Navigating Pet Ownership After a Breakup or Divorce: A Comprehensive Guide

Pet Ownership

The end of a relationship, whether through a breakup or divorce, is an emotionally challenging experience. Amidst the emotional turmoil, one aspect that often requires careful consideration is the ownership and care of shared pets. Our four-legged companions are more than just animals; they're family members. In this blog post, we'll explore the various aspects of pet ownership after a breakup or divorce, offering guidance and insights to help ensure the best possible outcome for both you and your furry friend.

Most of the time the question needing to be answered is: who gets the dog?

For many couples, a dog (or cat) is considered a beloved part of the family, so when a breakup or divorce happens, it can signal the beginning of a battle over custody of the pet. Here’s everything you need to know about pet custody after a breakup.

With our beloved pet companions increasingly being considered “part of the family,” divorcing pet owners face particular challenges. Care and custody arrangements, division of expenses, and arguments over who the family pet prefers to spend time with can make an already tough situation even tougher.

The first thing to understand is that, regardless of a couple’s feelings, unfortunately pets are not considered the same as people or kids, because in the eyes of the law they are considered property. Pet custody law is different in most states. As such, there is a method to how they are distributed in a breakup and are not necessarily subject to visitation rights or support obligations as would be the case with actual children.

Prioritizing Your Pet's Well-being

pets wellbeing

When a relationship dissolves, it's essential to remember that your pet's well-being should be a top priority. The disruption caused by the separation can be confusing and stressful for animals as they pick up on the changes in their environment and routines. Keep an eye out for signs of distress such as changes in appetite, behavior, or energy levels. Providing a stable and caring environment during this time can help ease their transition.

Open and Respectful Communication

Effective communication between you and your dog and your ex-partner is crucial for determining the best course of action for your pet. Keep the lines of communication open and respectful, focusing on the well-being of your furry friend rather than personal grievances. Discuss routines, feeding schedules, medical history, and preferences to ensure a smooth transition.

Working Out Pet Custody in Court

If a couple is considering who will obtain pet custody of the dog, the first thing to consider would be if both people want the pet. Sometimes when a couple gets a pet, it is because one person wants the pet. The second person might be indifferent to pet ownership. If this is the case, custody should be straightforward.
If that is not the case, they might have to prepare for a custody battle. If someone finds themself in court fighting for their pet, there are a few things the court will look at.

Things to Consider Before Going Through Legal Proceedings:

  1. Who Purchased or Adopted the Pet?

In many pet and dog custody battles, the judgment comes down to who bought or adopted the pet in the first place. Often, adoption centers will not release a pet without them having met all members of the household. Most likely an individual and their ex went together to purchase the animal. However, courts will look at who’s name is actually on the receipt.

Most courts see an animal as property. As such, the person who paid for the animal is the one who is entitled to keep them, though this is not always set in stone.

There are other considerations that may be taken into account, such as the non-purchasers provision of other necessities. If the dog/pet is registered under the other individual’s name at the vet or they purchased other necessities for the dog, they may be able to provide a case for themself.

  1. Who Primarily Takes Care of the Pet?

Most courts do consider a pet as property. If an individual did not purchase the pet, but is the animal’s primary caretaker, this may be considered. Any records that can be produced to prove that one person is the animal’s primary caretaker may help. If there are real records that can tie their name to the dog, such as vet bills, grooming, or food bills and receipts, this may solidify the relationship with the court.

Another thing to consider would be character witnesses. If one person always takes the dog for a walk, a neighbor may be willing to be witness to that. Testimony can be a powerful tool in this regard.

  1. Who is Equipped to Care for the Pet?

While most courts do see animals as property, some also consider what the animal’s life will be like after the split.

In 2017, Alaska passed a law that had courts consider the animal’s life after the custody battle. In 2018, Illinois followed suit. It is possible more states will consider the animal’s well-being when considering custody.

However, a new law in New York has changed the way courts consider pets in a divorce - a change most families will welcome. Governor Hochul signed the new law, which applies to what is called a “companion animal.” A companion animal includes:

  • Dogs

  • Cats

  • Other domesticated animals living in or near the home and cared for by the owner(s)

This law does NOT include any farm animal. Under the new law, when a divorce or separation case is heard in New York, the court must consider three things when determining possession of a companion animal:

  • Whether any domestic violence has been committed by either party against the other party and, if so, its extent, nature, duration, and impact.

