It would be easier if my two dogs were dead,” Sophia* tells me. In April, after 10 years together, she and her partner split up, and Sophia lost custody of their two French bulldogs. “There is this weird grief knowing they are only 30 minutes away but I can’t see them.”
Sophia works in the accounts department of a London law firm, and left the dogs with her ex when she moved out of their home. They agreed to share the pets, but she says her partner “tried to seize sole ownership” almost immediately. “He blocked access – giving excuses all the time,” she says. “He would tell me, ‘the dogs have plans’. When he did let me see them, he’d claim the dogs had come back with injuries – and he had to take them to the vet.” Eventually, her ex cut all contact between her and the dogs. “He said [shared custody] wasn’t in the dogs’ best interests and he didn’t want to do it anymore … [but] they are my babies.”
Welcome to the brutal world of dog divorce, or what could happen if a couple doesn’t get a pet-nup – essentially a prenup for pets, legally stating who will get custody of shared animals in the event of a breakup. According to recent figures, fewer than one in 10 couples who own a dog together have put in place a shared custody agreement in the event of a possible split. Three in 10 couples also admit they’ve never had the conversation about who would keep the pet, according to a study for petcare marketplace Rover.
That might explain why even celebrities don’t seem immune to situations like these. In February it was reported that Ant McPartlin and Lisa Armstrong were fighting for custody of their chocolate labrador, Hurley, despite the pair splitting in 2018. Johnny Depp and Amber Heard famously battled over their terriers Pistol and Bo during their divorce in 2016; Heard got to keep the dogs after being granted custody. And it was recently reported that Britney Spears and her husband Sam Asghari – who announced their split earlier this year – have reached an agreement over the custody of the five dogs they shared together. That one at least seemed to be amicable.
More and more pet owners are also coming to realise a pet-nup might be essential, for under UK law, dogs and other animals are still classified as “chattels”. That means your cat, for example, has the exact same legal status as a washing machine or a car, so the courts aren’t interested in determining an outcome that would be in the pet’s best interest.
“The harsh reality is that the law views pets as assets, or possessions, which means that the courts will allocate an ‘owner’,” says Sarah Hawkins, CEO of National Family Mediation (NFM) in the UK. Over the last year, NFM has seen pets feature in 43 per cent of mediation matters, a result of the pandemic leading to a boom in pet ownership in the UK.
In the case of a pet custody battle, a court will try to establish ownership through evidence such as who bought the pet, whose name is recorded on the microchip database, or who is the pet’s primary carer. In most cases, though, it’s an incredibly tough situation to legally resolve.
Most dogs are sensitive to human emotions and will likely be impacted pre- and post-separation and divorce. They do and will pick up on how each person feels and this can be quite stressful for them
Trevor Cooper, a solicitor with the UK’s Cooper and Co, specialises in dog law and says he gets four or five calls a day about ownership disputes. “The worst for us is the delay in the court system since Covid, because it prolongs the agony for the person who doesn’t have the dog,” he explains. “The wait time is currently just over a year.”
When standard mediation isn’t successful, Cooper says there are limited options in court. “It’s often a case of a jointly owned dog… and you can’t cut the dog in half,” he says. “An option is to order [the sale of the pet] and split the proceeds,” he says – as would happen with a painting, for example. “Or a court could hand sole custody to one party – but there is no rule of law as to how to determine this [if joint ownership is established]. The final option is a sharing arrangement – but this can only be approved by the court and is unlikely to be imposed by them.” So how do courts decide who keeps the pet? “It’s not an absolute rule of thumb”, he says, “but the longer one party has had the dog, the more likely they will be able to retain it.”
Cooper, however, would like to see the law changed to reflect “the importance of a family pet in our society now”, he says. “We have laws on how to resolve child custody disputes but not specific laws when it comes to dogs or cats. Pets are part of people’s families.”
If a couple doesn’t have a pet-nup in place, all hope isn’t lost. Amicably agreeing on joint custody can work out, as IT director Annie Snoode discovered with Astro, her eight-year-old shih tzu. Her relationship with her husband “fell apart” in 2020 after eight years and they now happily co-parent – albeit from different cities. “Astro is our child,” she says. “We were always aligned that we wanted the best for him – we took him with us on all of our holidays.”
Together, Snoode and her former husband share Astro for three to six months at a time. But Snoode has also since remarried, which has slightly complicated matters. They can no longer help each other with day-to-day dog care, meaning Snoode has to “juggle a lot more”, she says.
While a pet divorce can create chaos between two exes, it’s also not easy on the pet themselves. Victoria Stilwell, a dog trainer and behaviourist and the star of Channel 4’s The Dog Academy and Discovery+’s It’s Me or the Dog, says she often deals with the fallout of dog divorce.
“If you are separated or preparing for a divorce and are sharing custody of a dog, it is really important that the dog’s best interests are taken into consideration and the dog is given time to get used to living in different homes,” she explains. “Most dogs are sensitive to human emotions and will likely be impacted pre- and post-separation and divorce, especially if tensions have been high before the split.
“They do and will pick up on how each person feels and this can be quite stressful for them.” Living in two different homes is made easier, she adds, if similar routines are kept in both places and certain items – such as a favourite bed or a favourite toy – can be bounced between houses along with them.
As for Sophia, since discovering the existence of “chattel” law, she has reluctantly decided to walk away from her former dogs. Her only options were to “dognap” the pets, or go to a small claims court, which can cost between £7,000 to £10,000 with legal representation. Neither was realistic for her.
“I was told in most cases they would rule in his favour because they lived with him,” she says, adding that she believed her ex had taken the pets as a way to hurt her. “I gave him the car, I let him stay in the house – I just wanted the dogs. They were the only things I cared about losing.”
*names have been changed