Who gets Fluffy? Working out joint pet custody

When Tricia Lerdon and her husband separated, they had to figure out how to share their beloved dachshund, Jetson.

“One of us giving up the dog?” she said. “That wasn’t even a conversation.”

So while living apart, they co-owned Jetson for several years until he died. He traveled between their homes on the same schedule that their daughter did, so she would have her pet’s company.

Pet custody disputes are on the rise, according to a survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers in Chicago. The survey cited attorneys handling cases concerning cats, dogs, birds and reptiles.

Pet owners who split up have developed creative ways to ensure continued relationships with their animals, said Christie Long, chief veterinarian for PetCoach, an online resource for pet owners.

She encourages pet parents to discuss custody at the start of a breakup — to decide how to provide and pay for veterinary care, for instance. She also advises couples to stay on the same page concerning pet discipline and behavior.

“If one party is more rigid about rules like no dogs on the couch and the other doesn’t care that much, you definitely want to discuss that,” she said.

In hindsight, Lerdon said she wishes she and her ex-husband had planned more carefully about their joint custody of Jetson. She wonders if shuttling him between two homes might have hurt his health as he aged.

“I do think it took a toll on him,” she said.

Yet she also believes Jetson would have been unhappy if he were cut off from either her or her ex.

Long encourages pet owners to consider whether their pet also has a relationship with another animal in the household.

“Animals are adaptable,” she said. “For the most part, they are happy to be with one owner. I would caution people about breaking up multiple pets that have bonded.”

Cat owners may want to think twice about pet sharing, Long said. Cats tend to become comfortable in a certain location and might not do well traveling between residences.

“If possible, select one party as the ‘primary’ owner and let the other owner have visitation rights in that home,” she suggested. “If this won’t work at all, consider a longer period of time for joint custody — maybe six months at a time.”

Couples that have difficulty agreeing on a plan can turn to mediators.

When Mosa Hsu and her ex could not reach an agreement about their rescue dog Pupineya, they turned to mediation. The process let them move past their anger at each another and work together.

“We don’t argue about fairness, inequity or recompense for prior wrongs anymore,” Hsu said. “We value the terms of agreement — visitations six months each for both of us per year — because we created its terms.”

Mediation can help both parties have honest conversations about the animal, said Debra Hamilton of Hamilton Law and Mediation in Armonk, New York. It also results in an enforceable plan that satisfies both parties.

Hamilton said she’s helped couples who were so angry with one another that they turned to a third party, such as a groomer, pet sitter or friend, to handle the logistics of handing the pet over.

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