On a Sunday evening after football practice has finished, John* drives two miles into town to his ex-wife’s house to collect 12-year-old Gloria, along with her toys and her favourite blanket. Gloria is not John’s child, she is his Welsh terrier and has lived between two houses in Bath, Somerset, since John’s divorce in 2014. The beloved pet spends the first half of every week with John and his new partner and the second with his ex-wife. It might seem like a lot of effort for a dog, but it’s an arrangement that works for the family – and one which came about amicably during their split. 

This week, I’m A Celebrity presenter Ant McPartlin and ex-wife Lisa Armstrong made headlines after finalising the settlement of their £31m divorce. But the news that a judge had been required to rule joint custody of their chocolate labrador Hurley because they couldn’t agree between themselves, has caught the public’s attention. They aren’t the only ones to dispute canine custody: in 2016, Johnny Depp and Amber Heard also fought over their Yorkshire terriers, Pistol and Boo, as they split.

It’s not just celebrities fighting over Fidos and felines. “There are more arrangements being made with regard to pets having two homes as opposed to one,” Mark Sage, family solicitor at TLT LLP tells The Independent. For at least three years, lawyers like Sage have been reporting an upward trend in clients fighting so-called “pet custody” battles, as well as the usual things like children and property, during divorce proceedings where each party wants full ownership of their furry friend once they part ways.

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Although there are no official statistics on how many British couples are locked in pet custody litigation, lawyers say they’re seeing significantly more cases coming across their desks with some estimates citing as much as a 30 per cent rise in two years. Terry Laffin from The Dog’s Trust says the charity has also seen a 290 per cent increase in dogs being abandoned because the human relationship broke down and no resolution was reached.

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There are currently 10.9m cats and 9.9m dogs in the UK, according to the PDSA with numbers remaining roughly stable since 2010. Divorce rates in England and Wales have also been decreasing for years with the rate for 2018 (latest data available) falling to the lowest for nearly half a century at only 90,871. So what is behind the rise of Kramer versus Crufts? 

Family solicitor Sarah Green, from TLT LLP, believes it is a result of media coverage of high profile cases. “I am seeing more media coverage of celebrity separations where there are apparently arguments over who should keep the dog and perhaps this is increasing awareness amongst the general population,” she says. Ms Green’s colleague, Mark Sage, says a film Who Gets The Dog? (2016) starring Alicia Silverstone, has also been cited as a milestone moment. 

Not to mention the patterns of people’s personal lives are changing. “Perhaps people’s lives are generally becoming more flexible, with a lot of people working flexible hours or working from home, so they have time to be at home and care for their pet,” says Green. 

The reasons are complex. And when partnered with Britain’s particular penchant for pets, it’s easy to see how pet custody becomes a breeding ground for catfights.

A 2018 study found that more than half of pet owners admitted they prefer spending time with their pet than their partner because they “don’t nag or talk back and are always in a good mood” and 40 per cent confess they give their pet more attention than their partner (maybe they’re the ones lining up for a divorce). So when a relationship comes to an end it is easy to see how pets become an emotive breeding ground for catfights. And the law doesn’t make it any easier. 

During a divorce process there are legal rules for how things should be divided – material possessions can be sold, financial ties liquidated, household items distributed evenly. But with a living, breathing pet that is harder to do. 

The law in England and Wales is clear and unemotional: pets are viewed as “chattel”, meaning they will be treated as an item of personal property like a sofa or expensive jewellery, not like a child (even if you do consider them your ‘fur baby’). “Legally, a pet is viewed as a matrimonial asset,” explains Grace Brass, family lawyer at Slater and Gordon, “ it is becoming quite common for judges to remind couples that pets will not be treated the same way as a child.” 

In a court of law it will often come down to the simple question of whose money was used to purchase the pet in the first place. There have even been examples of cases where judges have summoned vet bills as evidence or brought breeders in to testify as witnesses in court. So, irrespective of how many times you’ve taken your good boy for a walk in the rain or sacrificed the scraps of your dinner, the law can be cold.

Brass says the other factor apart from money that might come into play is who is staying in the family home. “Most judges take the view that a pet should remain in the home it was left in, something to consider if you are the one leaving the joint home,” she says. And even if the judge does decide who gets the dog, they won’t help arrange custody, visiting hours, financial support or any other additional decisions. That is the responsibility of the owners. 

Ultimately this should be the most important factor to consider when choosing who wins the custody battle, says RSPCA animal welfare expert, Dr Samantha Gaines – who can give the animal stability and continuity? “Pets can be extremely sensitive to changes in their routine and lifestyle so a divorce could have an impact on your pet’s wellbeing,” she says. “We’d advise trying to introduce changes gradually in a positive manner. A clinical animal behaviourist could help if your pet is particularly struggling with a change in your family dynamic.”

If the rise in cases and high profile coverage continues, it is inevitable that newlywed pet owners will start to consider their options more carefully when it comes to buying an animal as part of their relationship.

Brass says if couples are planning to get a dog together, they need to have a conversation beforehand. “It’s not unheard of for one angry party to try and claim for a refund, for the half they spent on the £1,500 pedigree dog, or, for a disgruntled party to take their cheating partner’s dog to a dog home, as an act of revenge,” she says.

But Green suggests you go one step further and organise a formal “pet-nup” so, in the event your relationship dissolves, it is one less thing to argue about.

“Whilst you may have no intention of separating and will hopefully go on to have a happy, healthy relationship, separation is sadly becoming increasingly common and so having these difficult conversations now – addressing beforehand who will have the right of ownership if the relationship breaks down – as artificial as they may seem, can help to avoid a lot of heartache.” 

*Names have been changed at the request of case studies.

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