- The majority of pet owners in North America consider their dogs to be family members.
- In most courts, dogs are considered to be property for matters such as divorces.
- In only six states and one Canadian province is welfare of the dog to be considered in cases of custody.
- A recent court ruling in Colombia identified a dog as a family member equivalent to a son or daughter.
Is your family completely human?
Over recent years, it has become clear that pet dogs (and, to a lesser extent, cats) are counted as family members. Dogs are treated much like children and the American Veterinary Medical Association found that 85 percent of dog owners think of their pets as family. Some research finds even higher percentages (up to 94 percent).
The fact that dogs are so often viewed as an integral part of the family unit has led some behavioral researchers, such as Andrea Laurent-Simpson of Southern Methodist University, to speak of the concept of multi-species families. She defines these as "a newly diversified, non-traditional family structure" which includes pets as members. She goes on to say, "Dogs and cats within the American family have a profound impact on things like fertility considerations, the parent-child relationship, family finances, involvement of extended family members, and the household structure itself."
Many researchers believe that this identification of dogs as equivalent to family members is partially responsible for the diminished birth rate in the United States. The nationwide birth rate fell significantly between 2007 and 2022, dropping from 14.3 births per thousand people to 11.1 (that is nearly a 23 percent reduction), according to data from the Center for Disease Control. The situation is significant enough that Pope Francis has accused families that are childless but own pet dogs of being selfish and perhaps sinful.
Sometimes Government Responds
Researchers who study personal relationships clearly recognize that the trend toward considering pets as part of the family is socially significant, however, the legal system, and governmental regulations seem to be lagging behind. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina was approaching, according to a survey by the Fritz Institute, nearly half of New Orleans residents refused to evacuate without their pets. Instead, many stayed behind to face the hurricane in order to protect their animals. Faced with such a dramatic example, in 2006, Congress passed the PETS Act, authorizing FEMA to rescue, care for, and provide shelter for household pets during an emergency. However, family and custodial law have not been so quick to recognize the psychological reality of the multi-species family, although some changes are beginning to appear.
Dogs as Property
Consider the current state of divorce laws. In the United States, Canada, and most European countries, pets are generally categorized as property. Therefore, in a divorce, pets are distributed in the same manner as household goods. The ruling by a Canadian judge, Justice Richard Danyliuk, in Saskatoon, Canada exemplified this viewpoint when he was asked to determine custody of two dogs following the separation of a couple.
In his decision, he said, "Many dogs are treated as members of the family with whom they live, but after all is said and done, a dog is a dog. By law, it is property...and enjoys no familial rights." In his judgment, he then went on to make several points.
- "In Canada, we tend not to purchase our children from breeders."
- "We tend not to breed our children with other humans to ensure good bloodlines, nor do we charge for such services."
- "When our children are seriously ill, we generally do not engage in an economic cost/benefit analysis to see whether the children are to receive medical treatment, receive nothing, or even have their lives ended to prevent suffering."
- "When our children act improperly, even seriously and violently, we generally do not muzzle them or even put them to death for repeated transgressions."
He then went on to warn that the couple was taking a substantial risk in pursuing this matter in court. "Both parties should bear in mind that if the court cannot reach a decision on where the dogs go, it is open to the court under the legislation to order them sold and the proceeds split—something I am sure that neither party wants."
Emotionally Bonded, Not Just Owned
In a few venues, the legal situation is changing. New York, Alaska, California, Illinois, Maine, and New Hampshire have recognized the scientific findings confirming the emotional bond between pet owners and their dogs. They also have recognized that the existing laws stand in stark contrast with the way child custody is awarded. Most states determine child custody via a "best interest" analysis—namely, what is best for the child. When this concept is applied to the custody of a dog, it involves considering factors such as each person's ability and willingness to care for the pet, the relationship a child in the family may have with the pet, the relationship of the pet to various other family members, and additional factors associated with the well-being and safety of the animal.
Similar legal changes are occurring in Canada. In March of this year, British Columbia modified its Family Law Act (the same one that is used to determine who gets custody of children in a divorce) to take into account similar welfare considerations when determining where a pet dog will go following divorce.
Dogs as Children
Considering what is best for the dog is not the same as recognizing dogs as part of a multi-species family unit, although it is an important starting point. A major step in declaring a dog part of a family has been taken, not in North America, but in Colombia. The case involved Jader Alexis Castaño, a rector at a Colombian university, who lost his dog Simona in a divorce ruling. His former wife, Lina María Ochoa, only allowed him rare visits with Simona, and Castaño felt that his “hija perruna,” or “dog child” (as he often referred to her), was "emotionally affected" when they had to part after their infrequent visits.
Last year, Castaño sued his former wife, demanding scheduled visits with Simona. He claimed that the dog was part of the "family's nucleus," and his inability to visit with his dog was causing emotional distress to both him and the dog. The Colombian court decided to treat this issue as analogous to any other custody case involving a child, where the matter at issue was shared custody after marital separation.
The surprising outcome was that the Bogota Superior Court ruled that Simona, a dog, had indeed been an official member of a "multi-species family" before the marriage was dissolved. That meant Castaño was entitled to scheduled visits with the dog. This was the first time a Colombian court had ruled that an animal can be considered a member of the family "if it is treated as such by its owners." Whether or not the dog is to be treated the same as a human daughter is unclear, but her familial membership has been legally recognized.
I am reminded of one of my grandfather's sayings, "Blood makes you related—love makes you family."
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Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.
Laurent-Simpson A. (2021). How Companion Animals Joined the Household. New York: NYU Press.
Coren S. (2008). The Modern Dog: A Joyful Exploration of How We Live With Dogs Today. New York: Free Press.
Bunyan R (10 November, 2023). Divorced couple's dog is legally a family member and should be treated like a daughter, court rules: Colombian owner wins legal right for visits after pet suffers emotional trauma following split from wife. DailyMail.com, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-12733849/Divorced-couples-dog-legally-family-member-treated-like-daughter-court-rules-Colombian-owner-wins-legal-right-visits-pet-suffers-emotional-trauma-following-split-wife.html