Who gets the dog? Spain introduces shared custody for pets
Updated 03:11, 13-Jan-2022
Catherine Newman


Spain has ruled that, as with children, divorced couples should in some cases share custody of pets, such as family cats and dogs. 

The new law recognizes pets as "living, sentient beings" for the first time in civil cases, instead of being seen as mere "objects." 


What does the new law in Spain mean? 

European law already recognized animals as sentient beings, with rights and interests that need to be taken into account in regional administrative laws and Spain's criminal code. However, this recognition was not present in the Spanish Civil Code, which concerns property, family and obligations. 

Now, lawyers in Spain have a legal basis to address certain issues, including what to do with pets in divorce cases. 

Family courts must consider both the animal's welfare, as well as the family needs, when deciding who looks after the goldfish or turtle. The only exclusion in the changes are "animals placed or destined in a farm dedicated to livestock, industrial or recreational exploitation." 

The legislation was drafted by the ruling Socialists party and its leftist coalition partner Podemos. It aims to end the legal wrangling that often erupts among estranged couples over who keeps pets. 

It stipulates that owners must "guarantee" the pet's wellbeing and that if either spouse has a history of cruelty to animals, he or she may be refused custody of the animal. 

The law, which amends Spain's civil code, mortgage law and civil procedure law, also requires courts to consider the animal's welfare when settling disputes over who inherits pets. 

The law was proposed in 2017 but two general elections in 2019 delayed the approval process. The legislation was approved by all parties aside from the far-right Vox party.


What is sentience? 

According to a 2013 review titled Searching for Animal Sentience: A Systematic Review of the Scientific Literature, animal sentience is "the ability of animals to feel and experience emotions such as joy, pleasure, pain and fear." 

It is described as "animals' capacity to feel both positive and negative states that drives the animal welfare movement and the reason why animal protection laws exist."

Spain is also in the process of introducing a new animal welfare bill, which will ban pet shops from selling animals and impose strict rules on pet care. 


Pets had previously been considered 'objects' under Spanish law. /Martin Deja/Getty Creative via CFP

Pets had previously been considered 'objects' under Spanish law. /Martin Deja/Getty Creative via CFP


How is animal sentience recognized across Europe? 

Spain is the latest European country to recognize animals as sentient beings, joining a group that includes France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Portugal. 

The UK also introduced a new bill in May 2021 that stated vertebrate animals will be recognized as sentient beings as part of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, after pressure from 50 animal charities. 

Since its introduction, octopuses, squid and lobsters, animals which were previously not put in this bracket due to their lack of backbones, have also been recognized. This review means that commercial practices such as live boiling without stunning, transporting animals in icy water, the sale of live crustaceans to untrained handlers and extreme slaughter methods will also be changed. 


What has been the response to the law? 

Guillermo Diaz from the center-right party Ciudadanos, was one of the backers of the law, saying: "We are the only species that recognizes the suffering of others and as such we have an obligation to prevent that suffering." 

He added that up until now, "animals were not considered different from a television."

Maria Gonzalez Lacabex, from animal protection legal organization INTERcids, also said the changes were a step in the right direction: "It's a step forward and it says that in separations and divorces, the arrangement that will be applied to the animals will take into account not only the interests of the humans, but also of the animal."

One lone voice of opposition was Angel Lopez Maraver, a lawmaker for the Vox party and former president of the Spanish Hunting Federation, who described the law as "insanity, nonsense, stupidity. It humanizes animals and dehumanizes man."

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