Who Gets the Family Pet in a Divorce?

Divorce can be disruptive for all family members, and that includes the pets. Figuring out who will keep the dog, cat and other animals can make for some extra planning and difficult decisions. What does the law say about who gets the pets?

In Missouri, the family pet is considered marital property, the same as the car or house. If the divorcing couple cannot agree who will keep and be responsible for the family pet, then the judge will grant possession to one of the parties. So it’s preferable that the family decide together (when possible) who is best suited to continue caring for the animal. 

Assuming both adults love and want the pet, here are a few questions to consider:

  • What is the pet policy where both adults live? Are pets allowed? Is there a number, size or weight limit? Is a deposit required?
  • Who has time, energy and financial ability to feed, water, and spend adequate time with the animal–and for a dog, take them outside for regular potty breaks? 
  • Are the children emotionally tied to the pet and will those children live primarily with one parent?
  • Was the pet a gift to one of the adults? 
  • Who primarily cared for the pet during the marriage? 
  • If there are multiple pets, can each party keep one or more?

Beyond these practical considerations, divorcing parents will want to be sensitive to their children’s wishes. A beloved cat, dog, rabbit, guinea pig, canary and even fish can be a great comfort to children who are coping with the changes that separation and divorce entail. In an amicable divorce with shared child custody, it might even be feasible for exes to continue sharing responsibility for pets to some extent. 

Sometimes, however, the divorcing parties must make a heartbreaking decision: that it’s in everyone’s best interest to give up their animals. According to the ASPCA, divorce is the number one reason why people relinquish pets. Most animals, especially dogs and cats, tend to be deeply attached to their families and homes, so this is not ideal. But if the divorcing parties lack the time, energy and/or financial resources to care for pets following the divorce, it may be the best choice. If an animal was adopted through a particular rescue organization, start there–the organization may have a policy of accepting the animal back. 

Before taking that step, however, look for temporary solutions. Could a relative or friend take the pets for a few weeks to allow you time to move and get settled? Some shelters will place pets with a foster family and keep them for a specified length of time before making them available for adoption–allowing the owner time to reunite with them. 

Additionally, look to the future. Divorce is stressful, and a furry or feathered companion can make it less lonely. And the hard times won’t last forever. Following divorce, people settle into new homes, new routines and new lives. And often there’s room for the beloved pet, too.


With a combined 30 years in family law, the attorneys at Jones Family Law Group, LLC, are highly experienced in high conflict divorces where depositions are common. We can provide the legal guidance you need.