Pet Custody: What to Do When Pet Owners Break Up
Everyone knows breakups are hard—and they’re even harder when you have to decide who gets to keep your beloved dog or cat. How do you determine the custody of your pet when you end a relationship?
When a couple breaks up, there are inevitably tough conversations. Who keeps the couch? Who gets to stay in your apartment? But when you’ve spent years sharing custody of your pet, things get even more complicated. Whether you adopted a kitten together or you’ve spent years bonding with your partner’s dog, the prospect of suddenly saying goodbye to an animal that’s become your family member is heart wrenching.
That’s why it’s become more and more common for pet parents to treat the custody of their shared pet like the custody of a child when they break up. That means coming up with a custody agreement for your pet!
In ideal situations, custody arrangements are made amicably. Sometimes it can feel like the decision is made for you, like if only one partner has the time or space to be the primary caretaker of the pet. In other cases, the couple might remain friendly enough to share joint custody—and enjoy the benefits of having another equally loving co-caretaker who is always ready and willing to take care of your pet when you go out of town for the weekend.
Unfortunately, not all separations are so easy. Some breakups can and do lead to legal battles over custody of a pet. Unlike family law where many factors go into deciding what’s best for the wellbeing of a child in a separation, pets typically aren’t afforded so much consideration. In most places, pets are considered property and will be awarded to whoever has the strongest claim to ownership based on things like adoption paperwork, veterinary bills, and the information registered on their microchip.
Whenever possible, we recommend avoiding legal action and instead having an honest conversation with your ex about what’s best for your pet.
What Custody Arrangement Will Be Best for Your Pet?
When it comes time to make your pet custody agreement, you should consider the pros and cons of shared custody or sole custody with each partner for your individual pet. Each dog or cat has unique needs and preferences, and you should consider how strongly every factor of your custody agreement will affect them.
Pros and Cons of Shared Pet Custody
- PRO: Your pet will get to maintain a relationship with both of the people that they love.
- PRO: You can arrange the custody schedule based on your availability to allow maximum engagement for your pet and less time spent alone while their human is at work.
- PRO: It can have the added flexibility of having another loving caretaker for your pet when you need a sitter.
- CON: Anxious pets may find it stressful to switch between locations so often.
- CON: Distance between households may make shared custody unrealistic.
- CON: If you have a contentious relationship with your ex, a shared custody agreement will force you into more contact.
- CON: It can be difficult to remain consistent in training and rules between two households, increasing confusion for your pet.
Pros and Cons of Sole Pet Custody
- PRO: One primary caregiver having full custody may mean that a pet can stay in the home they know and love full time (this is often especially important to cats).
- PRO: Whichever partner is better able to take care of the pet can offer the most comfortable environment for them (think space to play, free time to spend with them, and a savings account for pricy vet bills).
- PRO: If your pet is obviously closer to one partner (it hurts, but it’s natural), they will likely be happiest with them permanently.
- PRO: Having one home and one caretaker can offer stability to a pet who doesn’t do well with change.
- CON: Your pet will get little or no contact with a previous owner, which can be painful and confusing if they had a close relationship.
It’s important to note that you can tailor these custody arrangements to suit you best. You may decide to share custody, but only one day a week when the partner with a busier schedule is off work. You might find that it’s better to have one primary caretaker to provide stability, but still allow the other partner to visit and spend time with the pet so they don’t lose that relationship. These decisions come down to what makes sense for your relationship and your pet!
What Happens if We Have More Than One Pet?
The basic decision-making process should be the same—considering what’s best for each animal—but the pets’ relationships with each other add another variable.
Are the pets close with each other? If they’re bonded, the preference should be for them to be kept together. That can complicate shared custody arrangements, adding more pets you have to shuttle back and forth.
In addition, one pet may be a social butterfly who wouldn’t mind traveling between homes, while another is high anxiety and needs the stability of one home. It’s possible to just share custody of one pet and leave another with a primary caretaker, but you’ll have to evaluate whether that arrangement would be functional and beneficial for everyone involved.
On the other hand, if your pets have always had a contentious relationship, it may be for the best to split them up between two primary caregivers. While it may be difficult for the humans involved to decide who gets which pet in a case like that, the final decision should come down to where each pet will be happiest. In some cases, this arrangement can offer comfort to both partners, as each partner gets to stay with at least one of the pets they love.
What if We Decide It’s Best for Me to Give Up My Pet?
What happens if after weighing all your options, you and your ex decide it’s best for them to take your pet? This can be a devastating but important decision to make. Even if you know you’re doing the right thing for the animal you love, losing them is incredibly difficult, and it’s okay to grieve your loss.
Be kind to yourself throughout the process and take the time to emotionally process this breakup with both your partner and your pet. You may find it helpful to look into literature or therapy for pet bereavement. Even though you know that your pet is alive and well somewhere else, the tools for dealing with a sudden and severe loss can still be helpful in processing the traumatic event you’re going through.
These kinds of big life changes can be difficult, but knowing that you’re doing the best you can for your pet will help you move forward with confidence. Here’s to amicable breakups and happy pets, friends.