Pet Parents & Breakups: How to Move Forward

Like most children growing up, I always wanted a dog.  Like a lot of children growing up asking their parents for a dog, the answer was a hard “no” for the predictable reasons: dogs are a huge responsibility, they require a lot of time and effort and can be expensive.  So it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties and living with my boyfriend-at-the-time in New York City, who had a similar experience when he was younger, that we decided to get one.  Our very first dog!

A Maltese mix, Mini was only eight weeks old when we got her and we were both equally invested in caring for her in every way, the newest member of our family.  Each experience, from bringing her home for the first time, to taking her to the vet or her first puppy play group, was making a new memory.  Even though I had always wanted a dog, I did not know how much love I could feel for this precious little animal.  Needless to say, when the unexpected, yet inevitable break-up occurred almost a year later, emotions ran high and both of us could not imagine not having her in our lives.

In the beginning, we both agreed to “shared custody” and alternated having her every two weeks until we could figure out a more permanent solution that would be fair for everyone.  I remained in an apartment in the city while he to the suburbs.  One night, I had just finished a yoga class and was on my way home.  As I was listening to my missed voicemail messages, I received a message from my ex- saying that, although I was supposed to get our dog that weekend for the next two weeks, he was going to keep her..indefinitely.  I could not believe what I was hearing.  I called him to try and understand what was going on, only to be met by responses that were entitled and completely absurd.  The next morning at 8am, FedEx was at my door to deliver a certified check from my ex- in the amount of half of what each of us had paid for her.  Really?!  My emotions were all over the place: sadness, anger, confusion - rinse and repeat.

After a couple of days and countless calls to friends and family, I started researching my legal rights and even consulted a couple of attorneys.  Deciding who would get custody was tricky in our situation and we did not have a written agreement, prior to or after the breakup.  Lisa McCurdy, a San Francisco based attorney who is involved in pet animal laws, mentions a few ways to “establish ownership” in this great video: Pet Custody Disputes: A Legal Primer.  These factors can be used to negotiate between both parties and also what many courts will use to help determine ownership:

1. Pet adoption or purchase papers
2. Who has spent money on caring for this animal, vet bills, food, etc.
3. Who has registered the animal with the city
4. Microchip registration

In our case, literally, everything was split equally.  Both of our names were on every document and everything was paid for with our joint checking and credit card accounts.  The best advice that anyone could give me was to be patient, civil and try to come to an agreement (and stick to it) that would be in the best interest of our dog. 

I would truly never wish this on anyone, however, if you find yourself in this position, I would highly recommend coming to some sort of agreement (in writing, if possible) before getting a dog.  I had a couple of friends urge me to do, however, I never wanted to consider that the “worst case scenario” could happen, and thought if it somehow did, everything would remain civil.  In short, I ignored the practical.

Also, here are some things to keep in mind, and it’s crucial to be honest with yourself:

1. Which environment is better for the dog?
In my case, I was living in a small studio apartment in Manhattan and he had moved to a house outside of the city with plenty of outdoor space.

2. Who has the most time to properly care for the dog?
At the time, I was working and traveling much more than my ex-boyfriend.  A couple of days a week, I would try to rush home during my lunch hour and walk our dog but it was a struggle going at it alone with a busy schedule.

3. Where is the dog happiest?
In this scenario, 1 + 2 = 3 and our dog was ultimately the happiest and had the best quality of life with my ex-boyfriend.

In the end, my ex-boyfriend regretted the way he had handled things with Mini and apologized shortly after.  The entire journey was tough with a lot of lessons learned for everyone.  Fast forward several years later and I have since gotten another dog and moved outside of New York.  Mini is currently living in California with my ex-boyfriend and happier than ever. 

A couple of good related articles:

- Natalie Zumino (Contributor)