British Columbia Introduces First Canadian Pet Custody Legislation

The British Columbia government has introduced a groundbreaking new bill to modernize pet custody laws, offering greater protections to ensure the well-being of companion animals in custody cases.

While most Canadians agree that pets are important members of the family, provincial divorce and separation laws have historically treated them the same as any other property, like a table or toaster. There are currently no provincial laws in place to offer guidance on how to resolve pet custody disputes.

BC’s Bill 17, known as the Family Law Amendment Act, 2023, was introduced in March 2023, and would help guide judges on how to handle custody disputes when a couple separates. If the couple cannot agree on who should care for a companion animal, a judge will consider:

  • How the pet became part of the family.
  • How much each spouse took care of the pet.
  • Any history or risks of family violence, or cruelty or threats toward the animal.
  • The relationship that a child has with the animal.
  • Whether each spouse is able and willing to take care of the animal’s basic needs.

The bill also says that judges can’t order joint custody of an animal. If both people agree to share their pet, they can still do so, but the law would prevent judges from imposing shared custody on the separating couple.

A First of Its Kind in Canada

Currently, there are no clear legal rules in any Canadian province about what should happen to pets when couples separate, which has led to inconsistency in the approaches taken by courts. Some judges have complained loudly about being asked to handle pet custody disputes, deeming animals unimportant. Some judges seek to determine what is in the best interests of the animal. Others treat them like property, focusing on who spent the most money purchasing the animal, or who paid for licenses or veterinary care.

Pets are sentient beings, not objects, which is why Animal Justice believes the proposed new laws will better reflect the values of Canadians today, many of whom see their companion animals as members of the family.