  • The best interests of the animal.

  • Any other factors the court considers just and proper.

The new law places pets in a similar position to children in a divorce or separation. Domestic violence is a factor that must be considered when deciding custody of children; “best interests” is the standard used for making a child custody determination. Family law is the best place to determine dog custody or joint custody.

If an individual is the one who is most likely to have a suitable living space for the pet, this is something to bring up.

Also Read - The Purr-fect Travel Companion: Tips for Traveling with Your Beloved Cat

Evaluating Ownership Arrangements

When it comes to pet ownership, there are a few potential arrangements to consider:

  • Shared Custody: Some pet owners opt for shared custody, where the pet spends time with each person. This arrangement can provide consistency for the pet and allows both parties to remain involved in their lives.

  • Primary Custody: In cases where it might not be feasible for the pet to move between households, one person may take on primary custody while the other enjoys visitation rights. This is often a more stable option for the pet.

  • Sole Custody: If one person has a stronger bond with the pet or is better equipped to care for them, sole custody might be the best choice. However, regular updates and visitation can still be beneficial for the non-custodial party.

Legal Considerations

Pets Legal Considerations

Depending on your jurisdiction, pets may be treated as property rather than family members. However, some jurisdictions are beginning to recognize the special bond between pets and their owners. Consult with a legal professional to understand the laws in your area regarding pet ownership during a breakup or divorce. A judge will maturely work with your lawyer or family law attorney on any shared custody situation or visitation that best suits your dog's wellbeing.

Creating a Detailed Pet Care Plan

Regardless of the ownership arrangement, it's essential to create a detailed pet care plan. This plan should cover:

  • Daily Routine: Maintain a consistent schedule for feeding, exercise, and playtime. Familiar routines can help your pet adjust to their new situation.

  • Medical Care: Keep records of vaccinations, medical history, and contact information for the veterinarian. Both parties should have access to this information.

  • Emergency Plans: Discuss how emergencies will be handled, including who to contact and financial responsibilities.

  • Communication: Agree on how you will share updates about the pet's well-being. Regular photos and updates can help reassure both parties.

Considering Mediation

pet ownership

If disagreements arise or emotions run high, consider involving a mediator. A neutral third party can help facilitate productive conversations and guide you toward a resolution that benefits your pet's welfare.

Most shared-custody agreements are negotiated without a judge’s intervention, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the process goes smoothly. One of the major issues is one spouse using the pet as leverage against the other, whether to extract other assets from the marriage or simply to hurt the other party, who they feel has wronged them.

Regardless of the circumstances, only one of three possible outcomes is possible:

  1. The parties work out an agreement about who will keep the pet.

  2. The parties fail to agree, and a court decides who keeps the pet.

  3. The parties agree to share ‘custody’ of the pet.

Also Read - Ways to Keep Your Dog Busy While Working From Home


Navigating pet ownership after a breakup or divorce requires empathy, communication, and a commitment to your pet's well-being. Ultimately, as uncomfortable as it may be to talk about with your partner while you’re in a healthy, happy relationship that you hope will never end, the best way to avoid a messy pet custody battle is to talk about the ownership question before the potential breakup happens.

By keeping their needs at the forefront and working together with your ex-partner, you can ensure a smoother transition for your furry friend during this challenging time. Remember, your pet's unconditional love remains constant, and with the right approach, you can provide them the stability and care they deserve.

Author Image


Paige Chernick is a Social Media and Communications expert living in NYC. For 10 years, she ran her own consulting company called PaigeKnowsFirst where she managed social content & strategy for many brands, finding her niche within the pet industry.

Paige has been a guest contributor for several publications and featured in articles on her successes with pets and social media. Paige’s rescue dog, Charlie, famously known by her social media handle @puppynamedcharlie, has accumulated hundreds of thousands of fans and made her a successful pet influencer early on in the game. Paige is also one of the Founders of The Pet Summit, a conference in the pet industry for creators and marketers, where she used her experience to create programs and classes to help guide and teach others.

In 2022, Paige became the Social Media Director for PRIDE+GROOM. She is now the Senior Vice President of Communications and remains very immersed in the pet industry on both the corporate side and the influencer side.