I recently moved to Long Beach, California, from the Inland Empire and I’m amazed at how dog-friendly this town is. I can pretty much take my dog everywhere: stores, restaurants, cafes. Watching dogs interact, you notice unique personalities – the introverts, the hippy-dippy free spirits, the rambunctious ones. This reminded me of just how aware and connected dogs are to the people and events around them.

I once had to travel internationally and leave my pup behind. We adopted my sweet pup as a rescue when he was about two years old. A couple of years later, we had to take this trip for a week. I checked in with the sitter each night, and all was going great, until our last night away. The sitter called to report that she had to take him to emergency for vomiting and had blood in his stool. Of course, my greatest fears realized, I approved whatever the ER vet recommended. I picked him up the next day straight from the airport, paid the $1,000+ vet bill, and followed up with my regular vet. All the tests came back negative (thankfully), and my vet said it was most likely stress. This got me thinking about my divorcing pet-parent clients. So, I dug a little deeper.

Animals are emotionally affected when a couple divorce or separate; they can suffer from anxiety and depression, most often seen in dogs. They feel stressed when couples argue, when there are loud noises (slamming doors), when their routines are disrupted, and when one or the other parent is away from them for prolonged periods of time. The stress can show itself in unexpected ways, typically aggression, excessive barking, loss of appetite, or other behavioral changes, or health issues such as stomach problems or skin rashes and hair loss. The resulting costs of training and vet bills for a newly divorced person can be overwhelming, and, in the end, can lead to, at best, rehoming or, at worst, abandonment. According to the ASPCA and AKC, kennels house a large number of pets who have been left after major life events, including divorces.

While you may want to keep your pet as a source of comfort, it is important to consider the needs of your pet as well. Some parents want the pet to go with the children, to lessen the damage of the separation on the kids. While this may sound like a good option, it ignores the potential impact on your pet of shuffling between two homes rather than allowing her to settle into one residence, or living with a person who is not best suited to care for her. And once the stresses show themselves as aggression or illness, vet and training costs go up, as does the chance of rehoming or abandonment.

Since 2019, California courts have the legal ability to assign sole or joint ownership of a pet based on the care of the pet. The judge looks at each parent’s ability to provide veterinary care, food, water, and a safe and protected shelter, among other factors. But why would you allow a stranger to make these decisions for you? You know your pet best. You know how your pet adjusts to different environments, to being alone for prolonged periods of time, and to other areas of sensitivity that can affect her health and behavior.

In creating your own co-pet parenting plan, couples who are uncoupling tend to have greater success in transition their fur babies through mediation and collaborative processes. They can slowly introduce new routines, allowing the pet to adjust or make adjustments themselves when they see something is not working. They can even bring in specialists to address problems as they arise. Depending on your situation, for your pet’s health, and yours, we recommend the following:

  1. Keep your pet’s schedule as normal as possible.
  2. Talk with your co-pet parent about extraordinary and basic expenses. Pet insurance can be helpful for medical care, and many employers are now offering this option. Don’t forget smaller expenses like training, daycare/dog-walker, kenneling, flea and tick treatments, and grooming as these can also add up. General day-to-day expenses are normally covered by the pet parent in charge at that time.
  3. Talk about diet together and try to keep the food consistent. Nothing can be as upsetting to a pet’s tummy than frequent food changes; it can also result in your pet preferring the food at one parent’s home and not eating at the others. Stick to the same brand and the same plan.
  4. If he will not be seeing his other parent again, or for some time, give your pet extra love and attention.
  5. Don’t express your frustration for your former partner at your pet. Instead, take her for a walk – good for you and your pet.
  6. If you have a joint pet parent plan, make sure those visits are positive for your pet.
  7. Travel can be difficult, especially if flights are necessary. Depending on the size of your pet, he may be able to travel in cabin or may need to be in cargo. Research other shipment options and talk about care during travel and costs of travel.
  8. While keeping a routine is important, as your pet ages, remember that certain activities and diets may become more difficult. Be ready to have that conversation with your co-pet parent.
  9. Medical care can be a tough conversation. How far to go with treatment often depends on the views you each hold as to the impact on the pet and what’s warranted at certain ages or certain costs. It may also be necessary to give one pet parent or a neutral person you both trust the final say on euthanasia.
  10. Watch for signs of depression or anxiety. These include a change in appetite, loose stool, aggression, excessive barking, and destroying furniture. Consult with your vet and/or a trainer as necessary.

The best you can do for your pet in a divorce or separation is the best you can do for yourself, your children, and your pocketbook: keep it peaceful. Life is too short to spend years in court; when your pet’s average life span is only 10-13 years, even more so. Now go give Fido a well-deserved belly rub.

This article was originally posted on Collaborative Divorce Solutions of Orange County’s website.

English/Spanish »