Pets Are Part of Our Family…Or Are They?

George Graham Vest was a U.S. politician and lawyer. Vest served as a Missouri Congressman, a Confederate Congressman during the Civil War, and finally a US Senator. He is best known for his “a man’s best friend” closing arguments from the trial in which damages were sought for the killing of a dog named Old Drum.

During the trial which occurred in 1869, Vest stated that he would “win the case or apologize to every dog in Missouri.” Vest’s closing argument to the jury made no reference to any of the testimony offered during the trial, and instead offered a eulogy of sorts. Vest’s “Eulogy on the Dog” is one of the most enduring, passionate and moving passages of  prose in American courtroom history. Among other very moving prose, Vest told the jury:  “The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him and the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his dog.”

More than 140 years after Vest argued to and won over a jury by making “a man’s best friend is his dog” part of our lexicon, the law continues to treat dogs (and all animals) as property.  Despite the fact many people feel their pets are part of their family – and pets are often considered as children by some couples –custody rights have not been extended to apply to pets.  This means that when there is a divorce, a judge will likely not make custody or visitation orders that apply to the pets. However, the laws can change if courageous trial judges and creative lawyers support novel legal approaches, so it is possible that such an order will be made sometime in the future.

Taking legally novel ideas to court costs money.  If people do not have the financial resources to fight the fight over pet custody or visitation, then they need to cooperate, as many do, to reach voluntary agreements about sharing the family pets after the divorce.  If this is not possible, particularly if one or both or the individuals will not make a good-faith effort to agree, then sadly the pets will be treated as property. This means placing a fair market value on the pets and awarding the pets to one of the spouses – just like the pots and pans.  This award need not have anything to do with the pet’s best interest, or the feelings of either person in the divorce.

Taking a case involving pet custody/visitation to the higher courts in an attempt to change the law would be time-consuming and expensive.  Rather, this is the perfect issue for legislative change. If you are or ever have been in this kind of dilemma over a pet, or simply if you feel deeply about it, sending a letter or making call to your state representative could be a first step to encourage establishing a statutory basis for pet custody or visitation in divorce. Until there is a change in law, we are left with the unfortunate reality that while a dog may be a man’s best friend, in the eyes of the law, man is not a dog’s best friend.