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.
Prominent New York divorce lawyer Raoul Felder said one divorcing couple agreed to live together in their apartment to care for their sick dog: “Here, instead of making the dog a trophy in the divorce case, they stayed together until the dog passed away,'' he said.
Lawrence Stotter, a family law practitioner in San Francisco, said he handled a divorce in which both partners dearly loved their dog and agreed to share custody. “After fighting back and forth about the matter for some time, they would share time with the dog in much the same way people do with children,'' he said.
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.
“I respect any client who treats a pet like a family member, because they are,'' said Paul Feinstein, a family law practitioner in Chicago, adding that in one recent Illinois case a judge awarded a childless husband and wife joint custody of their dog “because the dog was attached to both.''
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. Even the remains of a pet have been contested. In Albuquerque, two former spouses were sharing custody of their deceased dog's ashes, periodically exchanging the urn, until one angrily accused the other of substituting fireplace ashes, said Little.
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 dogs express genuine anger, sadness, relief and even joy as they go through the turmoil and resolution of a divorce.
Dogs often act out with misbehavior, like chewing up the furniture, barking, digging and soiling in the house. They can experience such severe separation anxiety that veterinarians sometimes prescribe medications, such as Clomicalm, to help them cope.
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.''
In one Florida case, a woman threatened to jump off a balcony with the family dog as her husband watched, said Kutner. Despite the irrational display, the judge gave her the animal, deciding it was her “property,'' he said.
Felder, the 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.''