Everyone agrees that the well-being of children caught in a messy divorce should be the first concern of the judges and mediators who step in to dissolve a marriage. But another important partner – the family pet – sometimes becomes a powerless victim of the break-up.
The hidden suffering of pets in divorce has been treated comically in popular lore, as in the movie “War of the Roses,'' in which Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner play a warring couple using their dog as ammunition. In one scene, Turner pretends that she has cooked her husband's dog for dinner, breaking the news just as he's about to take a bite.
The scene points up a painful reality that pets do occasionally become hostages in bitter tugs of war between their owners. But divorce doesn't have to be a nightmare for pets and their owners. In fact, most couples overcome their differences to put their pet's best interests first, according to lawyers and animal advocates.
Some couples have agreed to live together to care for their sick bird until his death. Others have agreed to share time with the bird in much the same way people do with children.
Law Doesn't Treat Pets Like Children
But, no matter how loved pets are, they are not treated like children under the law. The concept of "custody" generally doesn't come into play. In fact, the law views pets as akin to property, and many judges don't want to get involved with pet disputes.
“Most judges don't have the patience to hear someone fight about pets. And that's because judges are very busy, their dockets are very overcrowded, they have important issues to deal with, especially concerning children, and, frankly, they don't view pets as important,'' said Sandra Morgan Little, a divorce lawyer in Albuquerque.
What's perfectly clear, though, is that pets are more than another item of property like the house, the car and the furniture. They are living beings with deep emotions so it's important for a divorcing couple to decide themselves what's going to happen to the animals in the family – and to do so as amicably as possible.
Couples Should Consider Pets in Pre-nups
Michael Rotsten, an animal rights lawyer in Encino, Calif., said couples should consider including pet ownership, custody and visitation rights in prenuptial agreements. If there's a legal battle, he advises finding an attorney who specializes in pet custody cases, perhaps by asking an animal rights group for a referral.
“Most of the time people are able to work it out,'' said Miami divorce lawyer Maurice Kutner. “A lot of the times, the fight over the pet is representative of the degree of discord and unreasonableness that's exhibited by both parties in a case.''
Dogs and cats are by far the most common pets affected by divorce rulings. But birds and horses are sometimes the object of disputes – sometimes because of their monetary value.
Fighting Takes Emotional Toll on Pets
The more severe the fighting gets, the greater the emotional toll on the pet. “Everyone recognizes the potential impact of marital distress on children, yet the effects of family dysfunction on household pets have been swept under the rug,'' said John C. Wright, an animal behaviorist and author of The Dog Who Would Be King.
Psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson, who wrote the book Dogs Never Lie About Love, has said pets express genuine anger, sadness, relief and even joy as they go through the turmoil and resolution of a divorce.
Birds suffer when they feel abandoned by a human master, said Dr. Don Harris, a veterinarian expert on birds who practices in Miami.
“What I see is even worse than the anxiety displayed by dogs. I've seen self-mutilation in the birds – from plucking the feathers out of their chest to chewing the flesh off the bone,'' he said.
Some Pets Put in Protective Custody
In the worst divorces, pets become emotional whipping boys – or even suffer abuse. Carl Friedman, director of San Francisco's municipal animal shelter, said that he has seen “some very messy relationship break-ups that involved companion animals.''
“We've been involved a few times in holding the animals here in what we call a protective custody capacity, while people are going through the first stages of a break-up,'' Friedman said. "Both sides were afraid the other person would abscond with the animal.''
Raoul Felder, a New York lawyer who has handled some of that city's messiest divorces, offers this advice to splitting couples, “Bear in mind, you're going to infuse a pet with love and emotionality. So in case of divorce, it's a good idea beforehand to have an idea what might happen to the animal.''