FAMILY PETS IN DIVORCE

I am a dog lover. I have had dogs my entire adult life and I love them so it was a relief to me that one of the first things my former husband said to me when we talked about divorce was, “You’re taking the dog.” As it turned out, that simple statement t– never revisited–was one he regretted and felt guilty about for years.

Animals relate to us in a different way than people. One thing I love about my dog is that he is happy to see me no matter what. If I’m snippy to him in a moment when I would rather not be panted on or when I am worried about getting dog hair on my clothes, he’s happy to try again in a few minutes and has no hard feelings. If I am sad, he’s there hoping to lick away my tears. If I can’t sleep, he gets up with me. No worries. No complaints. No retribution.

I think my experience of my dog is a common one. For people dealing with an unhappy home life, the dog (or cat) can seem like an only friend in a hostile environment. I have heard people who have moved out of the family home tell me the only person they really miss is the dog. Of course, what they mean is that they miss the uncritical companionship of that loyal friend not that they don’t miss seeing their children everyday.

Family pets often play a significant role in discussions surrounding separation and divorce for a number of reasons. The reasons are numerous. Sometimes both people want to live with the pet. Sometimes they cannot agree on how to share time with it. Some people cannot agree on what is best for the pet or how to cover the costs and expenses. Disputes between people about animals is an entire area within animal law. My colleague, Debra Hamilton, has a practice devoted exclusively to these types of disputes and she is not alone. Adding the complication of divorce just makes it harder.

Divorcing couples with children often treat a family dog as another child who goes back and forth with the children between the parental homes. Divorcing couples without children often struggle with what makes the most sense for their animals and of course it is hard to know.

Taking the time to make some decisions about the pets makes sense. The expenses related to pet ownership can be significant. Veterinary bills for a sick or injured pet and boarding bills for periods of travel can be shockingly big. Who will be responsible for these expenses? Pet ownership limits housing choices and can add costs. This is often a very significant issue for families struggling to cover the costs of two households with the same income.