Can the Court Award Custody of a Pet in Wisconsin?


When going through a divorce, the process is typically focused on the “big” issues. For most couples, this includes the division of assets and liabilities, support, and the custody/placement of minor children (where applicable). Most attorneys and judges are well versed in these issues because they are foundational to divorces.

A less common issue is what happens to family pets in the divorce. Are they considered “property” to be valued and accounted for in the division of assets and liabilities? Or are they more similar to minor children, and require a placement schedule for each party to spend time with the pet? According to the current applications of Wisconsin state law, pets are generally considered “property” and will be considered in the division of assets and liabilities. Although parties can agree to share the custody and placement of their pets, it is currently an uncommon practice in Wisconsin and courts are unlikely to approve or enforce an order which attempts to address custody of a pet.

While Wisconsin does not have laws pertaining to “animal custody”, a recent national trend in the law regarding pets may change that. A number of states, including Wisconsin, have enacted laws recognizing the need to include companion animals in domestic violence protective orders, with some going as far as ordering that abusers pay financial support for pets in the care of a victim of domestic violence.  Wisconsin Statute § 813.12(4)(a) states, part:

A judge or circuit court commissioner may grant an injunction ordering the respondent to refrain from … removing, hiding, damaging, harming, or mistreating, or disposing of, a household pet, to allow the petitioner or a family member or household member of the petitioner acting on his or her behalf to retrieve a household pet…

Further solidifying this trend in recognizing pets as more than property, Congress signed a law entitled the Pets and Women Safety (PAWS) Act in December 2018. The PAWS Act provides shelter and housing assistance for domestic violence survivors and their pets, service animals, and emotional support animals. This law recognizes that pets are more than simple property to their owners..

Although Wisconsin does not have any laws specifically granting custody rights to pets in a divorce or family law case, the court can still consider the facts unique to your case.  Even though the pet is considered to be property, if there is a dispute as to who receives the pet, some of the factors the court may consider are: who first purchased the pet; was it purchased during the marriage or before; who is primarily responsible for caring for the pet.  These are all factors worth considering, and although Wisconsin law doesn’t require family courts in Wisconsin to consider pets as more than property, legislation like the PAWS Act makes it easier for attorneys to argue that pets deserve special consideration in legal actions.

If you have a divorce or family law matter involving a beloved pet, contact the experienced legal team at Nelson, Krueger & Millenbach, LLC at 414-258-1644 or visit our website at to set up a free consultation.


Domestic Violence and the Family Pet

Puppy blocking its ears and looking up

Recently, Governor Walker signed into law 2015 Wisconsin Act 253, which allows court commissioners and judges presiding over restraining orders and injunctions to include protections for victims’ pets. This law allows the court to order abusers in domestic violence situations not to remove, hide, mistreat, or dispose of a family pet and also allows the court to order that a  victim, or an individual acting on behalf of the victim, be able to retrieve a pet. This legislation can help further protect victims, families, and pets to break free from the cycle of violence and allow the protection of pet to be addressed in legal proceedings such as Temporary Restraining Orders and Domestic Abuse or Harassment Injunctions.

It was recently reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that abusers use a variety of tactics to control their victims, and a remarkably common way to control victims is to harm or threaten to harm their pets. According to American Humane Society statistics, “71% of pet owners who seek safety at domestic abuse shelters report that their batterer had threatened, injured, maimed or killed family pets as a form of revenge or psychological torture.” The article also notes that “abuse victims cite concerns about the safety of their pets as the reason they stay in an abusive relationship.”

In allowing for the provision regarding family pets in the Temporary Restraining Orders and Injunctions, the goal is protect the pets, as well as to further encourage victims to seek help. The article goes on to state, in situations where domestic violence extends to family pets, “the message is maybe not implicit but it’s clear: My control over you extends over this animal. If I’ve abused you and battered you to the point that that’s no longer controlling you, I’ll abuse the animal you care about.” Hopefully this will remove that power of control from the abuser.

This article can be found at

While most pet owners consider their pets to be like family members or children, it is important to note that the legal system treats pets like property, subject to equal division in a divorce case. Because of parties’ emotional ties to their pets, and the legal treatment of pets, it is difficult for Courts to resolve these matters. In a family law setting without the factor of domestic violence, this can often be addressed in mediation, where parties can work together to craft creative solutions regarding their pets. However, in matters involving domestic violence, where mediation is not appropriate, if a perpetrator is looking for a way of hurting the victim, using the family pet to do so has become increasingly common. If you are looking to protect your family pet in a domestic violence situation outlined above, or protect yourself without concern for your pet, call us at (414) 258-1644 to schedule a free initial consultation to discuss your case.