When it comes to domestic violence, most of us think of it mainly in the context of what is happening to the victimized spouse/partner and how to keep any children safe from the threats of violence. We don’t often consider the question: what about the pets? One long-overlooked aspect of domestic violence is how frequently family pets are used as leverage between the perpetrator and the victim. Indeed, pet safety is a huge issue in these matters, and many people wonder how (or if) the protections California law offers extend to our animals.
The question is haunting whether you’re the victim or the defendant. If you’ve been accused of domestic violence, charged with a crime, and/or separated from your family through a protective order, you may wonder what will become of your dog or cat—particularly if that pet is technically yours. Let’s take a closer look at how California addresses the issue of what happens to family pets in domestic violence cases.
A Look at the Numbers
A New York organization called People and Animals Living Safely (PALS) recently conducted an eye-opening nationwide survey regarding pets in domestic violence situations. The numbers are both surprising and sobering. Among the highlights:
- Ninety-seven percent of polled domestic violence victims consider their pet’s safety when considering whether to leave their partner and go to a shelter.
- Half of those polled said they would not go to a shelter without their pet.
- A combined 66 percent said that their abusive partner had either threatened to harm or kill their pet or had already done so.
These statistics tell us two things:
- Pets are an integral part of family life and thus inextricable from the dynamics of domestic violence; and
- Domestic violence victims are often reluctant to seek help because they feel compelled to protect their pets.
California Law and Pet Protection
Traditionally, pets have been viewed as personal property in the legal system, and therefore they had few, if any, protections under the law when it came to domestic abuse. However, the law has significantly evolved in recent years, acknowledging the emotional bond between humans and their pets. As a result, more and more states are passing laws aimed at protecting pets in domestic violence situations–California among them. In fact, the state has some of the strongest pet protection laws in the nation.
Specifically, two elements of California law inform how the courts will act to protect pets in domestic violence situations.
Pets Can Be Covered in Protective Orders
In 2007, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill into law making California one of the earliest states to enable protective orders to cover “companion animals” provided that the alleged victim can show good cause. This element of the law is now embodied in California Family Code Section 6320. Under this law, the protective order can extend to animals owned by the plaintiff or the respondent. This means if you’re the person accused of domestic violence, your accuser can potentially get a protective order that keeps you from contact with the family animal, even if you are technically the owner of that animal–the same as if the protective order kept you from contact with your child.
Pets Are Now Family, Not Property
As of January 2019, the California Family Code has been amended to treat pets more like family than property in divorce settlements. The court may now consider the bond between pet and owner when deciding who will retain custody of an animal in cases involving family law disputes, including divorce and domestic violence. The idea here is that if a pet plays a major role in the life of the victim, it may be inappropriate to grant ownership of the animal to the abuser. This shift in the law also enables the courts to enforce the protection of animals in domestic violence cases, similarly to how it acts to protect children. Violating the terms of the order — including those related to pets — can result in criminal charges, fines, and jail time.
Legal Implications if You Are Accused
This new perspective on pets has far-reaching legal implications. If you’re accused of domestic violence in California, where there’s a pet in the home, it’s crucial to understand that any harm or threat to a pet is taken very seriously by the courts. So are allegations of threats made against pets in an attempt to control the accused. These actions can potentially lead to increased penalties and stricter protective orders. Here are some things to be prepared for:
- Pets Included in Protective Orders: You could be legally prohibited from approaching or contacting the pet, similar to other family members included in the order.
- Used as Evidence: Allegations of pet threats or abuse can be used as evidence in court, possibly influencing the case outcome. Courts recognize that pets can be used as tools of manipulation and control in abusive relationships, which can affect the severity of domestic violence charges or penalties.
- Possible Additional Charges: Animal abuse is a crime in California, so if your partner alleges that actual pet abuse occurred, it could lead to additional criminal charges unrelated to domestic violence charges.
- Loss of Pet Ownership: Since pets are considered family in California, depending on the severity of the accusations, the court might rule in favor of your alleged victim retaining sole custody of the pet.
While pets do not always play into domestic violence charges, and rarely do they result in steeper penalties (unless direct animal abuse occurs), the presence of a pet in the family can certainly add certain complications to your domestic violence case. A skilled Los Angeles domestic violence defense attorney can navigate these complexities to help protect your rights concerning any pets while your case is being resolved. Call our offices to schedule a consultation.