Embarking on the divorce process is a challenging time for many families. However, when pets are involved, emotions can run even higher. British Columbia has recently enacted legislative changes in how ownership of pets is treated in divorce proceedings, bringing forth a new chapter in the treatment of pets during divorce proceedings. In this blog, we’ll delve into the new laws impacting the custody and care of pets in British Columbia.

Pets as Personal Property 

British Columbia’s Family Law Act governs several family matters in the province, including divorce. Before the recent amendments, pets were not explicitly considered in the Act. Therefore, historically, pets have not been treated much differently than personal property. 

Two cases demonstrate their treatment before the courts and tribunals. 

In Delloch v. Piche, a recently separated couple was in dispute over who was the legal owner of a dog and whether the party not awarded ownership/possession should receive compensation. Although the parties were not married and were not in a common law relationship, the Judge’s reasoning illuminates the prevalent view of pet ownership; the Judge explicitly mentioned that the case law has developed such that “dogs are personal property just like a chair or a car.” As such, when considering which party should be awarded ownership, the Judge considered factors such as: 

  • Which party purchased the dog; 
  • Which party paid for the dog’s medical expenses, food, and care; and
  • Which party purchased the dog’s pet license

The Judge ultimately determined ownership based on who the dog was purchased for, regardless of the other party’s connection with the dog. 

In Bond v. McInulty, the Tribunal Member was influenced by similar factors. The Tribunal Member noted that pets are considered personal property in law, then considered factors that deal primarily with care and control, and who paid for the dog and their subsequent expenses.

The recent legislative changes now permit the Courts in BC to explicitly consider ownership of pets under a special category during separation proceedings under the Family Law Act

Pets as “Companion Animals” 

As of January 15, 2024, BC enacted amendments to the province’s Family Law Act that explicitly include pets. 

Under the amendment, a pet is now considered a “companion animal,” defined as “an animal that is kept primarily for companionship.” Guide dogs and animals kept as part of a business and agricultural purposes are not considered companion animals. 

This reclassification allows the Supreme Court to uphold agreements dealing with jointly owned companion animals and make orders dealing with the ownership or right to possess a companion animal. However, to do so, the amendments specify that the Court must consider the best interest of the animal (similar to the considerations for the best interest of a child). This consideration includes, but is not limited to, the following factors: 

  • the circumstances in which the companion animal was acquired;
  • the extent to which each spouse cared for the companion animal;
  • any history of family violence;
  • the risk of family violence;
  • a spouse’s cruelty, or threat of cruelty, toward an animal;
  • the relationship that a child has with the companion animal;
  • the willingness and ability of each spouse to care for the basic needs of the companion animal; and
  • any other circumstances the court considers relevant.

It is also worth noting that the amendments do not permit the Court to order joint custody. 

Expansion of Best Interests 

It is too early to interpret how the courts apply these legislative changes. Still, it is clear that, in effect, these factors expand the considerations for pet ownership beyond simply applying the financial analysis associated with personal property. Further legislative changes regarding the court’s ability to order joint ownership may be required. However, this may not be necessary if the parties can agree to such an arrangement on their terms. 

These amendments will drastically change the landscape of such disputes, and having effective legal counsel will be crucial to navigating these unexplored waters. 

Contact the Vancouver Family Lawyers at Meridian Law Group for Knowledgeable Advice on Pet Custody

The compassionate family and divorce lawyers at Meridian Law Group understand how important pets are to you after a separation or divorce. Our family lawyers consistently deliver results and are ready to assist at any stage of a family law matter. Contact us at (604) 687-2277 or use our online contact form to discuss how we can help.