Is Pet Abuse by Your Ex Domestic Violence?

Is Pet Abuse by Your Ex Domestic Violence?

Domestic violence isn’t limited to people; it can, as terrible as this reality is, extend to pets. Understandably, if you find you are in a situation where your ex is abusing your pet, you are probably looking for answers now and with good reason. 

For pet lovers, our unconditionally loving little friends are family members we instinctually want to protect. Fortunately, in Washington state, the law takes pet abuse seriously. So, if you want to know what will happen should your ex abuse your pet and whether pet abuse is domestic violence, read on. 

Pet Custody in Divorce

Before diving into a discussion of domestic violence against pets by an ex, it is important to understand how pet custody works in Washington divorces. The issue of who will get custody of the family pet in divorce can be complicated, beginning with the fact that pets aren’t people. They are property. 

That said, pet laws in Washington state have been evolving to reflect a broader societal shift recognizing the emotional bonds pets and their human caregivers share and the role pets play in families. Even so, Washington has laws in place addressing the future of pets in divorce, which are not based on emotions.  

The state of Washington does not have specific laws regarding pet custody. The decision about where a pet goes after a divorce is typically up to the individual spouses; generally, it is not a matter for the court. Divorcing couples may arrange visiting schedules or shared custody of pets, similar to arrangements made for children. However, Washington courts do not intervene in pet custody matters.

In contrast, other states have enacted laws to address this issue. For example, in Alaska, courts can determine the placement of a family pet after a divorce, considering the pet’s best interests. Additionally, the law addresses pet custody in cases of domestic violence.

Thankfully, society continues to demonstrate growing consideration for animal welfare, and Washington state may eventually update its laws. However, divorcing pet owners must decide based on the current legal view of pets as property.

Pets as Community Property

In Washington state, pets are legally considered property. Since Washington is a community property state, a pet is usually considered separate property if one spouse owned it before the marriage. It remains with its original owner after the divorce. If the couple acquired the pet during the marriage, it is likely considered community property and treated as jointly owned.

However, there is a growing recognition of pets’ significant roles in families and daily life. In divorces involving children and pets, pets often follow the children or are included in joint custody arrangements similar to those for the children. Pet custody disputes are more intense in cases where the couple does not have children.

When divorcing couples cannot reach an agreement, courts will consider several factors when deciding which spouse should gain ownership of the pet, including:

  • Whether the pet was a gift.
  • Which of the spouses financially supports the pet.
  • Veterinary records.
  • The spouse with whom the pet primarily lives.
  • The pet’s monetary value.
  • Any bill of sale or adoption/purchase contract.
  • The name under which the pet is registered.
  • The spouse who initially acquired the pet.
  • The presence of children who have a close bond with the pet.

Pet Protection Orders and Domestic Violence

According to Michigan State University’s Animal Legal and Historical Center, as of 2024, 40 states, including Washington, have enacted legislation to include pet provisions in domestic violence protection orders. 

Washington’s legislature explained the policy underly the law in House Bill 1148: “The legislature finds that considerable research shows a strong correlation between animal abuse, child abuse, and domestic violence. The legislature intends that perpetrators of domestic violence not be allowed to further terrorize and manipulate their victims, or the children of their victims, by using the threat of violence toward pets.”

Specifically, Washington state law allows courts to include pets in protective orders for domestic abuse cases. The court can grant the petitioner exclusive custody or control of any pet owned by either party or their child. The court can also prohibit the respondent from interfering with the petitioner’s efforts to remove the pet. Additionally, the court can prevent the respondent from coming near places where the pet is regularly found.

Evidence Demonstrating Violence Against Pets by an Ex

The evidence you collect demonstrating violence against a pet by an ex will be critical in protecting your pet. If your ex has threatened to harm a pet belonging to you or them, keep records of what they said. Such statements are generally admissible as evidence under rules concerning admissions by a party opponent. Record in your notes when the threat occurred and if anyone else might have heard it, such as a neighbor, another household member, or someone else in the vicinity. If applicable, describe the context, including the conversation and your ex’s body language at the time of the threat.

If Your Ex Has Already Physically Harmed the Pet

If your ex has already physically harmed the pet, collect as many details about the incident as you can. Find out if the animal required veterinary care as a result. If so, get evidence of the visit. Don’t worry if you can’t access this information; a family law attorney can subpoena the animal hospital later. If the abuse was recent, take photos. 

In addition to statements made by the abuser, testimony from witnesses or those who saw the immediate aftermath of pet abuse, and photographs of injuries, other pieces of evidence a court could find valuable testimony from veterinarians, police officer statements, evidence of prior animal abuse, and previous convictions for animal abuse. Gather this information as your situation allows but without putting yourself or your pet in harm’s way.

The Broader Context of Domestic Violence

Alongside these details, it will be helpful if you detail the broader context of the abuse. Were there events leading up to the incident and any past similar conflicts? What do you believe motivated the abuse? How did they react? How did your ex behave afterward? Did the abuse serve as a form of control, such as preventing you from leaving your home or another location?

The court needs to understand how animal abuse fits into an overall pattern of abusive behavior of your ex against you. Demonstrating with evidence that the abuser used the pet to control you can be pivotal in showing the court the role of animal abuse in domestic violence.

If you and your spouse are still living together, you may be considering how to leave. If so, it is important to plan for your pet’s well-being and safety, as well as your own. 

To avoid future disputes over pets, consider including pets in prenups. 

No divorcing pet owner is exempt from disputes over who will keep the family pet. Fortunately, having a prenuptial agreement can help.

Traditionally, prenuptial agreements didn’t consider pets, but now, family law attorneys in Washington state are seeing a rise in pet prenups. These agreements can clarify who will keep the pets after a divorce. However, a prenup doesn’t necessarily make parting from beloved pets any easier.

If you believe your ex is abusing your pet, hire a Seattle family law attorney to file a pet protection order.

If you have information that your ex is engaging in pet abuse, speak with a Washington state family law attorney immediately. Even if you aren’t sure your ex is abusing your pet but suspect they might be, given their history of domestic abuse, let your lawyer know about any pets you share. They will need this information when they petition the court for an order of protection on your behalf and your pet’s.  

At Elise Buie Family Law, we understand how much you love your pets and how devastating it is to think of them hurt by your ex. Our compassionate family lawyers are here to support you. Contact us today or schedule a consultation here.

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