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Splitting Hairs

Splitting HairsCustody battles over pets are becoming increasingly common, according to a Tufts animal law specialist. No. Grafton, Mass.

Boston [05.14.04] More and more marriages are ending in divorce - leaving a growing number of people in custody battles over children, homes and valued possessions. But increasingly, couples are also entering the courtroom over another valuable - their pets. Cats and dogs are becoming a new consideration in everything from settlement cases to prenuptial agreements, according to a Tufts expert.

"The hottest topic isn't the best interest of the husband or the wife or the children," Paul Waldau - a clinical assistant professor at Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine - told Seattle's King 5 News. "The hottest topic is actually the best interest of the dog or cat."

Waldau - who teaches an animal law course on pet custody at the Veterinary School's Center for Animals and Public Policy- says the trend has emerged among many couples who view their pets as children.

"People treat their companion animals as if they are truly central members of the family," Waldau told Idaho's KIDK-TV News.

But while many owners consider their pets "full-fledged family members, legal theory hasn't caught up yet," Waldau told the Boston Herald.

Some courts won't necessarily honor animal arrangements - and the ones who do will have very little legal statue to go on. Consequently, today's judges are being forced to re-examine laws from more than a century ago that regard animals as property.

"In the eyes of the law, a pet has no greater status than your computer," Waldau, a former trial lawyer, told the Herald.

Under Massachusetts law, whichever party owned the pet first is entitled to custody. And unlike child custody cases that consider the ‘best interests' of the child, emotions of the animals do not play into the picture.

"Judges who face this have a conundrum," Waldau told the Herald. "They may know who the dog would be better off with, but legally, the dog is the property of the owner."


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