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"Has anyone seen my cat?" - Pet-Nups and Pet Disputes between Unmarried Couples

From Monday, all cats in England have to be microchipped and registered on a database. The new legislation applies to all cats aged 20 weeks and older, including indoor cats. Owners who fail to adhere to this regulation will be subject to a financial penalty, with a fine of £500 levied against those who do not comply within a 21-day period. 

This legislative development (which has existed for dogs since 6 April 2016) has got us thinking about pet disputes and how they might be resolved as part of a succession dispute or between unmarried couples.  We have been asking questions such as: is the name on the microchip definitive proof as to who owns the cat or dog?  Or will factors such as who looks after the pet, who pays for the pet, who runs their social media or (perhaps most importantly) who the pet loves more, be relevant?  As the number of ‘fur babies’ grows (and as some of those fur babies can be lucrative ‘pet influencers’), these issues seem increasingly relevant because – if the relationship breaks down – who gets to keep the cat?  

In English law, domestic pets are considered “chattels”.  This means that they are capable of being owned solely or jointly with another person. In the context of unmarried couples, it also means that rules relating to their ownership and possession are governed by the law of property and, as such, the question of who keeps the cat will depend on who owns the cat.    

Establishing ownership is therefore the central issue in any pet dispute between unmarried couples.  There is currently no legislation or case law for proving ownership of a cat.  Whilst the new microchip regime records the name and address of the person with whom the cat normally resides, it does not record legal ownership (nor does it currently confer any legal presumption in favour of the registered keeper).  Indeed, we note that the legislation is careful not to refer to the registered person as the owner of the cat, but instead terms them “keeper”.  

Without clear guidance as to the criteria for establishing ownership of a pet, we believe that the court would take account of any number of factors. These might include: 

  • who paid for the pet?
  • who registered (or chipped) the pet?
  • who pays the pet insurance and vets' bills? 
  • who primarily cares for the pet?
  • who invests more time into their pet (walking and playing with them, running their social media, curating pet photos)
  • who is the pet currently living with? 
  • was the pet a gift?

Given this uncertainty, it is perhaps unsurprising that unmarried couples are looking at alternative ways to ensure they keep the cat.  One option that is gaining noticeable traction is collaborative agreements. Like “pet-nups” for married couples (or pre-nups for pets), these agreements set out the parties’ consensus as to what should happen to the pets in the event of separation. Some even go beyond who keeps the cat to include how other responsibilities, such as vet bills and daily care might be managed post-separation, and even visitation rights. These types of arrangement strike us as a sensible way for parties to avoid further heartache at what can already be a very difficult time. After all, you cannot become a cat lady unless you keep the cat.  

Your dog must be microchipped and registered by the time they’re 8 weeks old. Your cat must be microchipped and registered by the time they’re 20 weeks old. This includes cats that usually only stay indoors.

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