Divorce and Pets

In my research on pets and divorce, most of the literature discusses people who have fought over the custody of their pets, and how the courts have handled those cases.  However, the pets are one of issues that I have sometimes seen divorcing people forget about while facing all of the changes and emotions involved in their pending divorces.  During my meetings with clients, I always ask about their pets.  Divorcing couples may argue about money or their children, but occasionally, people are unconcerned about the welfare of their cats or dogs.

This cavalier attitude both surprises and dismays me.  Pets are part of a family, and their owners are a part of their pack, often the “pack leaders”.  Pets, especially dogs, listen to, and watch their owners carefully for signs, signals, and cues to their own behavior.  Some pets don’t appear to be disturbed by these changes, but sensitive pets or those who have been rescued from shelters or unfortunate situations can become quite agitated.

During these trying times, pets can pick up on the emotions of their owners and can become distressed and upset, and can exhibit behaviors such as separation anxiety and a variety of misbehaviors.  Their owners may be away from home more often, leaving the pet lonely and anxious.  If couples argue frequently, the pets may be stressed.  One of the owners may move away to a separate residence, changing the home life of the pet. 

I am not an expert in canine or feline psychology.  However, I offer divorcing people with pets the following practical suggestions:

  1. Find a good environment for your pet – it may be that one of the couple can keep the pet, with the other person helping to pay expenses and who may also be permitted to visit the pet.  This may help the pet adjust to the changes in the home life if they stay with one of their owners, and the person retaining the pet then has some assurance of monetary assistance while shouldering the additional financial burden of keeping the pet.
  2. If you must move with your pet, try to find a new place that both accepts pets and meets the needs of your pet, even if you must rent or step down in your standards – at least for a while.  For example some dogs need a fenced yard in which to run.  For other dogs, a daily walk is adequate, and they may prefer to stay inside during the day.  Some cats may prefer a quiet environment, or at least one similar to the one in which they are used to experiencing.
  3. If pet is accustomed to having one of the owners in the residence most of the day, and that owner will need to find employment outside the home, the owner may need to help the pet make adjustments to this new situation.  Although a bit pricey, a doggie daycare or visiting pet sitter may be helpful, at least for a few months to afford the pet some time for adjustment.  Occasionally, neighbors or relatives may be willing to look in on the pet daily, walk the dog, play with the cat, etc.
  4. Be sure to pay attention to your pet while the divorce is proceeding.  Ensure your pet gets sufficient attention and care, even though your mind is probably on other things. 
  5. It is important to avoid contributing to, or creating pet misbehavior issues.  If behavior problems with your pet develop, see your veterinarian or pet behavior specialist.
  6. If your living situation changes and you must give away your pet, please first try to find them a good home with a caring friend, neighbor, or relative.  You can also contact a breed-specific rescue society that may be able to place your pet with a pre-screened new owner who likes the breed, is familiar with, and wants that specific breed.  Taking your pet to a shelter, although maybe not the best option, at least gives your pet the potential for being adopted.  Shelters will care for pets for a certain length of time.  Whatever you choose, please do not abandon your pet, set them loose to run, or just ignore them.  Their lives may end up being prematurely short and unhappy.

The majority of pet owners care deeply about the future of their pet’ lives.  Make provisions for your pet’s future with care and love in your heart.  After all, your pets have given you their love and devotion, and depend on you to do the right thing for them.  Even if your divorce is one of the worst experiences in your life, you will feel better about making good decisions for the future of your devoted animals.

About wendy

Wendy W. Spencer, CFP, CDFA is a Certified Financial Planner, a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst, and a family law mediator who helps divorcing individuals, couples, and families to review and obtain more sensible settlement options. Ms. Spencer also helps these families to resolve their differences through mediation and/or participation in the collaborative divorce process. For the convenience of clients throughout the Denver metro area, Ms. Spencer has two offices - one in Arvada and one in Southeast Denver.
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