When a relationship ends, the division of furniture and other shared assets begins.
But what happens when you own a dog (or other furry friend) together? This topic recently became a point of interest in the media after the Courier Mail interviewed couples therapist Linda Thomson on this growing issue in Australia.
In the past when couples separated, pets were viewed as property to be divided up along with their other assets. These days, many separating couples recognise their pets as members of the family and like custody battles over their children, pet custody is becoming a tough and emotional issue.
Custody of Pets
With the increasing view of pets as family members, people are turning to the courts with the hope of getting their pet custody issues resolved. Unfortunately, Australian law states that pets are considered personal property, so unlike children, no joint custody or visitation can be granted.
Pet custody cases are more established in America and some courts have begun to change this analysis and are willing to treat pets more like children. Courts are now taking into consideration the best interest of the animal when determining who gets custody. This shift, is somewhat being encouraged and normalised by celebrities such as Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart who share custody of their two dogs. For pet owners whose experience with the court has been less lenient, informal pet parenting agreements are a more common and economical alternative.
Who Keeps the Pet?
Like children, it is not uncommon for pets to fret when their owners separate. Moving house or not having one owner around can upset their routine; for the first few weeks they may be confused, depressed, go off their food or even escape and try to get back to their previous home.
When discussing your pet’s future it is important to keep your pet’s best interests in mind and make appropriate arrangements for their continued care and wellbeing. As much as you love your pet, if you work a lot, or you are moving into a small apartment, it may not be suitable for your pet to come with you.
Similar to making arrangements for who has the children in a divorce, there are three key scenarios that separated couples with a pet can explore:
- One person gets full custody – As much as you might love your pet and want to take them with you, if you travel for work and cannot spend enough time with your pet you may need to consider giving full custody to your ex. It will be hard, but knowing your pet is with the person who has the most time to devote to them can help you feel good about knowing you have made the right decision.
- One person gets custody and the other has visitation rights – If, in the best interest of your pet it is best for them to live at one person’s home, but you cannot bear to never see them again, visitation may be an option. For example, many cats dislike having their living arrangements frequently changed and moving them from one home to another every week may adversely affect their wellbeing. In this case, one person could take custody and the other could visit once a week. This agreement should be specific with days, times and common “what if” scenarios, such as what if the primary carer goes on holiday or has a new partner? This will help reduce conflict in the future.
- Split custody – Can be a good way to make sure you each get some quality time with your pet, and your pet doesn’t miss out on the things they are used to doing. Again, your pet’s best interests must be taken into account. Flying them across the country every week will not only be stressful and unfair on your pet, it can also be very expensive. Specifics should also be pre-arranged such as who pays the vet bills, how long each stay will be, and what happens when they die.
How Therapy Can Help
Separating, even when you are on good terms with the other person, is never easy and having a beloved pet in the mix can make things just that little bit harder. Not only do you have to decide who gets the house or that new TV you just bought together, you have to make the difficult decision about who gets the pet you adopted together five years ago and is now a big part of your life.
Seeing a therapist can help you work with your ex with a common goal of doing what’s best for your pet, and for each other as a newly separated couple. A therapist can help with the flow of communication and discussion of strategies to help make the transition a less stressful one. They can also help you to work through the grief of letting your pet go to the other person.
There are times when we really need our furry friends, and a break up is one of them. Pets can be a great source of comfort and stress relief during difficult times. Don’t jump the gun and give full custody to your ex because you feel guilty that you ended the relationship. Take the time to work out what you want and what will be best for your pet. Be patient and talk to your ex about how you are feeling; if it is all getting to be too hard, seeking help from a mediator, therapist or lawyer may be help you to move forward.
Authors: Melanie Green and Linda Thomson
- Deutrom, R. Many divorcing couples choose shared custody of pets. Courier Mail, 12 October, 2015. Retrieved from http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/queensland/many-divorcing-couples-choose-shared-custody-of-pets/story-fnihsrf2-1227565338046
- Siegel, A. (2010). Split Custody of Dog Recognizes Changing Role of Family Pets. Baltimore Sun. Retrieved from http://articles.baltimoresun.com/
- Bhattacharya, S. To Love, Honor and BellyScratch? Marriages Come and Go. Judging by the Rising Number of Pet Custody Disputes, Though, Some Passions Endure. Los Angeles Times Magazine, 9 Jan. 2005.
- McLain, T. T. (2009). Knick-Knack, Paddy-Whack, Give the Dog a Home?: Custody Determination of Companion Animals Upon Guardian Divorce. Michigan State University College of Law. Retrieved from https://www.animallaw.info/article/detailed-discussion-knick-knack-paddy-whack-give-dog-home-custody-determination-companion