How to Deal with Pet Custody Loss

If you’re like most of us, your pet isn’t just an animal. They are a beloved family member with whom you and your family have a deep emotional bond. So if divorce enters the picture, the issue of who gets custody of the pet can be a touchy subject. 

Unfortunately, most state divorce laws see your beloved family pet as little more than property to be divided along with the furniture during a divorce.

Since most court systems view pets as personal property, a judge will likely only get involved in a pet custody dispute by determining who gets sole ownership of the animal. For the other spouse, this can be heartbreaking.

Who gets to keep the pet after a break-up or divorce?

Who keeps the pet after divorce? In most states, your pet is considered part of the “marital estate” – the belongings you must divide during the divorce process. 

Let’s refer to the pet in question as “Fuzzy.” If you and your spouse bought or adopted Fuzzy as a couple, he would likely be considered marital property 

Unless you live in Alaska, California, Maine, New York, Illinois, or New Hampshire, the matter of who gets to keep Fuzzy will likely be subject to the property distribution laws of your state.

If Fuzzy was your pet before you got married, he is your separate property, and you would likely get to keep him. But if you adopted Fuzzy together, a judge would have the final say on his home if you can’t agree. Perhaps worse, if you bought him together from a breeder for a large sum of money, the court could possibly order him to be sold so both of you could divide his dollar value fairly.

Suffice it to say, this can be heartbreaking for people who love their pets.

Coming to a mutual agreement

If you don’t like the thought of the court stepping in to make decisions about Fuzzy for you, there is a bit of hope.

If you and your spouse can cooperate and come to a mutual agreement about who keeps Fuzzy – or how you can share custody of him – that agreement can become part of your overall settlement agreement without the court’s intervention. 

For many couples, of course, coming to this kind of agreement can be challenging in the middle of an upsetting divorce. If you find yourself in such a situation and both of you are willing to negotiate (and perhaps share pet custody), working with a mediator to hammer out an agreement may be a viable alternative.

Read our article, How Your State Determines Pet Custody in Divorce, for an elaboration of individual state laws.

State laws and pet custody

As we’ve established, most states still consider a beloved pet to be personal property. But things are slowly changing. Recently, case law and statutes have begun to acknowledge that pets are more than inanimate personal property and should be considered differently in a divorce proceeding. 

Some states have started to consider pets and pet custody beyond property division and will look at many factors when making their decisions, including the pet’s well-being, which spouse has the best environment and who can best care for the pet. These states include:

  • Alaska
  • California
  • Illinois
  • Maine
  • New Hampshire
  • New York
  • Rhode Island
  • Washington, D.C.

Other states, while not taking a broad interest in hearing pet custody issues, will consider special circumstances when deciding who the family pet will live with during the divorce process. For example, when child custody is involved, Texas courts will sometimes consider the family pet in that equation. 

But, bottom line, the best way for couples to decide on custody of their pet after their divorce, especially if they choose to share that custody, is to work cooperatively to create an agreement that works for them instead of leaving it up to the court. 

4 coping tips

If your ex is awarded sole ownership of your pet, it can be a devastating loss on top of all the other physical and emotional losses you’re experiencing. You're feeling genuine grief over the loss of your pet. But because your pet is still very much alive, there can also be a painful lack of closure. How can you cope with the grief of losing something comparable to a family member?

1. Allow yourself to grieve

Losing a pet in a divorce is profound for most people. It is reasonable and necessary to allow yourself to grieve as you would any other significant loss. You may feel sad, angry, and a cocktail of other emotions. Let the feelings come up. Write in a journal. Talk to a friend who understands your connection, not someone who will poo-poo your furry friend as “just a pet.” You will heal, but it will take time and patience.

2. Stay connected, if possible

Okay, maybe your ex got the pet, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have some type of visitation or other shared connection if you can cooperate. Offer to pet-sit when your ex goes out of town, take them to the vet, or go for walks. It’s possible that your ex may be happy to share some of the responsibility with you. 

3. Create new routines

For most pet owners, the family pet plays into their daily routine. For example, for a dog, there is is walk time, feeding time, and going-to-the-park time. Engaging in activities to fill the void can be helpful. For example, you might find other ways to get the exercise you’re missing on the daily walk. 

4. Adopt another pet

There’s nothing like putting energy into another pet to occupy your thoughts and sadness about your former pet. A new pet will require you to form a new bond. There may be training and walking involved. Considering the number of adoptable pets available today, you should have no problem finding a pet that needs you as much as you need them. 

FAQ about pet custody loss

Does joint custody of a pet ever work?

If you and your ex are amicable and can agree to have your pet’s best interests at heart, a joint custody arrangement could work for both of you. It’s important to remember, however, that any type of joint custody arrangement you work out post-divorce would not be enforceable by law. If one of you doesn’t abide by its terms, it would be difficult for the other to enforce it.

Suggested: What Is a Pawrenting Agreement for Divorced Pet Owners?

What if my ex mistreats or neglects our pet?

If you suspect your ex is neglecting or mistreating your pet, document any evidence, and contact the local animal control as soon as possible. They often have the right to investigate the mistreatment or can direct you to the appropriate law enforcement agency. You might also seek the advice and guidance of an animal welfare attorney. 

Your pet holds a special place in your heart, and losing it in a divorce can be emotional and stressful. Before the divorce is final, understand what your state laws say about pets and pet custody. If it’s possible, work with your soon-to-be ex on a pet-sharing agreement that serves everyone involved. The more you can cooperate with your ex, the easier it will be to get creative so you can both continue to love and care for your furry friend. 

At Hello Divorce, we offer affordable professional services like divorce mediators who can provide help make pet custody a bit easier. Want more information? Schedule a free call

Divorce Content Specialist
Mediation, Divorce Strategy, Divorce Process, Mental Health
Candice is a former paralegal and has spent the last 16 years in the digital landscape, writing website content, blog posts, and articles for the legal industry. Now, at Hello Divorce, she is helping demystify the complex legal and emotional world of divorce. Away from the keyboard, she’s a devoted wife, mom, and grandmother to two awesome granddaughters who are already forces to be reckoned with. Based in Florida, she’s an avid traveler, painter, ceramic artist, and self-avowed bookish nerd.