Cats in divorce – what is best for the cat?

In the UK, and the USA, and I suspect many other so-called developed countries, the family cat is currently treated as a family asset to be divided on fairness principles just like any other family asset. The argument is that the cat, as a sentient being, should be treated as a child. In divorce proceedings, the judge decides what happens to the child based on their best interests. There is a strong argument that cats and other pets should be placed with children when deciding what happens to them in divorce. This fits more properly with modern attitudes regarding the caregiving of companion animals.

Cats in divorce
Cats in divorce. Image: MikeB, based on Pixabay image of warring couple and free transparent background image of cat online.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

And even though judges, both in the UK and the USA, should decide what happens to pets as if they are dividing up family assets such as money and the house, some judges break free of these constraints and decide who should have the cat based on more equitable principles namely what is in the best interest of the cat. They shouldn’t do this really under the law because the law, as mentioned, treats cats as inanimate objects.

RELATED: Are cats sensitive to human emotions?

A point has to be made that in divorce proceedings the domestic cat will suffer from stress. They will pick up on the animosity between the parties and it is a foregone conclusion that they will be stressed when one party moves out of the family home with all the disruption that that brings. The cat might be taken to a new home as well. We know that this would be highly disruptive and stressful for a cat. This points to the need to take into account the welfare of the companion animal in divorce proceedings and not to regard them as objects.

The law is slow to change but it needs to catch up with modern attitudes that cats are family members. In the UK there is a bill going through Parliament called the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill 2021 which could change things. It has passed through the House of Lords and is in the committee stage in the Commons.

It requires that the government should properly consider animal sentience when deciding legislation. It might lead to a change in the law governing the division of family assets on divorce under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973.

In regarding a cat as a sentient being, a judge would have to consider what is best for the cat under law as stated in the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which specifies that the cat should be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease as core welfare considerations.

And in order to better protect the interests of the family cat in divorce proceedings, they will need a representative at court to speak on their behalf. There would be three advocates in divorce proceedings: a lawyer acting for the husband, a lawyer acting for the wife and a lawyer acting for the cat (or other companion animal). That’s the way it should be if the law finally regards companion animals as sentient beings.

RELATED: Sentience is central to cat welfare

What does sentience mean? It means a recognition that the animal has feelings and emotions and can feel pain. We know that domestic cats are sentient beings because we know that they have feelings. Perhaps not as advanced as the feelings of humans but they exist.

RELATED: America needs an animal sentience law.

The law is catching up with what is happening in family households. The problem from a practical point of view is that both in the USA and the UK the family courts are bogged down with arguments about who should have the kids on divorce. If the same procedure relates to the family cat and dog, there will be more work to do in family courts.

There will be more arguments along the lines of “who gets the kid”. If cats are going to be placed in the same bracket as children on divorce, it might encourage more arguments about who has custody and who has visitation rights. Do we really need that?

It is ironic that when the law states that parents and the court must decide what happens to the family child in divorce proceedings based on the best interests of the child as a paramount consideration, the parents end up treating the child as a family asset, an inanimate object, pushing and shoving to try and take possession of “it”. Such is human instinct.

The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers conducted a poll of 1,500 members. About 25% said they had noticed an increase in custody issues concerning companion animals. This is treating cats and dogs as children. In one case, in 1994, Florida’s first District Court of Appeals overturned a lower court’s decision regarding custody and visitation rights of the family dog. The appeal court decided that this was the wrong way to do things and that the dog should be treated as an asset and distributed equitably as per statute i.e. like the family car.

This was an example of a lower court judge breaking out of the constraints of current statute law and making a decision about who should keep the dog or cat based on what’s in the best interest of the animal not on fairness of distribution of family assets.

This discussion will rumble on but if the law is to come into line with actuality it’s got to change and start treating cats as members of the family and take into consideration their feelings and what is best in the interests of their welfare.

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