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Protecting Fur Babies from Domestic Violence

By: Beth Vogelsang, Esquire

On June 18, 2020, Florida’s governor signed a new law that gives courts the authority to extend orders of protection in domestic violence cases to include family pets. The amendment to Fla. Stats. §741.30 became effective on July 1, 2020, and it now authorizes a court entering a domestic violence injunction to:

  • Award domestic violence victims exclusive care, possession, or control of the family pet;
  • Order the alleged abuser to have no contact with the animal; and
  • Prohibit the alleged abuser from taking, transferring, encumbering, concealing, harming, or otherwise disposing of the animal.
    Agriculture animals are exempt, as are service animals where the alleged abuser is the animal’s handler.

Animal Abuse and Domestic Violence

A woman is battered every 15 seconds in the United States, and each day an average of three victims will die at the hands of a current or former partner. In a one-year period in Florida, there were 187 deaths as a result of domestic violence, representing approximately 19% of all homicides in the state.

An injunction is a court order prohibiting someone from doing a specified act. An injunction for protection against domestic violence may be requested by a family or household member. The petition must describe the domestic violence, including the specific facts and circumstances that support the request for an injunction. One factor the court may consider in deciding whether to grant a domestic violence injunction is whether the perpetrator intentionally injured or killed a family pet.

Last year in the United States, over $70 billion was spent on pets. In the United States, 67% of households have a pet. This amounts to approximately 84.9 million homes. Most people enjoy a close and loving relationship with their pets and consider their pets members of their family. Domestic abusers often exploit this emotional attachment and manipulate the victim’s relationship with their pets by causing or threatening harm to the pet.

The interrelationship between domestic violence and animal abuse is documented through the American Humane Association, which reports that 71% of women entering emergency shelters reported that the abuser had injured, maimed, killed, or threatened family pets for revenge or to psychologically control victims. It also reports that between 25% and 40% of battered women delay leaving an abusive situation because they fear for the safety of their animal.

Pets are Personal Property

Until this law was passed, many judges believed that they had no power to issue orders protecting animals when entering domestic violence injunctions, even if the allegations included threats to harm the family pet. This is because Florida considers animals to be possessions, and courts are not authorized to order division of possessions in domestic violence proceedings.

This new domestic violence law changes that. Florida was late in the game in passing this legislation. As of 2019, 33 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico had enacted legislation explicitly authorizing a court to order relief pertaining to pets in a domestic violence injunction proceeding. Such relief generally includes awarding the exclusive care, custody, and control of a pet to the petitioner, ordering the respondent to have no contact with a pet, and enjoining the respondent from harming or disposing of, or threatening to harm or dispose of, a pet.

Pet Owners and Divorce

The expansion of the safety net to include family pets in domestic violence proceedings is a win/win. It will likely increase reporting of domestic violence when victims learn they can protect their pets as well and will add much-needed protection to victims’ fur babies.

It remains to be seen whether this change in the law will result in similar changes for pet owners’ rights in divorce proceedings. When a married couple divorces, the question of who gets to keep the family pet often arises. Unlike laws designed to protect the best interests of children in divorce, law for pets is intended to benefit the owner. Under Florida law, since pets are considered to be personal property the courts are limited to awarding a pet to one owner or the other, much like the family car.

Since pets are such an important part of peoples’ lives, some states are beginning to change their laws to treat pets more like children. To date, this has primarily occurred with dogs. California, Alaska have enacted pet custody laws, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Washington DC have legislation pending that would do the same. Courts have considered the best interest of the pets in determining who gets custody of them. They have also awarded shared custody, visitation, and doggy support payments to the owners. If a court is unwilling to do this, owners often work out a contract between themselves instead.

Even if the laws were to change to allow for courts to consider custody and visitation of pets, which relationships could request such relief and which pets would qualify would also have to be determined. The potential for changes in pet custody laws is a given. This change could be in Florida’s near future, as four-legged friends are so much more than property to most people.

If you should have any questions or concerns, Beth Vogelsang may be contacted at beth.vogelsang@henlaw.com or by phone at 239-344-1244.