Stuck in the Middle: Divorce and Pets
Children and pets both thrive and depend on intact families. However, divorce takes that sense of stability and security and throws it to the wind leaving children and pets anxious as to what the future holds.
In the best case, both parents are able to come together and create a reasonable shared custody arrangement. In the worst case, a court must do this for them.
Divorce's Effect on Pets
Both dogs and cats are sensitive enough to understand when their human companions are under stress. They can sense discord and see the beginnings of one parent beginning to leave the home. Since your pet relies on you so much for their own sense of well-being, yelling and fighting and impending change can cause your pet quite a bit of anxiety. This anxiety can also lead to behavioral issues such as soiling, barking or howling and in some cases destructive actions.
If you are fighting with a spouse or in the midst of separating, it is important to understand that just as you shouldn't fight and yell in front of kids, you shouldn't do these things in front of your pets.
Additionally, as change and separation begins, make sure to keep consistent routines with your pets. Feed them at the same time each day and take them on regular and well known walks. Since they likely have a deep bond with your kids, maintain that relationship. It's good for both your pet and kids.
After separation or divorce you should understand that dogs, especially older dogs have a difficult time handling new routines and surroundings. It is important to take steps to ease your pets, when possible, into new circumstances. It may also be a good idea to talk with your veterinarian about some form of behavior counseling to help you make the best decisions for your pet.
Divorce, Pets and the Law
For kids the effect of divorce and the criteria used to establish custody are relatively well known. However, the effect of family separation and criteria to determine custody of pets are not nearly as well understood or clear cut in the law.
Pets occupy a rather uncomfortable place in divorce law. Pet owners love their pets and have deep and loving bond with them, but unlike children, a pet is merely a possession in the eyes of most state laws; sort of a four-footed, furry and friendly flat-screen TV. This is changing in some areas, and there are instances of shared custody arrangements and issuance of visitation rights, but a judge is not obligated to make these considerations.
Most judges decide pet custody based on a few criteria:
- Have the couple's children bonded with the pet and which parent has child custody?
- Is the pet the property of one person prior to the divorce?
- Who is in the best position to provide care for the pet?
- And generally speaking, what is in the best interest of the pet?
As noted above, in the best case, the parents will have arranged a shared custody agreement for the kids and have included the pets so that they remain with the children. If child custody is held by one parent, then it should be agreed the pets should reside there as well, with allowances for visitation. However, in many cases custody of pets can become a contentious issue. In this case, the following should help you maintain custody of your pet:
- If you owned the pet prior to marriage, you will need to be able to show this to the court.
- Tell your lawyer how important custody of your pet is to you so it can be a priority.
- If you have custody of the children, a court is very likely to award you the pets as well.
- Communicate and negotiate with your ex. Perhaps there is an arrangement that could be made.
- Were you the primary caretaker of the pet? If so, make sure you can demonstrate that to the court by asking your veterinarian to be a character witness as well as friends and family. Also include evidence that you paid the vet bills and provided care such as grooming services and etc.
- Try to show that the pet is best off in your home because you are physically and financially able to take care of it.