Who Gets The Dog? A Guide To Co-Parenting A Pet After A Relationship Ends

Vanessa Armstrong

May 01, 2020

4 min read

Breakups are hard for a lot of reasons, and having a dog or cat that’s loved by both parties can further increase the pain and conflict that can arise from separating from a partner. Pets are a big part of our lives, after all, and figuring out a plan for how to care for your dog or cat if you and your partner decide to call it quits can be difficult even in the most amicable breakup situation.

It’s easy for all to agree that the owners’ main consideration should be to make choices that are in the best interest of the pet. But that’s easier said than done when you get into the specifics, especially if a couple hasn’t had this conversation before they decide to live apart. Read on to learn what pet-related issues you should talk about with your current partner now (think of it like a pre-nup for your pet), and what factors you should consider when deciding what’s the best option for everyone.

What Will Custody Look Like?

One of the most obvious things to discuss with your partner is where the pet will live if the two of you separate. It’s important to think through all potential scenarios as well — it might be relatively easy for the two of you to trade off the pet every other week, for example, if you stay in the same city. But if one person moves to another state, how will that impact any potential arrangement? Other custody-related issues to consider are holiday scheduling and whether the other co-parent watches the pet when the custodial parent is traveling.

Canva - Family with Children and Pet Dog Sit

“Specificity is important,” explains Kellie Olah, a Human Resource Consultant for Veterinary Business Advisors, an organization that provides legal, human resources and practice management services to veterinarians. “Rather than vaguely deciding that you’ll split time with the pet, for example, create a plan about what that looks like — again, building in flexibility for when unexpected life events take place.”

Once the two of you agree on a schedule, it’s also important to consider other aspects that influence a pet’s home life. “If the pet will end up spending time in two homes, then it’s important to decide on the same general rules for pet care, whether that’s the brand of food or the timing of meals,” says Olah. “Is the dog allowed on the couch at one member’s house? If so, keep that rule at the other home.”

Who Will Support The Pet Financially?

Pets can be expensive, and who pays for what can become a sensitive subject in a co-parenting situation. One way to take some of the stress out of the situation is to approach pet-related costs systematically. “First, make a list of the more ordinary expenses — from food to flea medicine and replacement collars — to more expensive ones, from daycare to travel expenses if long distance, to medical care,” Olah recommends. “Then, negotiate. If the two people can agree upon a plan and adhere to it, that is always best. This may mean expenses are split equally or it may mean that the person with a higher income will pay more. Or someone may agree to pay a set amount for medical care for the year, with the other person agreeing to take on the rest. If a solution fits the couple’s situation and is good for the pet, then it’s a good solution. In general, basic supplies, such as food, are paid for by the person who currently has custody, with larger expenses divided in some fashion.”

Who Will Make The Medical Decisions?

In a pet’s life, there will at least be a few times when an owner will have to make major medical decisions on behalf of their furry loved one. Some veterinary offices require a single person be listed as responsible for primary caregiving decisions, but it’s crucial for co-parents to be on the same page about who that is before any major medical treatment is needed. This discussion is also closely tied to who pays for veterinary treatment, which should also be agreed upon ahead of time, if possible.

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Whatever You Decide, Put It In Writing And Review It Regularly

Talking to your partner about how the two of you will care if your pet if you break up is an awkward conversation, of course. But discussing these issues beforehand can save you, your partner, and your pet a lot of grief later on. If a separating couple can’t agree on terms, for example, taking their former partner to court will cost thousands of dollars. And with the exception of Alaska, Illinois, and California — state court systems in the U.S. view a pet as property and don’t like arbitrating about custodial rights to begin with.

And whatever you decide, it’s important to have that plan in writing to prevent potential future issues. It’s also important to revisit this plan as you, your partner, and your pet become older: “You need to review your plan every year or two because people’s lives change, and people’s desire to keep the pet change,” explains Debra Hamilton, an attorney with significant animal law and mediation experience. “Dogs can live 10 to 15 years if they’re a big dog, a little dog can live 20 years, and cats can live to be over 20. So in the next 20 years, if something happens to your relationship, you need to have a plan. And that plan needs to be written down.”

Written by:

Vanessa Armstrong

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