Breakups are as unanimously terrible as Game of Thrones memes and Jason Mraz’s stupid fedora music, but if there’s one redeeming quality they have, it’s that they tend to follow a pattern. First, you weep. Then, you lose 20 pounds. Eventually, you bargain, but once you realize that’s futile and you’re better off without the sad sack, you proceed to Step Four: dividing up your shit so you can move out and move on.
It’s easy to do this with furniture, books and records, but when it comes to shared pets, the process isn’t so simple. You can’t just bisect the the beloved labradoodle you co-parented harmoniously for years like you can a cutlery set, so, what do you do? Oftentimes, the only solution is the pet custody battle; a rumpus of pain that only climaxes in one, brutal way — with a clear winner and loser, only one of which gets to take a victory lap around the dog park.
For the loser, the loss of their pet can often be as devastating as the loss of the relationship itself. According to breakup counselor Lisa Marie Bobby of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching, this can actually be one of the hardest and emotional parts of a split. “I see this all the time with couples who are separating,” she says. “It’s because the stakes are so high — it’s almost like in addition to losing a partner, you’re losing a child.”
Funny she should say that: Three states (California, Illinois and Alaska) actually have laws that require judges to treat pets similarly to children in divorce proceedings. When it comes to deciding which disgruntled spouse gets the pet, they are now required to consider not just who paid for the pet, but what custody arrangement will give it the best quality of life. Who walks, feeds and plays with the pet? Who takes them to the vet and keeps an eye on their health? Who has a nice yard where they can bark at strangers from? Who scoops up their incessant poop? Whoever makes the pet’s life the most enriching (and free from airborne meme cheese) wins.
Considerations like this are important not only for the wellbeing of the animal, but because battles over pet ownership can be costly and gladiatorial. In 2000, San Diego couple Stanley and Linda Perkins duked it for out for 14 whole dog years (er, two human ones) in a brutal legal brawl over their dog, Gigi. The trial, which cost them nearly $150,000, included testimony from an animal behavior specialist and a heart-wrenching home video called “Day in the Life of Gigi,” which depicted the beast cuddling with Linda and sleeping under her chair (cue Sarah McLaughlin’s “In the Arms of an Angel”). Eventually, the missus was awarded custody of Gigi while Stanley — who lacked such a stirring A/V presentation — had to move on.
Similar custody battles have been taking place over cats, horses, African parrots, pythons and giant turtles since at least since 1942, a fast-increasing trend that suggests people take the issuance of pets during a breakup a little more seriously than other shared possessions like kitchen tools or apocalypse gold. The fact that they do isn’t all that surprising: According to a recent survey of more than 1,200 Brits by McGuire Family Law, 15 percent of people love their pets more than they love their partners.
Thankfully, none of this has to be your problem. If you and your partner can follow a few simple, civil rules to pet allocation during a breakup, you should be able to focus on crying over them in the shower, not the dead-eyed iguana you bought them for Christmas in 2013. Like any system of governance, these rules have tiers and exceptions — service animals always stay with their original owner — but the most basic, overarching one Bobby suggests is as follows: If you’re the person getting broken up with, and you can give your pet a good quality of life, you get to keep it.
“In 95 percent of breakups, there’s a power/pain differential between the people in it,” she explains. “Sometimes, the split is mutual, but usually, there’s one person who calls it. Most often, that person has already envisioned ending the relationship and has had some time to process it. Nine times out of ten, that means they’re in less pain than the partner getting broken up with. Meanwhile, the person on the receiving end of the breakup can feel shell-shocked, blindsided and unprepared, which tends to mean they suffer more in the split.”
The most compassionate thing to do in this situation, she says, is to let the person who’s suffering the most keep the pet. “The relationship between animals and their people is really important,” she continues. “There’s a lot of emotional comfort and security that can happen from having one in your life, especially when you feel alone. Taking that away from someone who is already having their heart broken is just kind of cruel.”
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. What about when the pet belonged to you before the relationship? Or if it was given to you as a gift? How about when the person who is suffering less just so happens to be richer, has more time and lives on some sort of pet-friendly pasture next to a babbling, giardia-free brook? Most importantly, what if one person is too much of a feckless human chode — or just an irresponsible pet owner — to honor the golden rule outlined above?
Starting from the top: When a partner enters a new relationship with an existing pet, that pet is theirs, no questions asked. Unless the original owner has become unable to pet-parent during the course of the relationship for some extenuating reason, the “finders keepers” rule applies, and the pet stays with the person they came with. Case in point: In 2005, Drew Barrymore and Tom Green underwent a legal showdown over their labrador Flossie, who saved their lives by bork-borking like a good boi when their home caught fire. Barrymore won custody in that case because she was Flossie’s original owner.
If the pet is a gift, legal and ethical conventions dictate that it should go to the person it was given to. According to animal law expert David Favre, this is actually common law. No matter whether the gift is a wedding ring or a llama, “the person receiving it owns it,” he says. There are plenty of pet custody cases where this applies: In Nebraska, a man named Peter Zelenka was recently awarded sole custody of his zestily named French bulldog Princess Pot Roast after proving to the state’s Supreme Court that she’d been a gift to him from his then-boyfriend. So should you find yourself being presented with a live animal at any point in your relationship, it might not be a bad idea to get proof that it really was a gift so you can avoid any conflict down the line.
