Pet custody guidelines for divorce professionals

These five guidelines for mediators are aimed to encourage the two parties to put the pet’s long-term wellbeing first. Overly humanizing pets does them a disservice, however, bringing in their point of view is very important when making a long-term plan for their future.  We are all familiar with the emotions that can be attached to pets; these tips below can help you create awareness with your clients about the needs of the actual animal, not just the wants of the people, and hopefully arrive more peacefully at a plan for all involved. 

Other issues may seem much more pressing and important, however my advice is to bring up pets as early as possible in the mediation process so that ownership/custody can be addressed. Because of the emotions attached to pets, they can very easily become a bargaining tool between the couple later in the divorce process, and in so doing lose the animal’s perspective, in which case the needs of the actual pet will be overlooked. Suggest to your clients they work through the pets first precisely so they don’t become a bargaining chip down the line. 

Pose the question to your clients, “If your dog/cat could speak on his/her own behalf, what do you think they would say? What sort of life do you think your animals would choose for themselves if they could?” It is natural for people to project their own feelings and opinions onto their pets without realizing it. Questions like these can help separate what is in the pet’s best interest, regardless of what the people might want. 

 

 

See if they can decide to revisit the arrangements for the pets after three months. Only time will tell how each dog or cat will cope with big changes in their life. For example, shared custody, moving to an apartment or leaving their animals friends will work for some pets and not for others. Regardless of what agreement is reached, ask your clients to agree to check three months later to see how their pets are coping. If, at that time, the pet is showing signs of stress ask both parties to agree to the possibility of changing the agreement.  (Please see my link here to signs of stress in dogs)

Saying goodbye is easier for dogs than people. Having regular visits with people or animals that dogs used to live with can often be more stressful than not seeing them at all. These reunions tend to be more for the benefit of the people than the dog and can be more unsettling and confusing for the dog than anything else.

Focus on the future, not the past. The most relevant conversation about the pets is what will happen going forward. Focus less on who paid for the animal, wanted it in the first place, or if one person was the original owner, and more on who is the dog or cat bonded with now? Which person has the time and energy to meet all the exercise needs of the dog? Is one house more suited to pets than the other? Who has the patience to deal with the needs of an elderly animal?

Karis Nafte is a specialist in animal behaviour and divorce issues with pets. As a pet custody consultant, she consults with clients worldwide and assists mediators to understand the needs of animals during, and after, separations.

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