In the Event of a Divorce, Who Gets the Dog?

It’s sad that January is known as Divorce Month. Unlike other observances, this isn’t an officially recognized “awareness” month, but divorce lawyers all over the country report that it’s the month when they get the most calls. It seems wrong that the month after the season of celebration and thankfulness, divorce is lurking around the corner for many families.

Divorce is never fun, especially when you have kids. But even if you don’t have children, you may have pets. In the event of a divorce, who gets the dog? Or the cat?

Those of us who love our pets as members of the family are emotionally attached to them and invested in their health and happiness. While the courts are shifting their viewpoints on pets, they are still legally considered property, in the same vein as your pots and pans and living room furniture. When it comes to deciding who will get the pets, consider the following:

Who came first? The chicken or the marriage?

In this case, it should be a no-brainer. The person who brought the dog or cat into the marriage should be able to leave with it. However, if the pet is adopted during the marriage by both parties, then we must proceed to the second question.

Who is the primary caregiver for the pet?

Who, in the marriage, was the one most likely to buy pet food, schedule veterinarian visits, administer medication, walk the dog, or clean the litter box? If the responsibilities of pet ownership tend to fall more to one party than the other, then he or she has a valid case for maintaining care of the dog or cat. Saving receipts and documentation may be a big factor in the event that pet ownership is contested.

Who is in a better position to provide ongoing care?

In some cases, it may be a moot point. For the person who is moving, perhaps renting an apartment or house for a time, there may be rules about pets on the premises. Or, maybe one person in the marriage works long hours and travels extensively. In those situations, it would be grossly unfair to the pet who would be left alone often.

If there are kids involved in the divorce, is this a family pet?

Custody arrangements for the kids may need to factor in the family pet. For children who may spend weekends with one parent, or alternate weeks, or whatever terms the parents come to, having their pet with them may help with the transition. This would likely be easier to negotiate with dogs as opposed to other species, especially cats who aren’t noted for their ability to adjust to new environments quickly or frequently.

What about the dog’s feelings?

Does the pet have a stronger bond with one person over the other? Animals feel emotions. Anyone who says otherwise… well, that’s a different article all together. Our pets are emotionally connected to us, just as we are emotionally connected to them. They can feel stress, angst, and depression. The act of a divorce may be emotionally hard on them and it may be in the dog or cat’s best interest if shared custody or visitation is allowed, even if only for a transitional period.


How do you divide a multi-pet household?

What if you have a couple of dogs, or maybe a couple of cats? Should you just divide them equally? It depends on the pets and their relationships with each other. Animals can form emotional attachments to other pets, as well as their owners. If you have two pets who have typically disliked each other, maybe this will work. But if there’s an obvious bond between two, don’t divide them up as you may be setting yourself up for destructive behavior from an emotionally overwrought pet.

From my own voice of experience, I know how hard divorce is, both with a child and with pets. It’s never fun, but sometimes, no matter how much one tries to avoid the d-word, it happens. It’s a long, emotionally draining situation that affects more than just the two people seeking to end their marriage, including children, family, friends and even the members of our furry family.