Managing Custody of Pets After Divorce

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Battling the effects of pets and divorce? The 2017-2018 America Pet Products Association National Pet Owners Survey reports that 68 percent of American households own a pet, but unfortunately, so many of those homes break up over time. Pets and divorce proceedings can get complicated, and because you and your ex-partner care deeply about your animals, you want to make sure you do best by them. Navigating pet custody decisions can get tricky, so it's important to understand your local laws and do what's in the best interest of your pet, so you're not left wondering who gets the dog or cat when everything is settled.

How to Find Out What the Law Says

If you're considering separating (or are already involved in divorce proceedings), the first thing to do is find out what rights you or your previous spouse have regarding your animal. Different states have different laws, and you don't want to take the advice of a friend who's been through this situation if the laws are different where you live.

Not sure what your local laws are in regard to pets and divorce? A quick online search may give you some answers, but it can be tough to decipher what websites are legitimate. There is also a lot of content online that is outdated. You might find something relevant and important that was published a decade ago, but in that time, legal proceedings may have changed drastically.

The only certain way to know whether or not you have legal rights for full or shared custody of your dog or cat is to hire and talk to a local lawyer. Your lawyer will know exactly what your state-specific laws are, and they will be able to advise you on how to proceed. However, you should know that most states don't look at animals as they do children. In fact, pets fall under the personal property categorization, and some courts won't even hear custody cases.

Before you make any legal moves involving your pet, it's important to check your own motives. Maria Cognetti, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers says, "While pet custody cases are not an everyday occurrence, far too many spouses attempt to initiate these disputes as a negotiating strategy, often believing that they can use the animal as a kind of bargaining chip. This tactic is usually not effective and can come back to 'bite' the antagonist throughout the divorce process." Remember your pet is a living creature with emotions. While it can be hard to think about their feelings in this difficult time, you should never leverage your pet in an effort to get back at an ex.

Dog and young boy staring out window together

What Pet Custody Could Look Like

If you're going to move ahead with asking for full or partial custody of your pet, it's important to understand ahead of time what lifestyle you're comfortable living. Just like when it comes to children, all families are different in how they approach pets and divorce, especially when it comes to who will keep living with the animal after the relationship is dissolved.

Full custody means that one person keeps the animal or animals, and raises them alone for the remainder of the pets' lives. Partial custody can be set up in various ways. One person may become the weekend pet parent, while the other the custodial human during the week. Other custody arrangements can be more creative, with one person getting the dog or cat in the summers and the other in the winters.

When deciding what type of arrangement may work in your circumstances, always take your pets' needs into consideration. For example, pets with medical issues might have trouble adjusting to switching households every few days. What works for you and your ex-partner must also work for your pet.

How to Choose Who Gets Custody of the Dog or Cat

There's no quick and simple answer for which person gets the animal when a relationship ends, but there are some questions to ask before making a decision.

  • Which person took the most responsibility for purchasing food, treats, toys and other animal-related items?
  • Who spent the most time with the pet before divorce became a consideration?
  • Is one person more familiar with the animal's medical history and issues, if any?
  • Did one person bring the pet into the relationship or was he adopted after the relationship was established?
  • Is one person keeping the home?
  • Which person will spend the majority of time with the children, if any?
  • Does either partner have financial limitations keeping them from properly caring for the pet?
  • Which partner will be able to spend more time with the animal after the divorce?

All these questions need to be factored in when handling custody for pets and divorce proceedings. For example, if one adult is keeping the home and will also have the children the majority of the time, it might be seriously detrimental to keep the pet away from their stomping grounds and young family members. Similarly, the children might feel even more confused about losing access to their cat or dog in addition to the split household.

Protect Your Pet's Emotional Well-Being

Just like children, your cat or dog is going to experience the many emotions during a divorce. It's your responsibility to monitor for any changes in behavior and activity, and provide a supportive environment post-divorce.

You may want to consider bringing your pet to a veterinarian during or after the process completes for a wellness checkup. Inform the vet of your pet's baseline behaviors and emotional responses, and let the vet know of anything out of the ordinary.

The Pet Health Council notes to keep an eye out for signs of stress, such as:

  • Increased sleep
  • Excessive whining or crying
  • Lack of interest in activities that were previously fun or exciting
  • Change in appetite
  • Excessive grooming
  • Sudden issues with incontinence

If you notice any of these signs, it's time to talk to the vet. Just remember — some changes in your animal's attitudes or actions may only be temporary. For example, a move to a new home may make your dog or cat wake up more often by the new sounds and smells. Eventually he'll become accustomed to his environment and his sleep routine will go back to normal. Your vet can help you determine whether or not to worry.

Divorce is a tough time for anyone to navigate, but when pets are involved, things can be even more confusing. By making decisions with your pet's best interest at heart and partaking in a pet custody agreement, you'll help the transition for everyone.

Contributor Bio

Erin Ollila

Erin Ollila believes in the power of words and how a message can inform—and even transform—its intended audience. Her writing can be found all over the internet and in print, and includes interviews, ghostwriting, blog posts, and creative nonfiction. Erin is a geek for SEO and all things social media. She graduated from Fairfield University with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. Reach out to her on Twitter @ReinventingErin or learn more about her at