Why divorce becomes so much messier when you have a dog

Zoe Bloom
Zoe Bloom

For many couples, agreeing to look after a dog together is a commitment second only to raising a child. But when partners separate, questions over the beloved pooch can be almost as vexatious as disputes over money.

Millionaire property developer Bashar Ayoub was taken to Westminster magistrates’ court by his fashion influencer ex-girlfriend, where she accused him of posing as a dog walker to abduct her cockapoo. More disturbingly, at Swindon Magistrates’ last week, Austrian count Konrad Goess-Saurau was found guilty of shooting his wife Susan’s dog dead at their Marlborough home. Countess Goess-Saurau told the court the 70-year-old had killed their German pointer, Herman, while she had been away from their estate.

Both extreme cases perhaps, but, according to research from Direct Line Pet Insurance, more than a quarter of divorces involve a dispute over the custody of a pet and the number of “dog divorces” rose by 56 per cent in 2021.

The old-fashioned legislation that governs pet ownership can make divorces much more difficult to settle – especially for the high net-worth clients of London’s family law boutiques.

As Magnus Mill, a partner at Mayfair firm Alexiou Fisher Phillips, explains, there is no specific “pet law” that applies to the dogs caught up in a divorce. His clients’ precious animals are legally classed as “chattel”, giving them the same standing as cars, sofas and crockery.

“Often both halves of a couple want outright ownership of their pet,” says Mill. “If a divorcing couple has a dog, then a judge will treat their dog as just one part of the couple’s combined assets.

“That judge can give ownership to either spouse – regardless of who paid for the dog or who looks after it most of the time.” And it is most often a dog at stake, he adds, having been involved in just two arguments over a cat – and one over a parrot.

Austrian count Konrad Goess-Saurau was found guilty of shooting his wife Susan’s dog dead at their Marlborough home - Daniel Jae Webb / SWNS
Austrian count Konrad Goess-Saurau was found guilty of shooting his wife Susan’s dog dead at their Marlborough home - Daniel Jae Webb / SWNS

Dogs’ “chattel” status is a quirk of the English legal system. Many countries in Europe – including Germany, Austria, France and Spain – have declared that pets should be treated as family members in the eyes of the courts, ensuring that judges consider an animal’s welfare when making a decision. In October last year, a Spanish judge formally awarded joint custody of a dog to a separated couple, ordering that their border collie, Panda, should alternate between living with each of its owners for a month at a time.

It is possible for Brits to come to a similar arrangement with the help of a lawyer, but Zoë Bloom, founding partner at BloomBudd, thinks such agreements are unlikely to pan out in practice.

“The advice that I give my clients when they want to fight over the family dog is to get a puppy instead,” Bloom says. Divorce cases involving dogs are among the most frustrating she has to tackle. “We all become obsessed with our pets and they become part of the family. I have two dogs myself. But divorce is meant to empower people by helping them to live independently.”

Some of Bloom’s wealthiest clients spend thousands of pounds on their dog custody battles.

In one case, a couple who had settled their divorce in China reopened proceedings in England specifically to address the issue of their poodle. “It cost both parties at least £20,000 each in the end,” she says.

The couple agreed to share custody of the pet but, says Bloom, “my client wasn’t able to stick to this arrangement because he was travelling a lot”. Over time he became less attached to it and, in the end, the dog went to live with his ex-wife.

“Things that seem very important at the start of a separation often take on less relevance as time passes and people gain independence,” she says.

Meanwhile, Mill recently dealt with a case where one partner wanted the dog to live with him, but also wanted his wife to be required to walk the dog four times a week, pay monthly pet maintenance and split future vet bills.

“His wife would happily have kept the dog, but didn’t want to have a sharing situation,” says Mill. “He wouldn’t agree to full care of the dog, but also wouldn’t let it go.” For now, at least, the dog is living with the husband who demanded shared custody full-time. “His wife hasn’t committed to anything legally, but is still helping out with walks and general care, as she’s worried that otherwise he might give the dog away. So far, she’s drawn the line at ‘dog maintenance’.”

One way to avoid such situations is via a “petnup” – a prenuptial agreement that sets out who should get the dog in the case of a divorce.

“A “petnup” isn’t binding on a judge,” Mill explains, “but these arrangements are influential. Making an early decision about who should keep your dog is a good way to minimise conflict.”

And what if your former spouse takes the family dog for a walk and never returns? Unfortunately, Mill thinks that you’re unlikely to get your dog back without an expensive fight. “Once the dog is living with someone – regardless of how that came to be – then it is very difficult to force a change of physical ownership.

“It’s possible to get a judge involved, and it might not even be a difficult legal argument. But it would certainly be a lengthy and expensive process.”

Have you fought to keep your pet? Tell us about your experience in the comments section below