While child custody issues receive a lot of attention, figuring out what to do with the family pet in a divorce can be almost as common and as contentious. This isn’t surprising as over 60% of families own pets and many pet owners have a strong attachment to their animal companions.
As with all issues, determining pet custody can be litigated or it can negotiated if a process such as Collaborative Divorce or mediation is used. However, if you and your spouse decide to divorce, here are some things to keep in mind to help craft the best plan for your family pet.
5 Factors to Consider Before Determining Who Gets the Family Pet in a Divorce
1. Don’t use the pet as a pawn
Before you enter into a battle over the custody of your pet, be honest with yourself regarding your motives. Is this about the best interest of your pet and/or your children or is it a way to punish your spouse? Like children, houses or your spouse’s easy chair that you’ve always hated, pets can be used to express hurt or try to gain control. Avoid using your pet as leverage. Remember, a pet is living thing and it’s important that you and your spouse act in its best interest.
2. Consider the pet’s best interest
This phrase is used with kids, but can apply to the family pet in a divorce as well. Just like children, pets benefit from consistency. They have developed a routine in your house and will be affected if that routine is upended. Consider who plays with, walks, feeds, and maintains medical care for the pet. There are financial issues to consider as well: pet food and vet care. There are also social and emotional issues, especially for dogs: socialization with other animals, exercise, and play time. Some pets need a lot of time and energy from their owners, and this needs to be considered when going through a divorce. Make sure you look at the full picture of your pet’s well-being.
3. Consider the children
If you have children, their relationship with the pet will also be a major factor in deciding where the pet lives. While some dogs might go back and forth between homes with the children, this is not a good option for cats. Remember that pets can also be a source of comfort and stability for your children as they go through this emotionally difficult transition.
4. Consider other pets
This is a tricky situation. If you have two pets, it might seem to make sense for each person to get a pet. However, if the two pets are bonded, consider keeping them together. Their relationship with each other will help them with consistency and stability.
5. Signs that your pet is stressed
Similar to children in a divorce, watch your pet’s behavior for signs of change or regression to see if your pet is experiencing stress around the changes. Changing appetites or sleep patterns, increased whining or regression in toileting are all signs that your pet may be stressed. If you see these signs, take your pet to the veterinarian to make sure there are no underlying medical issues. Then, re-establish stability and routine to create an environment that becomes predictable again. Extra play time also helps! If the pet is displaying negative behavior habits, such as biting or destroying property, get help from an animal behaviorist before the problem becomes entrenched.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for the family pet in a divorce. Sometimes the issue is decided by outside factors, such as a no-pet policy at the new apartment. Otherwise, consider using Collaborative Divorce or mediation so that you and your spouse can discuss all the issues involved and come up with a plan that works for you and your pet. If the pet resides primarily at one house, consider allowing the other spouse access to play dates or walking of the pet. It might seem like one more stressor during an already exhausting process, but dealing with it thoughtfully ahead of time can prevent bigger issues down the road.