By Tracie Korol
Like our children, our pets are important family members, certainly not property. Yet this is exactly how the court system views them when it comes to divorce. If a dog is financially valuable, this numeric worth is usually taken into consideration, but sadly, the animal’s emotion well being often is not. For instance, a judge may equate the value of your Best Friend with the value of the stove and consider it a fair trade. She gets the stove, he gets but doesn’t necessarily like the dog, it’s final — and the dog’s best interest is ignored. This is why soon-to-be ex-spouses must place the entire scope of their pets’ welfare among their top priorities when negotiating the terms of their divorce.
Dogs typically bond to one person in a family. Certainly, you love your dog, but would she be happier with you, or your spouse? You must also ask yourself if you can realistically provide your pet with the level of care she needs in the wake of this transition. If you will be working longer hours, for example, this may not be the case. Additionally, many apartments and condominiums place restrictions on pet ownership. Although it should never be the sole consideration, money is also important. Dogs need healthy food, engaging toys, daily exercise, regular grooming and routine veterinary care. Especially if you own more than one pet, the costs of these items and services can be substantial.
Bear in mind that pet custody does not have to be all or nothing. You can certainly share custody of your beloved pet — or even schedule regular visitation. This kind of arrangement can make the change easier for all involved. If kids are going to split their time between two households, for instance, having their pets by their sides can make this new plan considerably more bearable for them. But if you choose this way to handle custody, keep an eye on the dog. For example, Dog traveled well between households with the children. All was well until a few years later, Ex-husband moved in with his sweetheart and Ex-Wife moved to the other side of town. Dog found it all to be very confusing and began to go AWOL, appearing at the wife’s new back door. Somehow he found his way and it happened more than once. This was Dog’s way of communicating that he wanted to be with both of his pack members. In the end, Dog stayed more with the wife and went for regularly scheduled walks with the other part of his pack, including both ex-spouses.
If multiple animals are owned, it may be in their best interest to keep them together during and after the divorce. This will minimize the number of changes the animals will be forced to experience. However, when a divorce is in high play, how the animals may feel is often lost to custody power play. For instance, I was asked to testify as authority in the judgment of “who got the boys”. The “boys” were a pair of miniature poodle brothers, doted on by the couple for 12 years. When it came time to split up the assets, Husband insisted on keeping ONE of the dogs. Wife insisted he take both, or she take both because the dogs had never been separated since birth and it would be emotionally crushing to separate them. Because the wife strengthened her fight by providing supporting testimony of an animal expert (me), she was awarded custody of both dogs. But what a lot of needless drama!
However, if Big Dog and Little Dog have never gotten along in the past, and squabbling, turfing and snarling is part of the daily routine, it may be a blessing to all to separate them come divorce time.
As difficult as it may be, divorce can be a healthy change, but owners must work to make this happen. Witnessing constant arguing isn’t any better for animals than it is for children. Putting your pets’ needs above your own feelings is imperative. Spare them a nasty custody battle, and you have already shown how very much you love them.