Last week, I wrote about the evolution in thinking about pets in divorce, and the fact that we are thinking of pets less as property and more as members of the family. In fact, New York (among a few other states) now considers the best interests of the pet in pet custody disputes.
Today I want to extend that question – would it ever be appropriate to have joint custody of the dog or cat? We often ask children to withstand the stress of moving from one parent’s home to ensure that they maintain close ties with both parents. There is a solid public policy that children need 2 parents. But what about pets? Do they need 2 “parents” also? Is it in their best interests to go back and forth? Is it the same for cats and dogs? (I think not!)
A few weeks ago, I worked with a couple who decided together that they would share custody of their dog (let’s call her Fifi), and she would spend one month in New York City with one pet parent and the next month upstate with the other. Both people were very comfortable with that.
The fact that Fifi would spend a month in each household gives her time to settle in and get reacquainted with the sounds smells and rhythm of each place, and they would both have time with her. We worked out the transportation logistics and paying for vet bills and they were on their way.
I’ve also mediated several cases where the dog went back and forth with the children – perhaps as often as a few times a week (when the parents live near each other). This may be of great benefit to the children – because the pet provides unconditional love and constancy as the child goes from house to house. Dogs can act as living transitional objects (like a teddy bear or blanket) to help the child feel less alone.
Again, the parents have to work out the logistics of getting the dog from one household to the other and paying for expenses, but it’s certainly doable. Parents have told me that it makes the stress of going from one home to the other so much easier on the kids (particularly when there is only one child), and dogs seem to do okay with it. Perhaps the child is acting as a transitional object for the dog!
My colleague, Debra Vey Voda-Hamilton, specializes in mediating pet disputes. She recommends that if one spouse has “primary custody” of the pet, the ex gets to spend time with the pet at least a few times a year, such as when the primary parent goes on vacation.
She points out that the pet (dog or cat) would rather be with the other adult than anyone else. The parties might also have an arrangement that if the primary parent can’t care for the pet for any reason, the pet will be offered to the ex-spouse before going to someone else or to a shelter.
Pets are part of the family! They help us and we help them. At least that’s certainly true for me and Sophie Gooddog. I bet, if you have one, it’s good for you, too!