Who Gets The Dog? Pets and Divorce


When it comes to pets and divorce, there are added layers of considerations to make. Believe it or not, divorce isn’t only hard on you, your spouse, and your children. It also poses an emotional experience for your “fur babies.” As man’s best friend, science shows that dogs feel this loss/separation anxiety especially intensely.

Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman explains that dogs can “get into a funk or lose interest in life, because of separation. With long term separation, or loss, dogs suffer bereavement and get depressed, not unlike humans,” he continued. “Dogs have a difficult time adjusting to an owner or family member being removed from the household. This is especially the case if the person is someone to whom the dog is close to — for example, a dog sleeps in someone’s room and then suddenly that person is out of the picture. The dog can’t understand why that person has disappeared.”

Pets and Divorce by the Numbers

Statistically, over 70 million (+62%) American households include at least one pet. Millions of dollars are spent every year on pet care. However, it is important to note that approximately 50% of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. Logically speaking then, many of the divorcing couples are pet owners. Reports from the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers support this theory, pointing out there has been a marked (27%) increase in pet custody disputes.

The ASPCA has determined divorce to be one of the most common reasons why people decide to rehome or relinquish their dogs. Pets and divorce are a big deal, as hundreds of thousands of dogs each year are placed into the shelter system due to couples calling it quits.

Questions to Ask Regarding Pets and Divorce

Couples who choose to fight in the courtroom to maintain ownership of their pets in a divorce settlement find that their beloved pet is legally considered merely personal property. This means that judges presiding over divorce cases go through the same steps to determine who gets the pet as they do to decide who gets the boat or the lawnmower!

This means that if you are unable to come to an amicable determination prior to the divorce, you will need to be prepared to prove that your furry friend is better off staying by your side. These could include items such as:

  • Ownership or adoption papers reflecting you as the pet’s registered owner
  • Receipts and/or signed statements from the vet, pet store, training classes, or neighbors showing you as the one most often responsible for his/her medical care and well-being
  • Pre-divorce filing photos of you with your pet
  • Proof that you will be fully capable of providing an adequate amount of space, appropriate housing, and enough time in your lifestyle to care for the animal after the divorce is finalized

A Dog Eat Dog Situation…

While one of you may be able to demonstrate the importance of the pet to the children, or other pets, affected by the relationship division, Zoei Sutton, a Flinders University PhD student, points out, “We tend to focus on how pets can help humans during times of separation or upheaval…however, this can then mean pets are shuttled between houses with kids rather than allowed to settle in one residence, or can be left with the person not necessarily best suited to care for the animal.” Be sure to consider the best interest of the pet.

Towards this end, there are movements underway by some animal rights advocates to change the view of pets from personal property to being treated as sentient individuals entitled to certain rights of their own. According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), “Although animals are considered property in the eyes of the law at this time, some courts are beginning to recognize that one’s relationship with this particular form of property known as the family cat, dog, bird etc., is much different from one’s relationship with other forms of property such as your couch, your watch or your coffee pot.”

We Understand that Pets Are Family

At this time, only Alaska and Illinois have enacted pet-custody legislation. A Rhode Island lawmaker has also recently introduced a similar bill. This movement has yet to reach Alabama, but at the Alabama Law Group, we understand that your pets are valuable to you; they are family. As you strive to help your pet cope with this difficult time, let us stand with you to help you obtain the best solution for your “furriest child.” Connect with our pet-loving attorneys for a consultation to help you determine what options exist for you and your pets.

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