The tension starts with something simple.
Maybe a dirty dish in the sink or a wet towel left on the floor. Then money issues start to creep up. How much can we spend? What can we spend it on? Just one too many visits from the in-laws, and it’s all down hill from there. Your marriage can quickly enter a tailspin from which it cannot recover, and the next thing you know you are filing for divorce citing “irreconcilable differences.”
This is not uncommon. In fact, according to the National Center for Health Statistics around 50 percent of first marriages end in divorce. Once lawyers get involved, it can get messy. Property and money is divided up, and custody of the children is hashed out. But often there is another life involved—the future of the furry, four-legged dependent must also be decided.
Pet behavior expert Steven May and family law attorney David Pisarra have each gone through the ordeal of breaking up with a spouse with whom they had a pet. Pisarra actually handled May’s divorce proceedings. As they began to talk more about their experiences, it became clear this was a subject that needed to be tackled.
Dealing with pet custody after a breakup happens everyday, but is rarely brought to the surface. May and Pisarra’s book, What About Wally: Co-Parenting a Pet with your Ex, hit bookshelves back in October. It offers a heartfelt approach to a situation that a lot of people can relate to.
The book begins with the stories of May’s and Pisarra’s divorces and how they amicably worked with their respective exes on how to handle their dogs. They also include editorial pieces from each of their former spouses, so you get more than one point of view. “Even though we were going through a lot of emotional hurdles in our breakup,” Pisarra recalls, “We handled the dog well because we knew the other side cared about the animal—you really have to keep that in mind.”
However, both men admit keeping the animal’s best interest in mind can be very difficult in the beginning, ironically for the very same reason—how much the dog means to both people. “You get a new pup, and it begins a new and different angle to the relationship,” May points out. “When separation does occur, there is anger in the realization that someone may not have a pet anymore.”
The authors offer strategies to help people get through a difficult time while maintaining a cool head. For example, May suggests that if you are going to argue, take it out of the room. You do not want your dog to associate you with anger and those bad feelings he may have when you are fighting with your spouse.
“As pet [parents], we believe that we can communicate with our pets, and they can read our emotions,” says May. “Dogs are very much a product of their experience, so if there is a lot of yelling in their house and it is not a calm environment, the dog can become very quiet, may stop eating, or will eliminate in the house. Oftentimes the stress can hurt their immune system and make them ill.”
May believes keeping a similar environment in both locations is important, and suggests buying two sets of the same leashes, food/water bowls, toys, beds, etc. “If you can keep everything the same type for the psyche of the animal, they will get a better sense of security,” he advises.
The book includes a guide to address issues that often come up when deciding on shared custody of a pet. There are dog-walking schedules, training regimens, food charts, medication reminders, and a schedule to work out visitation rights.
There are of course legal ramifications that come into play when dealing with the custody of a pet in divorce cases. Pisarra points out that there are unique issues because, in a legal sense, the pet is viewed as a piece of property.
“Similar to when you are splitting up the belongings, it becomes: ‘Who paid for the sofa? Was it a gift? Was it money the two of you earned?’ That same sort of mentality applies to dogs,” says Pisarra. This can cause the battle to become very contentious, and the animal can be used as a tool of manipulation.
“I’ve seen people who have taken the animal just to spite the other person, drop them off at a [shelter] a hundred miles away, or even go so far as to take the animal to the vet to be put down—just to hurt the other person,” says Pisarra. “It’s cold. It’s really, really cold. People can be just brutal.”
A divorce can be like an emotional roller coaster and people tend to be reactive, rather than rational. “I talk to a lot of people who say, ‘I wish I would have read this before we split,’” says May. Even when both parties have the best intentions, sometimes there is no way to make both sides happy.
“It is very traumatic. Many times the judge looks at the husband and wife and says it is in the best interest of the pet to only have one home,” explains May. When that happens there can be a mourning period similar to when the pet dies. “They feel as if they have closed a chapter in their personal life. The pet may represent the last 15 years of their lives and everything starts to flash—all of those memories come back and it is tough.”
May and Pisarra are working on a series of seven books regarding issues such as this. They have two books being released in the spring that tackle proper puppy parenting and how to deal with estate and trust issues when animals are involved.