"Who gets the dog (or cat) – a guide to families splitting up
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"Who gets the dog (or cat) – a guide to families splitting up

Life As A Pet Parent

An unfortunate fact – couples, partners and families split up every week in today’s society, it just cannot be helped in many cases.

Splitting up is painful for you or your partner, but if you have children, it is even worse, particularly if you have family pets. Which side of the family does the pet live with? It’s an emotional decision and not always the right one if the separation is acrimonious to say the least.

During divorce or separation, one partner may hold a grudge and try to make life as difficult as possible for the other party. This is where things get tricky and potentially nasty with emotions rife and bad decisions potentially being made for both children and animals.

Whilst many separation issues must go the legal route through the courts, but is it entirely necessary to drag your defenceless pets through it? Surely, amicable solutions can be found that suit everyone.

Putting your pet first does mean you need to be informed in your decisions, the most important being who the pet is going to live with and why. Did you choose the pet together, did one of you inherit the pet through the relationship? If it gets as far as court, the judge will make his judgements based on the situation and other extenuating circumstances, but always with your pet’s welfare in mind.

Be aware that there are no real legalities about this situation, unlike the decisions on children. Pets are treated as ‘objects’ even though there is an emotional connection. The only real similarity when a judge is deciding, is the question of ‘access’.

How a judge will look at your case

Whilst there are important issues to discuss in your actual separation, such as support, property, bills etc., a judge will still be asking questions regarding ownership of your pet, and looking at the history behind, such as:

  • Who is actually working/not working and has the most secure financial income?
  • Was the pet jointly purchased, or purchased by one or other of the partners?
  • Who is the main carer of the pet, and who pays for food, vets bills etc.?
  • Who exercises the dog and who spends most time with them?
  • Is there a stronger bond with one partner, rather than the other?

If you have supporting evidence for any of the above, make sure you have copies with you to back up any claims (i.e. vets bills, food bills, training bills, and back up such as you are part of a dog walking group or other activity involving your pet).

Hateful to mention – if you have any evidence of neglect or pain inflicted by the other partner, please do bring this to the judge’s attention. It’s not nice but can help the case.

It is of paramount importance that when providing any evidence that it is all about the welfare of your pet, and nothing else. Think of the stress that may be caused due to separation and changes to your family environment. Pets are sensitive to different degrees but can always pick up on tension or upset. Your pet, the same as your children should get the attention they deserve, so you need to prove this, even if you are using a dog walker or a pet sitter. Just show you have your arrangements in place if need be.

Decisions on Access

You do have to think about fairness in the situation, even if you want ‘sole custody’ of your pet. If you can keep the separation as pleasant as possible your dog will benefit – don’t use your pet as a weapon, they will be suffering enough with this kind of situation.

If you do agree on ‘joint custody’, try to make the environment in the two homes as similar as possible. For instance, if one partner is moving into a flat, whilst the family home is a house, this will be a great upheaval for your pet if they are used to wandering in and out of the garden. Your pet needs familiar comforts with his favourite toys, bed, blankets etc, and his favourite places to find his food and drink. This won’t come if the parties involved are warring. Try to reach common ground and both be active in their upbringing.

There may be a period of ‘missing’, when your pet realises he doesn’t see his mum or dad every day. This can cause emotional distress in them and result possibly in destructive behaviour which they normally never display, such as eating problems, urinating or defecating around the house, scratching their fur and causing bald patches and other behaviour issues. This can demonstrate ‘pining’ for their old life. If these instances do occur, you need to be as patient as possible, and try not to upset them by shouting or other disturbing actions. Cajole them gently, take them for long walks and generally make their life as happy as possible. If you have your children residing with you, let them play rough and tumble or anything else your dog enjoys, as much as possible.

When the other partner appears for whatever reason, try not to argue, raise voices etc. Both of you need to reassure your pet as much as possible when they are on the move to their other home. Stability is key.

Unfortunately, joint custody of a cat really is an impossibility. They are far more territorial and would be likely to run away – it would certainly not be safe to allow them out and about in a new unstable environment. In this instance, you really have to work hard to make the arrangements the most amicable as possible.

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