In some states, there is actually such a thing as a pet prenup — a premarital agreement as to who keeps the beloved dog or cat should the marriage not go the distance, even in people years.
That concept isn’t necessary in Louisiana, said attorney Karen Downs, because the state’s laws affirm that a pet brought into a marriage belongs to the person who owned it before the wedding. But that doesn’t mean that pets don’t come up in divorce cases. Even when romance dies, people’s love for their companion animals often burns undimmed.
Sometimes, the dispute even reaches the point where a judge decides who gets the pet. East Baton Rouge Parish Family Court Judge Pamela Baker said she handled a case in which neither husband nor wife could bear to part with Baby Foo-Foo, a Yorkshire terrier. Baker ruled the husband had given the dog to his wife as a Christmas present, making it hers.
“I know the father who didn’t get Baby Foo-Foo went out and bought another dog. I hope that dog helped him get over his grief over losing that dog,” Baker said. “I know that he loved that dog.”
However, Louisiana law defines pets as property, so judges cannot treat them as a custody matter, Baker said. As a result, the pet’s disposition is something to be worked out by the divorcing couple, just as they decide what is to be done with the house, vehicles and furniture.
Fortunately, Downs said, most couples take the pet’s feelings into consideration.
“If you think about it, there’s usually one person to whom the dog gravitates, or the cat,” Downs said. “I’m fortunate that most of my clients realize that and just kind of let it go if it’s gravitating to the other party or if the other party is more of the parent to the pet.
“You know what I’ve found? This may sound odd to you, but sometimes people are more willing to consider a pet’s feelings than their children’s feelings. You would not force that dog to live with you because you have more empathy for the dog, whereas with children, parents, particularly involved parents, they want their children at least half the time. So, even if a young child is crying, ‘I want to stay with Mama’ or ‘I want to stay with Daddy,’ if it’s the other parent’s time, they’re going to enforce it: ‘No, you’re coming with me.’
“I don’t think it’s callous. I think it’s because we know that the children typically love both parents equally, whereas a pet may love one parent more than the other.”
Baker said she knows of a childless couple who, when they divorced, decided to share the dog, each getting the pet every other week. But that was their decision rather than something imposed by the court.
“I think people have an easier time separating themselves and their own feelings from the feelings of the pet,” Baker said. “Many parents, although this is not a good thing, they cannot separate themselves from their child. They are just seeing their child as an extension of themselves, so they aren’t doing what’s best for the child. They’re doing what’s best for them. … Whatever their needs are, they think that’s what the child needs, and it’s not.
“With the dog, it’s a little different. They do tend to resolve it because they can see, ‘Well, yeah, the dog really does like her more, so if she doesn’t fight me over the golf clubs, we can just call it a day.’ And then they can just go get another dog.”