Separations can be painful, but a breakup as a pet owner can be exceptionally difficult since the animals will have often become much-loved family members too.
Introducing a pet to the family can be an exciting time. From choosing the perfect name to playing fun games together, every day brings something wonderful and new. So it’s understandable that the last thing you’ll be thinking about is what would happen to the animal should the relationship breakdown.
Jennifer Silvershein, a clinical psychotherapist based in New York, explains how grieving for a pet is similar to the feelings of grieving over the loss of a partner or someone who has passed away. “You lose the identity of being a pet owner”, and while breakups can be nasty, “The pets were completely innocent in the situation”.
Some people may be able to work out visiting hours or times in which they can look after the pet for pre-arranged periods of time. For others, this may sadly mean that they never see their pet again.
Whatever the final outcome, there are several things that need to be considered should people find themselves in this situation.
Taking the first step
When talking about breakup as a pet owner, Glen Rabenn, a family law specialist attorney from California, says that this is one of the saddest parts of a divorce as it is something that is “difficult to reach compromise over as both sides love the animal.”
He told Kiplinger.com that one couple who worked together as architects explained, “Covid destroyed our business and put so much pressure on our marriage that it fell apart,” which is why they now needed his help to resolve a very difficult issue: who was going to get custody of their Chihuahua.
Thankfully for Rabenn, he had just been discussing this very scenario with attorney Barbara J. Gislason from Minnesota, who has written a book on the relationship between pets and the law.
Are pets considered property?
In the past, pets were deemed in the US as property, like the furniture in your house or the car parked outside. “In a divorce, the courts would look at who paid for the pet and its vet bills or registration fees, and award it to that person”, explained Gislason, regardless of how attached the other party involved was to the pet.
However, several years ago, pets started to be viewed by family court judges and state legislatures as more than just property. Within three US states – Alaska, Illinois, and California – family court judges began treating the custody of pets in the same way as the custody of children.
Now, these states must answer the question: What is in the best interests of the animal?
“It is always best for the parties to avoid a horrible, expensive fight in court, and approach custody – and shared custody – with what’s best for the pet in mind”, says Gislason.
Making that agreement
It may be a difficult conversation, but it’s definitely one worth having if you want to make sure you reach a mutual decision when it comes to your pet’s future.
This mutual decision all depends on the kind of pet you have. For example, if you own a dog and have shared custody in mind, it’s important to consider the kind of schedule that will ultimately work best for your pooch, ensuring that the key carer has both the available time and money to care for them on their own.
If you have a cat, however, they tend to be more attached to their environment, so would be better off staying with the individual who is remaining within the same house after the breakup.
Of course, there isn’t a single solution that will work for every possible breakup scenario. That is why Gislason suggests the importance of having a written, detailed agreement, no matter what is decided. It should clearly state a weekly schedule, as well as who is responsible for making the important medical decisions.
Make this written agreement as specific as you can, as it’s not worth leaving things to chance.
What if there are two pets?
Deciding on who gets legal custody can be twice as hard when there are two or more pets in the family. Even though the automatic reaction may be to divide them and have at least one each, this may not be in the best interests of the animals.
To determine what happens in these scenarios, think about the relationship the pets have with one another. For instance, if your pets are fond of each other, or are inseparable, then splitting them up would be the worst thing you could do.
Helping your pet come to terms with a breakup
If, following the breakup, your pet will be moving to a new environment, it’s crucial that you give them time to adapt. When it comes to physically moving and going your separate ways, consider asking trusted family or friends to look after them for a few days, or place them in a kennel or cattery. Animals can pick up on any changes in their environment, which may lead to stress and unease.
Once you are settled in your new home, take the time to help your pet(s) settle in too. This will be a huge change for them, so try to stick to your usual routine as much as possible – for example feeding times or the familiar bed they sleep in.
How to cope if you’re not the one with legal custody
Pets are known to bring support and comfort in times of sadness or distress. So what happens when you’re not the one granted legal custody, and they’re no longer there?
Although nothing will ever replace the hole they’ve left, sometimes just talking can help. Find someone you trust who will listen with compassion and without judgement to how you are feeling.
Speaking out may help you to realize that you are not alone, and the way you are feeling is completely normal.
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