Images of cats and dogs with the text The Humane Society of New York Since 1904

Frequently Asked Q&A

The information provided refers primarily to New York laws and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice. Do not rely or act upon any information below without seeking the advice of an attorney in your state regarding the facts of your specific situation.

My roommate and I shared a cat. My roommate moved out and took the cat. What are my rights?

The person who adopted or purchased the animal is often (but not always) in a better position to prove “ownership” of the animal, particularly if the animal was adopted or purchased before the individuals moved in together. However, if litigated, other facts will also be considered. For example, was the animal given to one of the individuals as a gift? Under whose name is the animal licensed or microchipped? Who is listed as the “owner” in veterinary records? Was the animal abandoned by one of the disputing individuals? Who is the animal’s primary caretaker and who pays for the animal’s food, grooming, veterinary care, etc.? Evidence that one of the parties moved out and left the animal for an extended period of time and did not share in the expenses for the animal’s care during this time or visit the animal may be considered by a court in determining if one party abandoned or gave away the animal.

Courts tend not to issue shared pet custody or visitation orders (although they have done so) since animals are still generally considered property. Nevertheless, on occasion, courts will consider the interests of the animal. In fact, a growing number of states, including NY, have passed laws requiring courts to consider the best interests of animals in divorce and legal separation proceedings. In NY, see Domestic Relations Law, section 236, Part B, 5 (d) (15). Also, in one notable New York cat custody case not involving a married couple, the court stated: “Cognizant of the cherished status accorded to pets in our society, the strong emotions engendered by disputes of this nature, and the limited ability of the courts to resolve them satisfactorily, on the record presented, we think it best for all concerned that, given his limited life expectancy, Lovey, who is now almost ten years old, remain where he has lived, prospered, loved and been loved for the past four years.” Raymond v. Lachmann, 264 A.D.2d 340 (1st Dept 1999).

Ideally, individuals would enter into written agreements specifying who will get the animal(s) in the event the relationship ends. When there is no such agreement (and there rarely is), the disputing individuals should set aside their differences and agree on a custody arrangement that is in the best interests of the animal.

When a person believes that his/her animal is being wrongfully withheld, he/she can commence a civil lawsuit for the return of the animal or for money. These cases can get complicated so an attorney should be retained if at all possible. The police tend not to get involved in pet custody disputes between roommates, friends, and family members, although they occasionally do if there is sufficient evidence that an animal was stolen.

» Back to Frequently Asked Q&A