Spike in pet custody disputes as pandemic, lockdowns take toll

A family law specialist has warned about a spike in pet custody disputes, noting that pets “can be weaponised and used as tools in a separation”.

Eve Smith, a director at Melbourne-based Umbrella Family Law, says that a sad side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a rise in the number of disputes over pet custody in Australia since late 2021.

“It is certainly becoming more common… The number of people with pets increased dramatically during COVID. And a lot of marriages suffered during COVID as well,” Ms Smith tells Paws N’ All.

“So when people are separating now, they are not only discussing what happens with their children, but their pets as well.”

Data from the 2021 census shows that there are now more than 1.8 million divorcees in Australia. A further 674,590 people stated they were separated. The Sydney Morning Herald reported Australia’s divorce rate has hit a 10-year highs since the pandemic hit in 2020.

Innocent victims

In these situations, it is the often the pet who suffers most.

Ms Smith says she and her colleagues have seen terrible things happen to once-beloved pets amidst bitter separation and divorce proceedings.

“We had this couple who didn’t have any children but who had rabbits – their be all and all,” the family law specialist says.

“She was just using the rabbits as a blackmailing tool and emotionally blackmailing the husband.”

Another instance closer to home for Ms Smith involved a relative who breeds and trains dogs.

In this instance, Ms Smith said the husband tried to ostracise his estranged partner from their stud dogs. The aim being to have them gravitate towards him, so that he can assume custody of them.

And, while not common, Ms Smith says some people have gone to extreme lengths.

“We had one instance where the pet was put down by one owner to stop the other getting full custody,” says Ms Smith.

Avoiding disputes

As Ms Smith’s experience demonstrates, pets can and are being used as leverage in bitter break-ups, much in the same way children sometimes are.

This may to try and force other settlement compromises, or simply out of spite.

“I think as well, owners humanise the dog [or any pet] – ‘the dog hates you’ or ‘the dog prefers me’,” she explains.

As such, Ms Smith urges pet owners to consider a formal agreement or pre-nup for pets, providing clarity for everyone as to who the legal owner will be should a relationship sour in future.

“By putting a pet-focused pre- or post-nuptial agreement in place, couples would eliminate the risk of a dispute and protect their ‘fur baby’ from being used as a bargaining chip.”

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