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Hear Ye! Hear Ye! “Pet Custody” is Now Part of B.C.’s Family Law

Written by Russell Alexander / (905) 655-6335

In an update to our blog from September of 2023, B.C. Proposes to Solve Pet-Custody Conundrums, British Columbia has now officially become the first Canadian province/territory to enact Family Laws that include the concept of “pet custody”. This arises under amendments to the province’s Family Law Act that came into force January 15, 2024.

The changes aim to give clear guidance to separated and divorcing couples on how to deal with their shared pets after their relationship ends.  Here are the main points to know:

  • There is new definition of “companion animal”, meaning an animal kept primarily for the purposes of companionship. (This excludes guide dogs or service dogs, any animals that are kept as part of a business, and animals that are kept for agricultural purposes);
  • In a divorce or separation, companion animals are not to be treated as property (which is a key distinction as compared to other Canadian jurisdictions);
  • Courts may make orders granting custody of such pets to one of the spouses after a split; and
  • In doing so, courts must consider the best interests of pet, as well as the best interests of both of the spouses and other family members.

That “best interests” determination involves numerous factors for a court to consider. These include:

  • The circumstances in which the pet was acquired;
  • The extent to which each spouse cared for the pet in the past;
  • The relationship that any children of the family have with the pet;
  • Any history of family violence;
  • The risk of family violence;
  • A spouse’s cruelty, or threat of cruelty, toward an animal; and
  • The willingness and ability of each spouse to care for the basic needs of the companion animal in the future.

It’s also noteworthy that the changes to the B.C. Family Law Act allow for a self-help remedy:  If possible, spouses are encouraged to reach their own agreements on the post-split allocation of time with the family pet.  They might agree to joint or share possession, exclusive possession, or a declaration of ownership.   If they cannot agree, they can turn to the court for a pet custody order (although joint/shared custody is not among the available remedies).

These changes set B.C. apart from Ontario, where the Family Law still views pets as one of the possessions that have to be divided up in a split – much like furniture.  We’ve covered this distinction in several past articles (including Should Child Custody Principles Be Applied to Former Couple’s Dog?Why Kids and Dogs are Different, in Law, and After the Divorce: Who Gets to Keep “Jazz” and “Jetta”, the Beloved Family Pets?).

We also note that B.C. is not alone in this progressive, pet-friendly approach; as reported in Forbes magazine recently, there are currently eight U.S. states that allow courts to make divorce orders that take the best interests of a cherished animal into account.

Should Ontario take a similar leap, and endorse a “pet custody” model?  What are your thoughts?

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About the author

Russell Alexander

Russell Alexander is the Founder & Senior Partner of Russell Alexander Collaborative Family Lawyers.