing to welcome our dogs into their homes, should something happen. They said yes, and then we figured out how much money is needed for them to live for another 8-10 years, given their respective ages. We then worked with our attorney to add these details to our will.

Hopefully, this clause won’t come into play during our current dogs’ lives, but we will update this as we get new pets over the years.

Pet Care Trust

You can even take it further by creating a trust with money allocated specifically for the care of your pets and details instructions on how you wish for the pet to be cared for.

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?

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