Are Pets Considered Legal Family Members?

If you've ever had the glorious opportunity of connecting with an animal on an intimate level, then you fully understand why a majority of individuals undeniably consider their pets to be a part of the family. Some people may even argue that their pets — who generally can't talk back, don't need expensive schooling, and are mostly always happy when you walk in the door — make for superior family members.

The mere fact that pet ownership sky-rocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, with 1 in 3 Americans choosing to adopt a furry (or scaly) friend, shows how important comfort creatures have become. According to the most recent APPA National Pet Owners Survey, 90.5 million U.S. households (approximately 70% of U.S. homes) have a pet.

As pet ownership becomes more and more ubiquitous, so does the need to legally define what this ownership means for individuals — especially for individuals experiencing hardship like death and divorce.

Family court takes interest in family pets

The human-animal bond dates back to the Stone Age and beyond. Greger Larson, an evolutionary geneticist notable for his work on animal domestication, told Smithsonian Magazine, "We know that dogs, without a doubt, were the first domestic animal." Larson and his team have found evidence of domesticated dogs in Europe dating back nearly 16,000 years. Additionally, a study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B found that the oldest dog remains found in the Americas date back 10,150 years. So yeah, the concept of the pet has been around for a hot minute. The concept of family court, however, is much younger in comparison. So it's no surprise that we are only now diving into the definitions of what makes a pet a family member.

Whether you think solving this quandary is frivolous or crucial, there's no doubt that it will help ease legally complicated processes such as death or divorce. A California law passed in 2019, tackles this exact issue, "The court, at the request of a party to proceedings for dissolution of marriage or for legal separation of the parties, may enter an order, prior to the final determination of ownership of a pet animal, to require a party to care for the pet animal." Similar pet protection laws have been passed in France, Portugal, and most recently Spain (via CNN).

Pets no longer recognized as property

While these types of Family Code laws do not explicitly state that pets are family members, they are crucial first steps in the process of pets getting universally recognized as a quintessential part of the household. Prior to these bills passing, pets were treated as property as opposed to sentient beings and in many parts of the world, this is still the case. Some passionate pet protectors argue that without legally recognizing pets as living, breathing creatures, this makes cruelty harder to prosecute.

Considering there are lots of organizations such as the Animal Legal Defense Fund fighting to shape "a legal system that protects animals' right to flourish in their own ecological communities and to live their lives according to their emotional and physical capacities," it's only a matter of time until these types of protective laws will be passed across the board. Soon, Fluffy and Fido will be more than just the creatures keeping you company on a lonely night — they'll be your chosen family.