By Dr. Becker
Not so long ago, when couples got divorced, their pets were viewed as property to be divvied up right along with the furniture and fine china. And in fact, in the eyes of the law, that’s what a pet is – personal property. But more recently, with both divorce and pet ownership rates soaring, pet custody has become a stickier issue when couples split up.
Pets are often viewed as family members these days, and divorcing couples are more apt to battle each other for the right to keep a beloved dog or cat. In recognition of the human-animal bond, and because pet custody is a sensitive subject not unlike child custody disputes, divorce mediators and family court judges are recognizing the need to consider what’s best for the pet.
According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF):1
"Although animals are considered property in the eyes of the law at this time, some courts are beginning to recognize that one’s relationship with this particular form of property known as the family cat, dog, bird etc., is much different from one’s relationship with other forms of property such as your couch, your watch or your coffee pot."
In deciding who should be awarded custody of a family pet, the court may consider such things as:
- Which party takes care of the animal’s basic daily needs for such things as food, shelter, potty walks or litter box maintenance, exercise, grooming, and supervision?
- Who takes the pet to the veterinarian?
- In the case of a dog, which party insures he gets plenty of social interaction with other dogs and people, and sees to his training?
- Who has the greatest ability to financially support the pet?
If you and your spouse or significant other (or roommate, in some cases) are splitting up and there is a pet involved, my hope is that you will put the animal’s best interests first.
Doing What’s Best for Your Pet
Some “who gets the pet” situations are clearer than others. For example, if you came into the relationship with a pet, that pet should stay with you unless for some reason your spouse or partner developed more of a bond with the animal than you did. Also, if your pet is much more attached to one of you, in most cases he or she will be the person who assumes custody.
Equally obvious is what to do in situations where one or the other of you is moving to a residence that doesn’t allow pets. In that case, you can consider having the non-custodial owner visit the pet, or take her for walks, or to the dog park, or on vacation.
If you and your spouse share joint custody of children, you might think about having your pet go back and forth between residences with the kids. This plan can work with dogs, but not so much with cats, who attach to a familiar environment. Most kitties will suffer stress-related issues if forced to shuttle back and forth between homes.
If there is more than one pet and they can be easily separated, all other things being equal, it might make sense for each of you to take a pet. Another option, if there is only one pet, is for the person keeping it to help the other party with the cost of acquiring a new pet.
Pets Need Consistency – Especially During and After a Family Breakup
Your dog or cat should live where there’s an established daily routine in which things happen on a predictable schedule. For example, if one of you is always home by 5:30pm while the other works a lot of overtime, the pet should spend most of his time with the spouse who’s home in the evenings.
If you don’t work, work from home, or are able to bring your pet to work with you, it makes sense for the pet to stay with you. Like kids, pets do best when there’s a parent around to supervise and keep them company.
If you and your ex are both able to provide consistent care for your pet and want to share custody, it’s best for the sake of stability and consistency not to shuttle your dog back and forth too frequently (and I don’t recommend shuttling kitties at all). If you can work out a monthly arrangement, it’s preferable to a weekly back-and-forth schedule.
If you’re sharing joint custody of a pet or pets, as part of your separation negotiation, it’s a really good idea to decide ahead of time who will be responsible for which pet-related expenses. This would include regular wellness exams, unplanned visits to the vet, and emergency care. You might want to look into pet health insurance plans as well.