Divorce: Fighting Like Cats & Dogs Over Pets
While you may classify your pet as your “fur child,” in the eyes of the law, they are no different than any other item of personal property. While the courts may seem to think this matter is cut and dried, splitting the pets with your former spouse can get ugly. Sixty-eight percent—84.6 million—of U.S. households own pets, according to the latest National Pet Owners Survey. The bulk of those animals are dogs (48%) and cats (38%). Why are these statistics relevant? Fewer couples are having children than a generation or two ago, and view their pets as their ‘kids’ or companions. Consequently, there is an increasing number of custody battles involving companion animals.
WHAT THE COURTS SAY
The courts stipulate that “As personal property, dogs must be awarded pursuant to dictates of equitable distribution statute.” Furthermore, the courts state, “Determinations as to custody and visitation lead to continuing enforcement and supervision problems. …Our courts are overwhelmed with the supervision of custody, visitation, and support matters related to the…protection of our children. We cannot undertake the same responsibility as to animals.”
Often, when a judge determines who should get the dog or cat, certain factors are taken into consideration; for example, who spends more time with the pet, who feeds it and takes it to the veterinarian, and who introduced it into the relationship in the first place.
IS IT REALLY ABOUT THE PET?
Divorcing couples who fight over their pets may not be addressing the real underlying issue. An ex- who takes his or her former spouse to court repeatedly over visiting “Fluffy” or paying veterinary bills, is probably not as concerned about the animal as they are about their former partner. The pet becomes a symbol of control and the power struggle that ensues can be not only costly but also emotionally draining on all parties—including the animal.
A once-energetic pet may become depressed. They may sleep more, eat less, and lose interest in activities such as walking and playing with their owner. Pet owners should be mindful of this and watch for signs of stress.
SIGNS OF PET STRESS
- Excessive Sleeping
- Decrease in Appetite
- Lack of interest in daily activities
- Crying and Whimpering
- Excessive Grooming
- Accidents in the Home
HELPING PETS COPE WITH DIVORCE
- Put aside your own feelings to determine what is in the best interest of your pet. Consider who fed and cared for the animal before the divorce and who can afford to pay for their veterinary care, food, and other expenses.
- Typically, the pet goes where the children go, which usually means staying in the family home where the surroundings and routine are familiar.
- If there’s more than one pet and these pets are bonded to each other, try to keep them together. Separating them can cause intense emotional distress.
- Spend time with your pets. Play with them.
- Take your pet to the veterinarian to make sure it is well physically and emotionally. Watch for signs of stress.