Legal Science - the blog

Paw & Order

Paw & Order

In the animal justice system, the pets are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: The courts, who traditionally treats pets like property, and the pet owners, who love their pets unconditionally. These are their stories.

I’m taking a break from my normal blog posts that highlight a feature of (and shamelessly promote) one of our published datasets to write on something I know and love: puppies. More accurately, animal custody cases. A few weeks back, an episode of Judge Judy made headlines over the re-airing of a dog custody case. Judge Judy heard a dispute between two parties both claiming to be the rightful owner of a dog named “Baby Boy.” One man claimed he had accidentally lost the dog and another woman had later purchased the dog off the street. Instead of following traditional jurisprudence, Judge Judy opted for the drama: letting the dog choose. Seriously. Baby Boy went directly to his original owner, tears ensued, and the episode went viral.

Now if you grew up with siblings and a dog, like me, then you would definitely know that “letting the dog choose” is the absolute best arbitration method. My brothers and I used to prove our dog’s affections by standing on opposite sides of the room to see who she would go to first, and therefore scientifically see who she loved more. As the frequent winner (at least, until my brothers figured out I was always secretly hiding a dog cookie in my hand), I can attest that this is the most accurate way to determine a dog custody battle. Unfortunately, for reasons that are probably apparent, this is not the actual standard often used for ruling on animal custody cases. And although we may think of our furry friends as members of the family, the court typically does not.

Instead, pets are treated as property in the eyes of the law. Harsh? Yes. But this is traditional standard to determine who gets the pet in a divorce where the pet was jointly purchased or adopted. The court goes through the same steps as it would for any other type of property in a divorce: determine the value of the property, examine any pre- or postnuptial agreements, and divide the property accordingly. This trend is slowly changing: some judges are willing to treat pet custody cases more like child custody cases. If one party can prove they are the primary caregiver of the pet, they still stand a chance in winning custody, even if they were not the original purchaser. This standard is often used in states where alternative dispute resolution, like mediation, is required whenever a lawsuit is filed. And even more similar to the standard used in child custody cases, one state now requires courts to look at what is in the best interest of the pet. In 2016, Alaska became the first state to amend its divorce statutes by allowing the court to consider the pet’s well-being in a custody proceeding. Some courts are now awarding shared custody, visitation rights, and alimony payments (adorably called “petimony” by some) to pet owners. By 2017, 32 states and the District of Columbia are even protecting pets in domestic violence situations by allowing them to be added to protective orders.

And if you’re interested in exploring state by state differences in animal custody law, or any other subject that you know and love, go to to learn how you can create your own dataset today. There it is. 😉

There's no map for today's blog post, so here's a picture of my dog instead.

For more on animal custody cases: