In sickness and in health…but I’m keeping the pet

Over in California, the argument of who gets to keep the pet when a couple splits is now a matter for the courts. Great news, but it’s a bit late for some.



For many of us, the shared dog is a noticeable signpost on the journey of a lifelong love. First, you have the dog to see if you can handle the dog, and then you think about kids. It’s a test. I don’t want to marginalise your romance here, but what if it you fail? Pets, unlike furniture (or children), are difficult to split when it comes to cold coffee conclusions of I don’t want to do this anymore.

Heed my words, sheeple, as I’ve been guilty of this, and I’ve been the victim. I once had a relationship that I figured was really real, and celebrate we thought we’d both get that pooch we always wanted, because we were not going anywhere. The result of our ambitious love was a thoroughbred we named after a prawn. She was well trained, she was gorgeous, her name was Scampi.

Sadly, year two into her existence, her parents broke up, a third of her whole life (the other two being her canine sister, the other her mother) was gone, vanished one evening, never to return again. It was grim, it continues to be grim. The decision I made at the time to let her stay with her doggy sister seemed the only logical one. Try as I might to see her, I have no recourse, nor rights, as she’s just a dog. So, I’m stuck, the only curio of her existence remains on the wallpaper of my phone, and I’ll have to live with it, I guess. But I know I’m not alone.

In fact, this is becoming such a common occurrence that a Californian law has been passed which grants a judge authority to settle the dispute between feuding exes over who gets to keep the dog. Fighting over the dog is not a terribly new concept, however the recent law means that pets gain status where previously they were considered simply a piece of family property, not dissimilar to the beloved dishwasher. While these items have a dollar value placed on them, they traditionally are viewed as part of the “assets” that are split between parties. The new law will mean that the wellbeing of the pet will be taken into consideration as well as their safety, to include “prevention of acts of harm or cruelty” as well as “the provision of food, water, veterinary care and safe and protected shelter.”

Divorce cases have seen families feud for years over children, and now Californian judges will have similar authority over deciding who gets to keep the family dog based on criteria such as who is the main caretaker, who takes the dog for a walk, to the vet and who feeds the dog. For couples who see their pets as their fur babies, this new law means that disputes such as whether or not the dog was a gift will be given the same consideration as child-custody disputes.

While there has been opposition, as well as feedback to this new law trying to diminish the relationship between owner and pet, those who have been separated from a beloved pet understand the pain caused. Couples who have had to engage in ongoing disputes often experience the impact of that divorce as amplified when a child or, now, a pet, becomes a pawn in the dispute. Currently, some disputes are handled by trying to work out who the pet loves more (who will it go to when called), and making a determination that way. Other times, some disputes have been resolved by splitting up two pets between both parties, or providing one party access to the pet one month and then alternating custody. While pets have increasingly taken over our social media feeds in 2018, the place they hold in families has remained consistent, with 85% of pet owners considering their pet as family, and 57% of those surveyed saying, if stranded on a desert island with the choice of only one companion, that they would choose their family pet.

The new law is set to take place in January 2019, and the bill will ensure that the wellbeing of the pet is taken into consideration both in the lead up to the divorce proceedings and while they are underway.


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