The way that pets are seen in the eye of the law is changing in the United States when it comes to divorce.
According to the Associated Press (AP), new ways of working out the custody of one’s dog, cat, or parrot have sprung up with special mediators and “petnups” to avoid courtroom disputes. States such as California, Illinois, and Alaska have enacted laws that give judges leeway to consider the best interests of pets, much like they do for children when it comes to divorce.
In New York, a bill is pending to take the same approach. New York lawyer Adam Citron has handled dozens of divorces, and says pets are “constantly an issue.” He’s seen the worst in divorce court and advocates for prenups covering pets. New “petnups” are proving helpful for animals brought into families during a marriage.
Citron says that more laws addressing the interests of pets are needed because custody issues for our pets are far more complicated and emotional to resolve than claims over material items like china or wedding silver.
Citron suggests that couples choose one partner’s name to appear on registration or adoption papers at the time a pet is added to the family to help avoid contention. He also suggests that the sole owner should pay any costs out of a separate bank account.
Some mediators work to settle pet disputes through joint custody, but some argue that these measures are not in the best interest of certain animals like dogs, who require somewhat of a schedule and routine in their daily lives.
Karis Nafte, an animal behaviorist for nearly 26 years, has begun working as a pet custody specialist for couples seeking a divorce. She said that visitation schedules or shared custody can be far more stressful for a dog than a forever goodbye. The back and forth between two different homes can lead to behavioral problems, she said.
“Part of what I try to help people understand is that even if a dog feels like a child in your heart, it isn’t, and if you’re treating it like a child, it’s actually a disservice to the dog,” she said. “Having that voice, that kind of expert eye on the situation calms things down. A lot of times, people just don’t know what to do. They just don’t want to say goodbye to their dog.”
Philip Tedeschi, director emeritus of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver, said that while dogs are legally still seen as property, they have emotions that are complex and need to be taken into consideration.
“The kinds of stress that would be placed on a family related to a divorce also have impacts on the emotional and health lives of animals,” he told the AP. “We’re really largely lagging behind in recognition that non-human animals have emotional lives, have feelings. Even opinions.”