As our lovable and affectionate pooches increasingly shift from being “man’s best friend”, sleeping in the barn, guarding the sheep and goats to, for a variety of reasons, something more, with sweaters, play-dates, and urban dog parks, what happens when a couple breaks up and their dog served in a de facto childlike role? Who obtains custody of the beloved pooch?
Unlike some interesting trends in several other states, Pennsylvania law is very clear on this issue. To the chagrin of dog lovers, dogs are simply treated as personal property, like the couch, television, or tractor. Under applicable Pennsylvania Law, “all dogs are hereby declared to be personal property and subjects of theft”. 3 Pennsylvania Statutes § 459-601. Animal cruelty laws are on the books to prevent abuse to animals, obviously.
The Superior Court of Pennsylvania, when presented with the case of a dog owner trying to enforce a consensual, formal, signed and notarized, “dog visitation” schedule in a recorded marital settlement agreement denied the requested relief stating, ”Appellant is seeking an arrangement analogous, in law, to a visitation schedule for a table or a lamp”. The court held that formal shared custody arrangements of dogs are not enforceable in Pennsylvania. Desanctis v. Pritchard, 2002 PA Super 221.
Is this how a particular court would really look at the matter in small claims litigation, however? If a party sued in tort for the return of a dog, in similar manner to the return of a tractor, would the magistrate or judge look only to the official registration and possession of the dog?
Would the court, if ownership and registration was unclear, possibly also look at “health, safety and welfare” factors such as, “who walks the dog more”, “who pays for the vet bills”, and “who has more time to care for the dog” in a similar manner to a custody trial and the standard statutory “best interests of the minor child” factors? Would that depend on whether the magistrate or judge was an affectionate dog owner? Would it depend upon whether you were in a rural or urban county? Can a court legally consider those factors if state law considers a dog protected from abuse, but personal property like a, “a table or lamp”?
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