Who Gets the Cat? When Pet Parents Break Up

As the classic song goes, "breaking up is hard to do." Falling out of love is never easy, but it can be even more difficult to part ways when an animal is involved. Many people consider the animals that share their lives to be an integral part of the family. "Pet parent," "furchild" … the names say it all. So what do you do when the human relationship is a bust, but you can't bear to leave your cat behind?

Recently, the division of pet custody has become a point of contention in many breakups. Couples who have chosen to no longer stay together must still address the needs of their animals, and sorting out who gets the pets can turn even the most amicable breakups into all-out war.

According to the law, pets are considered property – but deciding who gets the pets is very different from dividing up a DVD collection. Sometimes only one person wants to assume responsibility for the animals. Sometimes, in homes with multiple animals, agreements allow the original caretakers to retain their animals and part ways.

Things get complicated when an animal was adopted or purchased together. In these cases, both pet parents usually have some interest in taking custody.

Splitting custody is usually arranged in one of two ways. One person can maintain custody but allow the other person visitation rights, or each person can take an equal share of responsibility. Joint custody requires that both people have some level of communication – at least enough to arrange visitations or work out a custody schedule. This interaction can itself be rife with tension, leading some people to eventually give up their right to custody.

Ending a relationship is rough on people, but what about the animals? It's true that many animals show signs of stress at the absence of someone close to them, such as when a member of the household moves out. Their behavior is sometimes eerily similar to that of the lovelorn human: they pace, they whine, they gaze forlornly at the door waiting for the missing person to return. (Thankfully, few animals seem to indulge in pints of ice cream and sad movies.)

Animals are keenly aware of changes in mood or tone of voice, and constant tension or arguments can upset their sense of security. If the household was split in such a way where animals went to separate homes, your pet might also be forced to deal with the loss of a playmate. These stressors can manifest in some animals as hair loss, separation anxiety, and behavioral issues.

Misery loves company, but no one wants to see their animal companion suffer the consequences of love gone wrong. Extra playtime, exercise, and affection can all help alleviate these symptoms. In more extreme cases, the help of a behaviorist might be necessary.

Deciding what to do with the pets requires one simple but often very difficult process: putting your interests aside in favor of what is best for the animal. It's crucial to be honest with yourself and your former partner about your ability to care for the pets in question. Calmly discuss what each person is willing and able to do for the animal.

• Who can afford the monthly expenses associated with the pet?

• What will happen if there is a veterinary emergency?

• Is either person prepared to alter their lifestyle to fulfill the pet's needs; for example, would they be willing to stop traveling or working late to spend more time with the pet?

If you are unable to assume financial responsibility but still wish to see the cat, afternoon or overnight visitations might be an option. Remember that ultimately it's the animals that will have to live with your decision, so avoid letting the desire to upset or hang onto your ex influence the situation.

As any animal lover can tell you, pets provide us with seemingly limitless love and affection. After all, that's why we think they're so great! The idea of losing a treasured buddy to a former partner can be devastating, especially if the split was less than amicable. Many even find that they miss their cat more than their ex!

No matter how messy the breakup, always act in the best interests of the animals involved. Both humans and animals might seem to feel sadness after a breakup, but they can also help lift our spirits and mend our hearts. Even if you and your ex have been fighting like cats and dogs, the end of a love affair doesn't have to mean the end of your relationship with a furry friend.