If one partner is wealthier or more responsible than the other, that also creates an ownership question. Shouldn’t the person with the most time and resources get the little bastard? Not necessarily. “Money and time don’t always make a good pet owner,” says Bobby. “The pet should really go to whoever is going to give it the best quality of life.” For example, if the richer, more responsible owner of a huge dog lives in a high-rise apartment in the city, but their partner is moving out to a farm, luxe urban living probably isn’t the best option for the dog’s well-being (though the doorman is a nice touch).
The classic case of Britney Spears and her Yorkie London is — somehow — a perfect illustration of this. Though she makes 40 times what her ex-husband Kevin Federline does and can feasibly afford to care for an entire species of dog, she was deemed “unfit” to parent London by a court during her infamous 2007 meltdown, and the dog went to Federline, along with her kids. The fact that PETA named her the “World’s Worst Celebrity Dog Owner” certainly didn’t help. Celebrity drama aside though, the pet should go with the person who can give it the best life, regardless of their income or the amount of free time they have.
Meanwhile, if someone is doing something dickish enough to merit being dumped — say they’re being abusive, manipulative or dangerously narcissistic — it’s unlikely that they’re going to be kind enough to let you keep the iguana in the first place, says Bobby. Favre agrees, “If humans are acting vindictively and seeking revenge on each other, then possession of the animal can sometimes be used as a tool to get back at the spouse or partner.”
In that case, Bobby suggests it might be best to cut your losses, tell the pet you love it and you’ll try to see it soon, then move on so you don’t have to deal with your shitty ex any more than necessary. You can always come back and fight for it later when you’re emotionally recovered, but sometimes, it’s best to heal first so you stand a fighting chance if you feel it’s worth reopening that wound later, be it in court or the tough streets of Pet Ownership City. (If you’re worried for the animal’s safety or well-being because your ex is abusive or neglectful and won’t let you have custody, you can always contact the Humane Society, your vet or the Animal Cruelty Task Force at your local police department for advice.)
A final consideration is children. “In a family situation, if there are children involved, it’s usually best if the animal stay with the parent who has primary custody of the kid(s),” says Bobby. “Doing that is more sensitive to the layers of loss that the child may be experiencing, and it may be a comfort for them to have their pet with them during a difficult time.”
Of course, if none of that helps you decide, you could always ask the pet itself. According to animal communicator and behavior specialist Kate Solisti, pets often have innate, wordless preferences for humans that, if given the opportunity to express, might be handily decisive in pet custody battles. “Just like children, pets tend to love both their parents,” she says. “But usually, they have a closer relationship with one. They feel like they have a commitment, purpose and mission with that person, and they might choose to stay with them if given the choice.”
Sometimes, she explains, pets express this preference through behavior such as snuggling or guarding one person more, but it’s not always outwardly obvious who they think their person is. The only way to know for sure is to get inside their minds with the help of someone like Solisti. Even if you don’t buy into the idea of pet psychics and animal communicators, having a third party who knows way more about animals than you can be the tie-breaker that helps you make a decision and get on with your life. Actually, says Solisti, many couples in the midst of a breakup come to see her exactly for this purpose. In some cases, they even find out some very interesting intel about the way their pets feel about them. “I talked to one person whose bird absolutely hated their partner,” she laughs. “That made the decision pretty easy.”
In any case, Solisti urges humans who are breaking up to let their pets know they didn’t do anything wrong. Because they can “sense something is amiss between their people and that the mood and energy has shifted,” they need reassurance that they’re loved and that you’re not breaking up because of something they did. As Favre says, “To break up the family is as disruptive to most pets as it is to a child. It requires reordering their world.” Solisti says how disruptive it actually is tends to decrease along the cuddliness scale — cats, dogs, rabbits and horses get more bonded to people and their routines, but reptiles, birds, miscellaneous field-based quadrupeds and gross-ass insects you insist on keeping in a terrarium don’t really give a shit unless you’re feeding them.
Solisti also suggests shared custody of the pet if you want to keep some semblance of normalcy in their life, but other experts like Bobby aren’t convinced that’s such a good idea. “Shared custody can work in rare cases, but more often than not, I see one partner using the pet as an excuse to maintain contact and connection to their ex in a way that might be unhealthy,” she explains. “Usually, it’s the person who is hurting more and is craving some kind of contact. The pet becomes a rationale to see them, but that can just invite more heartbreak in the long run.” Instead, she recommends pulling off the Band-Aid, making a hard decision about who gets the pet, then sticking to it. If you’re still really dying without a four-legged poop factory to care for, do your grieving, then get another one of your own.
Of course, all these guidelines and caveats could easily be avoided if you make the decision before you break up — a pet pre-nup, if you will — but Bobby says people never actually make one. “Deciding who gets the cat requires people to admit their relationship might be finite, which almost no one wants to do,” she says. So, if you’re unwilling to admit that you’re imperfect and mortal and that your relationship will probably end, stick to Bobby’s original advice: Consider what’s compassionate for the person in the most pain, weigh it against what’s best for the pet, then split the difference.
If that doesn’t work, well, there’s always Judge Judy.