Pets have become an integral part of many families. Their importance in the household is undeniable, providing emotional support, companionship, and even protection to their owners. However, when a family goes through a divorce, the fate of the pet can become uncertain, and it can create a lot of stress and heartache for all parties involved. Pets are often seen as an extension of the family, and it can be difficult to determine who gets custody of them after a divorce. The emotional attachment and bond that families have with their pets are often just as strong as the bonds between family members, making it a complicated issue to resolve.

In order to ease the complications of determining who gets custody of the pet, changes have been made to the amendments on the Family Law Act over the course of the last few years in order to provide guidance to Judges ro reach a resolution in such matters. 

In 2019 amendments were made to the British Columbia Family Law Act to address the treatment of pets in divorce cases. Under the amended law, pets are no longer considered property but instead are treated more like children in custody disputes. Judges are now required to consider the best interests of the pet when making decisions about ownership and care. Additional bills were introduced in order to further ensure that the best interests of the pets were considered, such as in 2021, where the federal government of Canada passed Bill C-246, which amended the Criminal Code to make it a criminal offence to engage in certain activities that cause harm to animals, including pets. The bill also expanded the definition of “animal” to include certain types of marine life.

The most recent measure was established in March 2023, the BC government has introduced a groundbreaking new bill in an attempt to modernise pet custody laws. BC’s Bill 17, known as the Family Law Amendment Act is used to guide judges on how to manage custody disputes during a couple’s separation (Animal Justice, 2023). In the instance the couple is unable to reach an agreement on who should care for a companion animal, a judge will consider:

  1. The process by which the pet became a member of the family.
  2. The extent to which each spouse provided care for the pet.
  3. Any prior incidents of family violence, animal cruelty, or threats related to the pet.
  4. The relationship between the pet and any children in the family.
  5. Each spouse’s willingness and ability to meet the pet’s basic needs.

The bill also states that the judge cannot order joint custody of the animal. If both individuals mutually agree to share their pet they are still able to do so, however the legislation would prohibit judges from ordering joint custody of the pet for the separating couple. 

Pets are sentient beings rather than objects, and the introductions of such bills better reflect the values of Canadians today, many of which view their pets as family members. Additionally these bills provide Judges with a consistent approach in granting custody of these animals in cases of divorce and separation, allowing pets to be treated with the same care and respect as other members of the family.

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