Fighting Over Fido: What to Do When You Need A Custody Agreement For Your Pet

pet custody
Christy Zlatkus, Esq.

By Christy Zlatkus, Esq. | Aug 19th, 2019

Our law firm is made up of Pet Parents who love their furbabies.  Firm dogs are included in team photos, clients have gifted us drawings of our dogs which proudly hang in our offices, and if trial preparations have to happen on a weekend, you can bet the firm dogs are present and accounted for.  Needless to say, we know how hard it is to address the issue of pet custody when going through a split.

Cases involving beloved dogs can be just as traumatic as those involving custody of children.  I once represented a woman who was also the proud mother of a beautiful black Labrador named Polly.  She loved and adored her dog. My client took took Polly to special agility training events, walked her for two miles every single morning, and came home at lunchtime to take the Polly out and play with her for a few minutes.  When she would come to my office for meetings about her case, she would show me live video footage of Polly on her phone (she had a Petcube device).  Unfortunately, her spouse knew that Polly was her weak spot and used that to his advantage.  My client spent thousands of dollars (and I spent hours in motions practice, depositions, and various other discovery vehicles) to ensure that my client and Polly would never be separated.  At the end of the day Polly went to live with my client, but she paid dearly in the divorce to ensure that happened.

“No matter how little money and how few possessions you own, having a dog makes you rich.”

Louis Sabin, Author

Many dog owners believe the family pet is a cherished and loved member of the family.  We include them in family photos and holidays. We dress them up for Halloween, throw birthday parties for them, and even buy them holiday presents.  Bumper stickers saying “My Kids Have Four Paws” and “I Love My Granddog” are ubiquitous in today’s society. At the time of publication, a mere three states (California, Alaska, and Illinois) have passed laws allowing Courts to consider the best interests of the animal rather than treating Fido the same way as they treat the family couch.  Unfortunately, not all of our Courts have caught up with the current social mores involving our furbabies, and pets are generally treated as property in a divorce. In the meantime, divorcing divas may have to take matters into their own hands and settle the issue of pet custody. Here are some common ways that Pet Parents choose what happens to Fido when they split.

1. Split Custody

If you have multiple family pets, consider a split with each Pet Parent taking one or more pets.  As long as you are not breaking up an extremely bonded pair, this is can be a solution that works.  Perhaps you are more bonded with one animal and your other furbaby curls around your ex’s feet every night.  In such a case, it may make sense for you each to provide a home for one of the family pets.

2. Pets Stay With The Children.

If you and your ex have both human children and furbabies, consider a scenario where the pets and children stay together.  This can work out in one of two ways. Option One:  Whichever parent ends up with primary physical custody (aka more parenting time) gets the animals.  This way the pets remain where the children spend the majority of their time. Option Two:  The children and furbabies “travel” together on the same custodial schedule.  This option, while complicated in terms of coordination, can be great for your kiddos as they have an extra sense of security and stability as Fido is always with them.

3. Shared Schedule

Some Pet Parents, regardless of whether or not they had human children, will choose to share custody of their pets.  We have seen schedules that alternate weeks or alternate months. We have even seen more complicated schedules where mid-week exchanges are the norm.  For this to work, you and your ex must be on amicable terms. If Fido isn’t feeling well one day, he can’t verbally tell you and you have to pick up on his cues.  Sharing this information between you and your ex is critical and it starts with hammering out a pet custody agreement together. When working on this agreement, consider who will take charge of vet appointments (and who will pay), who will make medical decisions (regular and emergency), where a pet license or microchip will be registered, how food and snacks will be chosen and paid for, what will happen when one of you goes away on vacation, and what will happen when life changes (one of you remarries or one of you moves far away).  Whichever schedule you choose, sharing time with Fido can be a great way for Fido to keep both of his “Parents” in his life and to enjoy a richer life full of more adventures.

4. Visiting Rights

Some Pet Parents, while recognizing that Fido would be better off with their ex, still want to remain in Fido’s life.  Some divorcées have negotiated a settlement that included the right to send Fido birthday/holiday gifts and to receive photos and updates a few times per year.  Some have even agreed on a once or twice a year visit with Fido. This arrangement provides the comfort of knowing how Fido is doing while minimizing contact between you and your ex to a few times each year.

5. When In Doubt, Apply the “Best Interests” Standard.

As hard as it may be, really take inventory of the best interests of your pet.  If your former spouse is going to live in a home with a big, beautiful backyard (which Fido loves!) and you are going to enjoy your new freedom in a swanky new penthouse apartment, which, while exciting for you, may not be as comfortable for your dog, Fido may do better with your ex.  But living quarters are not the be-all-end-all of the best interest analysis. Which of you has a work schedule that is more conducive for spending time with Fido? Can one of you more easily afford a dog walker, trainer, animal behaviorist, or other professionals that Fido may need? Does your ex work from home and can therefore be available to Fido all day?  Finally, take a brutally honest look at Fido’s history: Who took him to vet appointments, gave him his heartworm medication, walked him, played with him, and trained him. Who is most likely to do these things in the future? As difficult will be to say goodbye, if you and your ex are not in a position to share custody or provide visiting rights and you know deep-down that Fido would be better off with your ex, allowing Fido to go where he will be happiest might be the best gift you give to your furbaby.

Pet custody is a complicated issue no matter what you choose and the laws surrounding pet custody is constantly changing and evolving.  We always recommend that you discuss this issue with a competent attorney in your jurisdiction who can let you know the local laws.

Christy Zlatkus, Esq.

Christy Zlatkus, Esq.

Christy A. Zlatkus launched Z Family Law, a boutique family law firm based in Rockville, Maryland.


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