Skip to content

Pets are more than just property in B.C.

New legislation makes animals more than mere property
Courts will now take greater care about placing pets after divorces in B.C. Photo credit: Langley Animal Protection Society

Last week the B.C. government unveiled the first of a series of changes that are expected to affect family law in this province. The first thing they decided to tackle was the thorny issue of pet ownership when a couple splits up.

That’s illuminating, in terms of how our relationships with animals have changed through the last century here in Canada.

Go back a hundred years, and dogs, cats, and livestock lived very different lives to what they do today. Sure, there have always been some pampered pooches and lap cats that had a warm blanket by the fire reserved exclusively for their use.

But in the main, animals – including pets – were seen at least as much as tools as they were companions. Many dogs were working breeds, there to help do jobs like herd sheep, guard livestock, or retrieve game. A cat’s place, meanwhile, was in the barn or the cellar, keeping the rat and mouse population under control. Pet food was usually scraps from the dinner table, and only rarely something that came pre-packaged in a can or bag.

But there have always been people who loved their animals. And during the last few generations, they’ve come to be considered more and more as members of the family. Animal cruelty laws – hard-won at the turn of the last century – have been more strictly enforced.

Yet our laws haven’t kept up with this social change. Pets are still property, with not many more rights than a couch or refrigerator.

The new regulations will take into consideration issues such as which spouse has the best ability to care for the animal, and whether a child in the family has a special relationship with the pet.

If adopted, this will be the first family law legislation in the country to treat pet ownership with this degree of care. Hopefully it will be adopted by other jurisdictions and extended across the country.

Our relationships with our pets are still changing. As families become smaller and our population ages, more people than ever are living alone, or as empty-nester couples, than ever before.

But we’re not alone. We’ve taken in dogs and cats and birds and tortoises and fish, and we’ve found joy in caring for them. It’s about time the law acknowledged how important they are to many people, and that a pet’s best interests need to be taken into account.

Matthew Claxton

About the Author: Matthew Claxton

Raised in Langley, as a journalist today I focus on local politics, crime and homelessness.
Read more