Divorcing couples spend thousands on pet custody battles

Like many couples, my husband Takashi and I decided to get a pet during the pandemic.

Working from home meant we finally had time to take care of a new puppy. She’s a Japanese breed known as a Shiba Inu so it seemed only fitting that she have a name from her country of origin.

Muku means fluffy and innocent in Japanese. She’s definitely the former. We quickly discovered not so much the latter.

We weren’t the only ones who got a pandemic pet. By 2022, the total number of cats and dogs keeping Canadians company hit over 16 million.

But there’s something else many couples did during the pandemic. Break up.

The combination of millions of pets and thousands of break ups meant one thing for Canadian courts: lots of pet custody court battles – couples going before a judge to get custody of their companion animal after a separation or divorce.

Animal rights lawyer Rebeka Breder, who’s been working on pet custody disputes for years, says her caseload has almost doubled in the last couple years.

“It’s a really intense emotional fight, just like fighting over kids. And I would say maybe even more sometimes,” Breder said.

FIGHTING LIKE CATS & DOGS

Breder warns that in some ways fighting over a pet is harder than fighting over the kids. That’s because when it comes to companion animals, Canadian law is open to interpretation.

Judges may take into account a pet’s needs, even though legally, they don’t have to.

“The overall law in Canada when it comes to how the law treats companion animals in pet custody disputes is… animals are property. They’re considered like a chair, like furniture.”

When a person tries to prove a chair belongs to them, it can be pretty easy – just show the receipt.

But how do you prove to a judge that your dog is your life and you can’t bear the thought of not having your precious fur baby with you forever? Not so easy.

One of the main reasons it’s complicated is that many couples split the cost of a pet.

In my case, my husband and I share all of Muku’s expenses – everything from vet bills to doggie daycare fees.

W5 producer Kevin O’Keefe with his Shiba Inu, Muku

“Very often that is what happens,” said Breder. “Someone has a receipt for the veterinary bills, while the other partner has receipts for the dog food and other – the bank records to show that they paid for the animal.”

So, what happens when both people present evidence to prove the pet is their property?

The case can drag on for years with court costs that go through the roof.

A ‘PETNUP’

But how do ugly court battles affect pets? That’s the concern for Montreal’s SPCA.

“We’ve heard some horror stories when it comes to this issue,” SPCA lawyer Sophie Gaillard said, adding, “I’ve even heard of stories where the spouse whose name was on the adoption contract getting the animal euthanized, sometimes even out of spite for the other spouse who’s attached to the animal.”

SPCA lawyer Sophie Gaillard, left, said she’s heard some “horror stories” when it comes to pet custody battles (W5)

To protect animals, they’ve created an educational campaign called Lasting Relationship that includes getting couples to sign an animal custody agreement, or petnup.

The document is like a prenup, except this is for a pet. Couples who sign, promise to “put aside their personal interests,” and do what’s in “the best interests of the animal,” if they break up.

The contract was released in January 2022, the month with the highest divorce rate in Canada.

While Gaillard says their petnup has never been tested in court, it’s a legal document that she says should hold up.

The bottom line for Gaillard is that she hopes it will at least force couples to start talking about what will happen to their pet after a separation or divorce.

MUKU’S PETNUP

Gaillard’s advice has got me thinking about the future of our dog, Muku. My husband and I share all the expenses and don’t have any kind of agreement if we break up.

But after listening to me go on and on about pet custody, Takashi says he’s looking forward to watching the story with me this Saturday. I suspect one of his main reasons is to see Muku, who has a cameo in the piece.

But I’m also hoping that once he watches, he’ll feel as motivated as I am to sign a pet nup.

Like most couples, we have no plans to ever break up. But after talking with so many people fighting over pet custody, I feel it’s important to have in writing, that whatever happens to us, we agree Muku’s best interest comes first.

‘Dog Fight’ airs on W5, Saturday, March 11 at 7 p.m. on CTV

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