What Happens to Pets After Divorce?Published December 14, 2011
Divorce is ugly, and when pets get involved it can get downright mangy. I interviewed Steven May & David Pisarra, Esq., the authors of What About Wally: Co-Parenting a Pet with Your Ex to learn about what can happen when pet parents split up.
1. Pets are currently seen as a part of marital property division, in the same category as household items like furniture. How does this impact who gets the dog?
David Pisarra: Typically the courts will recognize whoever registered the dog with the city or has listed themselves as the owner during the vaccination process as the lawful owner of the dog. But with many couples, one pet parent may be listed on city records while another may show up on veterinary and microchip records or, in the case of purebreds, with the AKC.
In this case the court will look to who can provide the better home for the dog and consider such things as the amount of time an owner can spend with the dog, financial stability and which pet parent can provide the best overall living situation.
2. Is it safe to assume that if a person entered the relationship with the dog, then they get to maintain ownership?
Pisarra: Generally yes. Because pets are considered property in most courts - what you came with is what you leave with. However, frequently fights break out over who owned what and then the courts will first consider licenses as a way of proving ownership. They will also consider other circumstances; much the same way they determine child custody. Is there a history of domestic violence which may lead the court to believe an owner would be violent towards a dog? Is drug abuse part of the equation? Extreme financial instability? A gambling problem or jail time?
So if you entered in to a relationship where your partner owned the dog, but feel it would be in the best interest of the dog if you took over ownership, you need to be prepared to prove why you would be the better parent with as much paperwork as possible.
3. Do custody battles over pets get vindictive?
Pisarra: Oh, yes! I have represented a cop whose wife decided to give his dog to the pound in a city 25 miles away. If that dog hadn’t been micro-chipped and registered to him, the dog would have been euthanized. I’ve had other clients where the dog was put down at the vet by one spouse to get back at the other.
I’ve seen couples battle just as vigorously and aggressively over custody of their dogs as they do over children. Most frequently this takes place with childless couples for obvious reasons. But what disturbs me is something that I also see play out in child custody cases and one of the reasons I wanted to write this book.
Oftentimes the dog will become nothing more than a tool for one spouse to hurt the other. A spouse may not even care if they take the dog or not but will fight for ownership out of spite. Unfortunately, if the dog ends up with the spiteful pet parent it may become a constant reminder of that person’s ex and be treated poorly. If behavioral problems develop in the dog it then may be given away or worse. One of the goals of this book is to help people avoid that outcome.
4. Do dogs suffer from any emotional stress when their ‘parents’ go through a divorce or break-up?
Stephen May: As most any pet owner will attest to, dogs can be very sensitive. How many times have you come home from work after a bad day only to see your dog sensing your mood? Or maybe you’re having an argument with your spouse and you see your dog cowering in a corner. So when a break-up occurs usually the dog will have already experienced some stress due to the arguments that have taken place before the actual split-up. Some of the outward signs I’ve seen include hiding, nervous shaking, a loss of appetite, sleeping a lot and sometimes even diarrhea.
5. What is the most important element to ‘co-parenting’ a dog?
May: The most important element to co-parenting a dog is sharing equal responsibilities for their direct care. Actually, the steps aren’t much different than shared custody of a child. It’s all about both pet parents staying on the same page when it comes to acting in the best interest of their dog. This might include sharing walks, trips to the park and veterinary visits. It’s also important to try and maintain some semblance of consistency if the dog is going to be spending time at each of its parent’s houses such as similar feeding and exercise schedules.
One trick that I’ve seen work well is for each parent to either share or buy two sets of the dog’s favorite toys. This provides a sense of comfort to the dog no matter which home it is in.
6. What are the benefits to the pet parents from co-parenting?
May: Co-parenting can be a huge asset to the pet parents in their post break-up relationship. By having a shared interest and responsibility the pet parents create a common ground that can impact many of the other areas of their relationship. But many of the rules that come with co-parenting a child are also at play with a dog.
Oftentimes in bitter divorces something called “Parental Alienation” takes place where one parent will sabotage their child’s relationship with the other parent. With dogs this can be a situation where one pet parent doesn’t follow the training or house rules that have been established, gives the dog whatever it wants to eat and generally doesn’t provide any leadership. When the dog returns to the other parent, and the rules are re-established, this can cause confusion which may manifest itself in behavioral issues. So just like it is with a child; consistency is key.