What to do with pets when getting divorced

Me and Shamrock at a Hawaii pet event.

Me and Shamrock at a Hawaii pet event.

By Theresa Donnelly

It is estimated that nearly 50 percent of all U.S. marriages end in divorce and that it’s usually before the eight year mark that most marriages fall apart. With dog ownership at about 39 percent and cat ownership at 33 percent, there are many families faced with deciding what to do with the animals when the relationship ends.

I never anticipated I would be a part of this statistic, even down to the eight year rule (I hit eight years of marriage last March). I love my three Boxer dogs dearly and having no children, they were my fur kids. They inspired me to begin showing my dogs in conformation activities, volunteer with my purebred Boxer dog club, start a local pet resource for military families, and to advocate on behalf of military pet owners.

Fortunately, my job as an active duty naval officer enabled me to provide for them financially, so my husband took them back to his hometown of Tiverton, R.I. Because of my constant deployments at my next duty station in San Diego, we decided that it was in the best interest of the dogs that he would get fulltime custody.

But the sadness hasn’t gone away, and there’s an emptiness that remains within me. There are multiple pictures around the house of the dogs, and my personal Facebook page is filled with cute postings about them. Their lingering doggy smell brings back the sweet memories of them bouncing around the home (Boxers love to jump), playing with their toys and giving me lots of unconditional affection. I comfort myself knowing that once my deployment ends this February, I will foster dogs for the local Boxer rescue or the San Diego Humane Society.

I know not everyone has the option I did to give custody of the dogs to my husband, so I wanted to share some suggestions on what to do should anyone face a divorce with pets, especially those like myself with long absences from the home because of their career.

In most states, pets are considered property. According to this divorce attorney, judges do take many factors into consideration when determining the disposition of the pet, such as who was the primary caregiver and who owned the pet prior to the marriage. If there are children involved, it’s likely the pets will stay with them.

Here is all three of my pets. They will be missed dearly, but are in a great home with a huge yard and lots of love!

Here is all three of my pets. They will be missed dearly, but are in a great home with a huge yard and lots of love!

If you’re facing a family separation, please explore every possible option before dropping the animal off at a shelter. When we took on pet ownership, we knew this was a responsibility for life regardless of our personal decisions about the relationship. There may be family or close friends that can help if you just ask them. I’ve learned as I’ve become older and wiser to always ask for what I need, and then be accepting if the answer is no because at least I’ve tried to seek a solution.

Second, if family and friends are not an option, please contact us at Dogs on Deployment. We’ve helped place more than 225 military pets with foster families while the service member goes on deployment or short term school travel. With a Facebook network of more than 30,000 fans and 4,000 registered boarders, we are growing by the day, further increasing the chance that a good family will come forward to help in this time of need.

Lastly if no other option exists, please do a responsible rehoming. This article  lists some tips on what to do to ensure a safe home for your beloved animal. And if you’re lucky, perhaps the new family can send you pictures from time to time, or you can arrange a visit.

Divorce is never easy and what to do with the pets complicates an already stressful situation. But, hopefully there’s a way to come to an amicable agreement on the outcome of the animals. Their safety and forever care will always remain a priority for me, regardless of how the marriage turned out. The good that can come out of this is that it’s demonstrated the sense of responsibility I have to them no matter what curveball life throws. I hope others can come to a peaceful solution that is safe for the animal and will give the separating couple some comfort during such a difficult time.


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