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Who Gets the Pet?

Plan ahead to keep pets out of custody disputes

Pets are kind of like practice kids for some of us or, for people like me, they are straight up in lieu of bearing children — just please don’t call them fur-babies; that’s gross. 

But just like real children, pets sometimes get caught in the fray of a break-up. When my ex-fiancé and I split, I kept Smudge, the dachshund mix I owned before we got together, and he kept Lily, the pit-Dalmatian puppy we got as a couple. I was possibly more heartbroken over losing the dog than I was over canceling the wedding.

Not all pets stay with their people when relationships end. Lauren Merge, Greenhill Humane Society’s communications manager, says the nonprofit gets dogs and cats that are dropped off as a result of couples splitting up or getting a divorce. That’s heartbreaking for the couple as well as the pet that is suddenly in need of a new home.

Merge has some advice for couples. She says, “As unromantic as it sounds,” when couples are looking to get a pet, “have a plan.” She says she and her boyfriend plan to stay together, but when they adopted a cat, they decided if something were to happen, “he takes the cat.”

According to attorney Christine Garcia, writing for an American Bar Association newsletter, “Animal custody fights between significant others ending their relationship are usually highly emotional and charged with leftover personal issues.” 

She questions her clients about whether the pet custody dispute could be “about personal healing or other unresolved issues and not about animal care?” And she suggests attorneys raise points with clients such as the animal’s age, quality of life and the stress of long-distance travel if the animal must be moved. 

Also to be considered is separating animals from their animal-friends, she says. And indeed, after we separated Smudge and Lily, my little wiener dog never bonded with another dog again.

Garcia writes, “Animal custody battles can be pursued in regular civil trial court or through the use of a mediator.” If it comes to a legal dispute, the Animal Legal Defense Fund suggests, “Since animals are considered property in the eyes of the law, it may be helpful to offer proof that you were the one who adopted the animal, or if the animal was purchased, that you were the one who purchased the animal.” 

ALDF says don’t worry if you were not the person who originally brought home Fido or Fluffy. Vet records, and receipts for grooming, dog training, food and other items go a long way toward proving you were the primary caregiver.

For those who want to keep it out of the courtroom, Garcia says, “Creative shared-custody or visiting plans may be possible if both parties are amenable.”

By the time my next long-term relationship broke up, I had learned from my regret over losing Lily. My next ex and I worked out a joint custody agreement over our dog Rhoda, with my ex even volunteering to pay dog support at one point.

Merge at Greenhill says that when the situation is such that neither partner can keep the pet, it’s good to have a backup plan, like a family member who can take the dog or cat rather than surrender it. “It’s an emotional enough time,” she says, and losing a pet makes it harder.

Greenhill will help owners look for boarding resources in the community, Merge says, and while the humane society’s preference is that animals can stay with their people, “We will keep them safe and find them a new home,” adding, “for some people it’s a relief knowing the pets are well cared for and they can focus on personal issues.”