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How Are Pet Ownership Disputes Handled in Virginia?



An issue that sometimes arises when a couple ends their relationship is the matter of who keeps the family pet. If the couple is married, ownership may be resolvable through the divorce process.


But how is this issue handled in cases where the couple isn’t married? In this post, I will be discussing how Virginia courts handle pet ownership disputes in such instances.



Pets as Property


For someone who shares a close bond with their pet, it can be tempting to assume that a pet ownership dispute should be handled similarly to a visitation or custody proceeding. But for better or worse, Virginia law considers dogs and cats, as well as other animals, to be personal property. Accordingly, the proper legal procedure for addressing a pet ownership dispute is through filing a warrant in detinue. Often filed in a Virginia General District Court, a detinue action can be used to recover a pet from a person who has less of an ownership interest over the pet but nevertheless enjoys physical possession over it.


An action brought in detinue requires proof of several elements, including that: 1) the plaintiff has property in the thing sought to be recovered; 2) the plaintiff has the right to its immediate possession; 3) the property is capable of identification; 4) the property has some value; and 5) the defendant must has had possession at some time period prior to the institution of the action. McGrath v. Dockendorf, 292 Va. 834 (2016).


Applying this framework to pet ownership disputes specifically, it can be difficult to prove that the plaintiff has more ownership over the pet than the defendant, especially in cases where the parties cohabitated and took care of the pet together. For this reason, the outcome of this type of case can hinge on whether the plaintiff can produce evidence showing that he or she was more involved than than the defendant in the acquisition and establishment of care over the pet. Such evidence may include, for example, proof that the plaintiff solely adopted, purchased, chipped, or established veterinary care for the pet.


A plaintiff who succeeds in a detinue action may be entitled to monetary damages, the return of the pet, or the value of the pet if the return is not possible.



Consult an Attorney


Regardless of your circumstances, it can be worthwhile to consult with an experienced attorney to explore your legal options.


Please be mindful that every case has different facts and can implicate different areas of the law. As such, the subject matter contained within this article should not be interpreted as specific legal advice for any individual case. Please contact Curcio & Curcio, PC at 276-466-3377 if you are need of any of the following:

  • An attorney in Bristol, VA

  • An attorney in Abingdon, VA or the broader Washington County area

  • An attorney in Marion, VA or the broader Smyth County area

  • An attorney in the broader Southwest Virginia area.


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