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What About the Pets?

{5 minutes to read}  What about the pets? It's not a foregone conclusion that separation or divorce means divorcing or forsaking your pet. That would be too heartbreaking for words, is avoidable, and is therefore unacceptable. 

Pets are a topic that folks often raise sheepishly, appreciating that when it comes to matrimonial law, divorce, and equitable distribution, animals are largely viewed as property. Legally, pets may not have well-defined rights reflecting their importance, individuality, and aliveness, however, in mediation, when parties identify pets as essential members of the family, we treat them as such.

Custody/visitation schedules are possible for pets. How do we arrive at one? In mediation, I apply a hybrid analysis similar to the “best interest” standard applied to child custody. Where pets are concerned, I look to both the best interests of the family as a whole, its component members, and the best interests of the pet. Both people and animals deserve to have their attachments to one another protected, especially in times of stress and change. In fact, the ongoing attachment to a family pet can support children (and grown-ups) in acclimating to separate households and transitioning regularly between them. Pets often serve as attachment objects that can help create a sense of security and consistency as other aspects of life change.

Of course, we also consider what is best for any given pet. When we work out a shared custody arrangement, we want to consider applicable factors to generate a situation wherein the pet and people thrive. We work to accommodate work and home schedules, flexibility to walk the dog during the day, and so forth. If one parent works from home, the pet might be better suited to stay with that parent during the day so the pet (and person) can enjoy company in the house. This is preferable to a pet being crated or isolated for many hours unnecessarily. Optimizing the availability of family members when planning pet time can also help families avoid additional costs of employing a pet sitter or walker. When household budgets move into household budgets, cooperating to cut costs is vital.

Finding an appropriate or optimal place to live that allows dogs or other pets can be a real hindrance in securing a new residence. Some rentals don't accept big dogs. Some don't take more than one dog. Some are not pet friendly at all. If someone is living in an apartment with pet restrictions, until such time as she has a more pet-friendly situation, she might need to enjoy visits with the pet outside of her residence, for walks in the evening, and so forth. In these instances, temporary compromises can be worked out so that the dog-person attachment still continues until more desirable arrangements can be made.

If the kids are attached to the pet, and both residences are pet-friendly, a nice option may be for the pet to travel with the children. Conversely, when the parents are more attached to the pet than the children, parents might alternate so the parent without custody of the children has custody of the pet on those evenings. Interspecies companionship can not only ameliorate loneliness, it can be an opportunity for the pet to receive some needed personal attention as well.

Some people agree to stay with the pet while the other spouse is traveling and make accommodations accordingly. This not only allows each party to look forward to intermittent extended visits with the pet, but greatly reduces costs and stresses (primarily on the pet, but family too) of boarding an animal. If a pet has to stay in the family home when one parent is traveling, some spouses agree that the other parent can stay in the home to care for the pet.

Taking good care of pets is a way to take good care of the whole family. It fosters compassion and shared interests. Tenderness and joy. Pets remind the family of their unity, their shared responsibilities and affections. It sends a message to the kids that every member of the family, even the most dependent with the least opposable thumbs, matters and will continue to be cared for and loved, regardless of how many other things are changing.

When no pet is left behind, divorcing parties practice, and demonstrate, the priority of love. In this way, pet parents nurture a sense of regular, steady living, and celebrate the ordinary joys of family.


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