California recently became the third state to recognize that pets have rights. A state law that became effective on Jan. 1 provides among other things that in divorce cases family law courts will have the authority to determine what is in the best interests of the pet animal. The judge will be able to consider the care and welfare of the animal and to establish shared custody arrangements for pets.
Many people have long complained that the law has viewed domestic pets as personal property of the owner. Courts have been forbidden from awarding pain and suffering to pet owners who lost their pets to the negligence or even cruelty of others. In recent years, progress was made with respect to the criminal law and it is now a crime to inflict inhumane treatment on dogs, cats and other animals in nearly all states.
The new law mandates that courts cannot view pet ownership the same as owning a piece of property like a car, a bicycle or a piece of furniture. The law opens the way for custody disputes over pet animals to be aired and decided by the courts. It recognizes that pets have feelings just like children and people, and that separation can cause trauma to the animals.
Most divorce disputes over animals concern dogs with a much smaller number dealing with cats. In the past, the doctrine that pets are merely pieces of property has led to some highly objectionable decisions. For example, some judges ruled that the couple must sell the animal and divide the proceeds equally. Those harsh days are now happily gone in California, and there is likely to be a trend for other states to follow suit and pass similar laws.