Our pets aren't property: co-parenting after divorce

Our pets aren't property: co-parenting after divorce

As a pet owner, have you ever shared a particularly troubling story with a friend about your pet only to hear in response, “But it’s just a dog! (or cat, bird, horse, hamster, pig, etc.)

Odds are your friend is not a pet owner.

No doubt about it, pet owners love their animals. They bring us joy, relaxation and companionship. They can help motivate, sometimes frustrate, and teach us to put the well-being of something else ahead of our own. Come to think about it, it sounds a lot like what we look for in a spouse. But, I’d venture to say that the relationships with our pets are much more successful than the relationships many of us have had with our spouses if, of course, the statistic that over 50 percent of marriages end in divorce is correct. (It is.)

So, when a marriage goes south, and the subject of the big “D” comes up, many of us turn our thoughts to the children, if there are any, and then to personal property and other financial considerations. Too often, the arrangement for the pet is an afterthought. And anyone who has a pet knows that a radical change in a pet’s living situation can create stress, trauma and an assortment of behavior issues.

But that’s changing. Many divorcing couples today are recognizing the importance their pets play in their lives and are taking the necessary steps to ensure their happiness and well-being. Even the courts are starting to get involved and creating pet custody plans that mirror those for children of divorce. And as it is with children, co-parenting is often the best course of action. Not only does the pet benefit by still having both of its “parents” in its life, but couples benefit too by coming together over the shared love of their pet.


Do

Do co-parent

Co-parenting a pet is similar to co-parenting a child. Typically, visitation schedules are created and financial expenditures on such things as vet visits, food, boarding, training and grooming are shared. These details can be worked out by the couple in advance or through the courts. These agreements also usually include end of life decisions. Remember, co-parenting isn’t just good for the pet but for the couple as well and can serve as a great component to a healthy and friendly post-marriage relationship.

Do act in the best interest of your pet

The goal of co-parenting is to provide the best life possible for the pet. Divorce means one pet parent or the other will be moving so new living arrangements should be a key consideration of primary custody. Perhaps one parent will be moving in to a small apartment without ready access to suitable exercise areas or is located a great distance from a 24-hour vet clinic. Maybe a work schedule will be increased and one parent won’t be home as much as the other. Consider which living environment will be best suited for your pet’s needs and act accordingly.

Do work to create a smooth transition

A pet will need to adjust to its new situation just as couples will. Even if the pet is staying in its home, the absence of Mommy or Daddy can create stress. Each pet parent should try to spend as much time as possible in the days and even weeks following the breakup, prior to setting a schedule that can be adhered to and the pet can be accustomed to. While this can be difficult for couples still healing from divorce, it will greatly help in making the transition go more smoothly for both the pet and each other.

Do stay on the same pet parenting path

If Fido wasn’t allowed to sleep on the bed when Mommy and Daddy lived together, it shouldn’t be allowed to do so when he visits Daddy’s new house either. It’s crucial that pets, particularly dogs, don’t receive mixed messages. I suggest each pet parent serve the same type of food at the same time of day and maintain the same kind of exercise schedule. Uniformity in the pet’s daily life will go a long way to avoiding any future behavioral issues.

Do share pet costs

Pets can be expensive. Beyond the daily food costs we all know that a trip to the vet can be an eye-opener. By each parent sharing in the necessary costs, not only does it ease the financial burden on each individual but means that each parent has some “skin in the game” and is working towards the overall happiness of the pet.


Don't

Do not underestimate your pet’s emotions

I’m sure we’ve all looked into our pet’s eyes and felt their emotions. And anyone who tells you that animals don’t “feel” things the way people do has obviously never owned a pet. Pay attention to signs such as lethargy, not eating or even aggressiveness. These can all be indicators that your pet is under stress. This is when it’s each pet parent’s responsibility.

Do not drastically change routines

If a pet is used to eating at 6:00 when Mommy comes home from work it’s important that it eats at 6:00 when it’s visiting Daddy too. It’s equally important that the pet is eating the same type of food when staying with each parent. An abrupt shift in diet can be upsetting to an animal. Another good tip for maintaining similarity between both houses is for the pet parents to share the animal’s favorite toys, food and water bowls or blankets. This feeling of familiarity, even when placed in a new home, can help ease a pet’s stress.

Do not undermine your ex

If one parent has been diligent in not letting a pet sleep on the bed, only for the other parent to give it free reign, the animal will become confused and behavioral problems could result. As it is with co-parenting a child, the parents need to establish and stick to a set of rules.

Do not use the pet as a bargaining chip

In divorces that involve children there is a circumstance known as “parental alienation” in which one parent will pit themselves against the other. They do this by either talking the other parent down or by showering the child with gifts as a way of becoming the favorite. Don’t fall into this trap with a pet. Co-parenting is a team effort and it’s important to remember that one ex-spouse has just as much love for the pet as the other and are entitled to their time with them. Withholding visitation or using it as ransom doesn’t serve the best interests of the parents or the pet.

Do not take it out on your pet

Divorce is hard even if both spouses have decided to make the best of it. But for many, divorce brings up feelings of betrayal, anger and even hate. But remember - it’s not the pet’s fault! If seeing the pet causes an association with the ex that brings about negative feelings you need to remember that the pet had nothing to do with your personal relationship. All it wants from you is your love. If you can’t provide that then co-parenting isn’t the way to go.


Summary
Jumping cartoon

I can’t imagine many people going into a marriage thinking it will end. At the beginning it’s nothing but hope, excitement and love. But life has a way of not always working out as we planned and even the very best of people can find themselves in a relationship that becomes unhealthy. But how we deal with the end of the relationship, and its aftermath, can make all the difference in the world moving forward.

If a pet is involved in a failed relationship we are given the opportunity of coming together over a shared love and acting in the best interest of that pet - or not. If we don’t, then we can expect hurt feelings, negative emotions and oftentimes, an unhappy pet that acts out as the result. But if we do come together in a way that acknowledges the love each party has for a pet, we can approach our post-marriage relationships maturely, respectfully and with kindness. The result will be a stronger friendship and a happier pet.

And as one who co-parents a pet with an ex I can tell you from first-hand experience, the benefits are well worth the effort.


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Photo Credits: Pet's Day Out © Mosman Council - Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas - Fotolia.com

Steven May, CVJPet Expert

Pet expert Steven May, CVJ has provided his expertise to both the veterinary industry and the general public for more than 35 years. The former editor of Vetz Magazine, May now heads the pet website The Daily Growl and has over 430,000 followers...

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