We are a nation of dog lovers – you just need some idle browsing on Facebook to see the huge number of pictures of pets and cute animals, not just dogs.
As a divorce lawyer I am often asked how we deal with people fighting over their children and, perhaps to a lesser extent, their money. However, the arrangements in relation to a family pet can be just as problematic to resolve as all the more obvious difficulties a couple faces in a separation.
Pets are not matrimonial property
In the first instance, it is important to say that pets are not matrimonial property and so are not divided in the way that household contents might otherwise be divided. Nor is the value of a pet relevant. In many cases, one of the couple is obviously the dog's owner and the dog will often move with that individual. Problems can however arise which only really materialise after the separation has occurred and which no-one has really thought about among the other more obvious issues that need to be addressed.
Dogs are pretty expensive to take care of once they are in your house. As well as food, there are vets' bills, pet insurance, grooming and dog walking and this can amount to significant outgoing per month, particularly when incomes are stretched trying to fund two households rather than one.
Where will the dog stay?
Where is the pet going to stay? Where this is a dog, it may be obvious and the dog will go with one owner. But what if the dog has been bought by a couple and has formed strong bonds with both of them and with any children?
For some families it is appropriate for the dog to stay in the family home with the children but for others, particularly where there are very young children in the house, the practicalities of having both child and dog at the same time are simply too much. After all, who can realistically take a dog out late at night for its last walk of the evening with a baby sleeping in a cot in the house?
Sometimes the dog spends time each week with each of the couple and whether that coincides with where the children are at any given time is a matter for individual family preference. The humans in the equation are undoubtedly affected by the lack of contact with the loved pet, and though there is no sure way of knowing I suspect the animals are probably just as equally affected by the change. I spend a lot of time talking about the impact on children of moving between parents' homes. I do not even think about the impact on an animal in doing the same but I suspect there is quite a significant impact on its wellbeing.
The sale of the family home can often have significant repercussions where there is a pet. A lot of private rented properties nowadays will simply not accept a pet and, if one is moving from a family home with garden where the dog has been able to run freely into a flat where pets are not allowed there is a real problem.
When the separation involves a return to work, or full time work from part time, for a spouse the amount of time available for dog walking can become an issue, especially if it is a large animal in need of a lot of exercise. Not everyone is prepared for or even considers this sort of thing when a separation arises but they can have profound implications for all of the family.
Making contractual arrangements about looking after the dog
More and more couples entering into separation agreements are making specific contractual arrangements between them in relation to the pet dog (cats tend to be lower maintenance). So while it sounds like a simple proposition that pets are not matrimonial property, their wellbeing and the arrangements that the couple make concerning their pets often take up quite a bit of the family lawyer's time.
Given the fractured relations in a separating family, it is perhaps not that surprising that the one who does not judge and remains loyal throughout takes on such an important role.