What You Need to Know About Animals and the Law

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An estimated 65% of American households own a pet, and in total, those households spend about $72 billion per year on their pets. Attitudes about animals are changing, and laws are being updated to reflect those changes.

Pets Are Part of the Family

People today consider their pets part of the family much more so than in the past. Pets are adopted from shelters at a higher rate than they are purchased from stores or breeders. As a result, people often refer to their pets as family rather than something that they own. Animals hold a different value than other types of property. Pets offer companionship and comfort. Millennials are waiting until later in life to have children, but they are the majority of pet owners. Some people report that they spend more on health care for their pets than for their own. It is easy to understand why so many Americans refer to their pets as “fur babies.”


Because of their status in the home, pets can become a contentious part of a divorce. Divorcing spouses are now asking to have pet custody be a part of their final agreement. The Uniform Marraige and Divorce Act does not provide for pet custody, but a few states have enacted statutes to deal with the issue. Generally, courts have treated pets as property, granting possession to one spouse. However, recognition is growing that many people do not view their pets that way. Courts may now grant primary custody to one spouse with visitation to the other like they do for children of the marriage. In a few states, the court must consider the animal’s well-being as part of the divorce decree.

Domestic Violence

Nearly half of domestic violence victims delayed leaving their abusers because of their pets. Abusers often threaten the safety of pets, and not many domestic violence shelters have the capacity to accept pets. Alaska passed legislation that allows pets to be part of a domestic abuse restraining order, and a few other states have followed. There are also organizations that help victims pay for temporary boarding or find shelters that accept pets.

Animal Rights

Most animal rights laws are enacted at the state level, and all fifty states have laws that make cruelty to animals a felony. State laws most often deal with companion animals, sometimes limited to dogs and cats. These laws regulate things like vaccinations, standards for commercial breeders and how long shelters must hold animals before euthanizing. A small number of states prohibit the retail sale of companion animals. Local county and city governments are also starting to enact laws and ordinances aimed at the puppy mill industry. Hot car laws are also gaining popularity. These laws allow bystanders to rescue animals from cars in hot weather and give immunity from civil and criminal liability.

Federal laws include the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act (PACT).  The AWA regulates the treatment of animals in zoos and laboratories. The ESA protects animals (and plants) on the endangered species list. The PACT makes certain acts of egregious animal cruelty a federal crime.

State and federal law will continue to evolve with changing views about animals.