Who gets the pet? Couples work out joint custody
MELISSA KOSSLER DUTTON
Jun. 08, 2016
When Tricia Lerdon and her husband separated, they had to figure out how to share their beloved dachshund, Jetson.
"One of us giving up the dog?" she said. "That wasn't even a conversation."
So while living apart, they co-owned Jetson for several years until he died earlier this year. He traveled between their homes on the same schedule that their daughter did, so she would always have her pet's company.
Pet custody disputes are on the rise, according to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers in Chicago, in a 2014 survey. The survey cited attorneys handling cases concerning cats, dogs, birds and reptiles.
Christie Long, chief veterinarian for PetCoach, an online resource for pet owners, said that as pets have become more ingrained in families' lives, pet owners who split up have come up with creative ways to ensure continued relationships with their animals.
She encourages owners to discuss the arrangement at the start of a breakup to avoid problems later. Think about how to provide and pay for veterinary care, and what measures to take if the animal gets sick, Long said. Also address discipline and pet behavior.
"If one party is more rigid about rules like no dogs on the couch and the other doesn't care that much, you definitely want to discuss that," she said.
In hindsight, Lerdon wishes she and her ex-husband had talked more about the plan for Jetson. She wonders if shuttling between two homes might have hurt his health as he aged. "I do think it took a toll on him," she said.
Yet she also believes Jetson would have been unhappy if he were cut off from either her or her ex. "It's like a child," she said. "You can't keep a child from a parent."
Long encourages pet owners to consider whether their pet also has a relationship with another animal in the household.
"Animals are adaptable," she said. "For the most part, they are happy to be with one owner. I would caution people about breaking up multiple pets that have bonded. Keeping those pets together as much as possible will mean they are less likely to develop behavioral problems."
Cat owners may want to think twice about pet sharing, Long said. Cats tend to become comfortable in a certain location and might not do well traveling between two residences, she said.
"If possible, select one party as the 'primary' owner and let the other owner have visitation rights in that home," she suggested. "If this won't work at all, consider a longer period of time for joint custody — maybe six months at a time."
Couples who have difficulty agreeing on a plan can turn to mediators who specialize in pet cases.
When Mosa Hsu and her ex could not reach agreement about their rescue dog, Pupineya, they turned to mediation. The process let them move past their anger at each another and work together, said Hsu, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.
"We don't argue about fairness, inequity or recompense for prior wrongs anymore," she said. "We value the terms of agreement — visitations six months each for both of us per year— because we created its terms."
Mediation can help both parties have honest conversations about the animal, said Debra Hamilton of Hamilton Law and Mediation in Armonk, New York. It also results in an enforceable plan that both parties have agreed to.
Hamilton handles cases involving issues with breeders, and between pet owners and housing associations and service providers. She estimates that about 25 percent of her business involves pet custody.
She has helped couples so angry with one another that they turn to a third party, such as a groomer, pet sitter or friend, to actually handle the logistics of handing the pet over.
"If you truly want to keep the animal in your life, you find a person who's going to be that go-between," she said.
Robin Bennett, chairman of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, in Lexington, Kentucky, gives these five tips for exes sharing a pet:
1. Keep the animal on the same sleep schedule at both houses.
2. Maintain similar feeding times.
3. Enforce the same rules.
4. Make sure the animal gets plenty of exercise.
5. Use the same commands and cues.