Break ups are never fun, and almost never easy. However, add a beloved pet to the situation and it can get even more difficult. It’s amazing (and yet not really surprising) how many couples decide to welcome a pet into their relationship before they are married. And don’t get me wrong, I think pets may be a good way to gauge how couples will handle the responsibilities of having a child (see my previous post), however, when these relationships fail, there is always the question of how to handle the “custody” of the pet or pets.
I know I am not the only one who has personally faced this issue. Most people who love animals will not prefer to wait until they are married to bring a pet into their lives. And, let’s face it, most people who love and want pets end up with people who love and want pets. However, given that currently more than half of marriages are ending in divorces, I think it is reasonable to assume that most of the couples that welcome pets into their lives are going to face a break up.
Despite my previous post’s more positive stance on the benefits of couples acquiring pets, the idea was not to necessarily suggest that all couples go out and get a dog or a cat to test their relationship. The reality is quite to the contrary. The idea for a post about couples acquiring pets came to me after so many of my friends and I experienced such break ups and the emotional strain that deciding who keeps which pets puts on a person. As if a break up was bad enough, saying “goodbye” to your pets for potentially the rest of your/their lives can be even more heart wrenching.
I know couples who have been together for 5-15 years and shared pets for years who have called it quits and it tends to be one person that wants or gets all of the pets. Most people don’t feel good about splitting up the pets and, in that situation, someone is always left without that companionship.
Let’s take it one step further. Let’s consider the ramifications of couples who split up and cannot come to an agreement on who gets the pets. This happens more often than people realize. Sometimes both parties want the pet equally, which makes it difficult for anyone to win. Other times the parties find the pet to be a symbol of their relationship and consequently find it difficult to be around the pet without thinking of the other person (for better or worse). If that is the case, it may be difficult for the individuals to move on if seeing the pet reminds them of their ex. In these situations, many people chose to relinquish their pets.
Unlike children, pets are actually able to be dropped off at animal shelters when relationships go sour. Worse yet, are those that choose convenience euthanasia because they want to eliminate every remnant of their past relationship, because the couple would rather the animal die than decide who gets custody, or for some other reason. If the animal was a 10 year old Great Dane, I probably wouldn’t have too much of an argument against that – other than the obvious ethical one, but it becomes less black and white when you’re dealing with a 1 year old cat.
Given my background in shelter medicine, I felt this is an issue that I must address because far too many animals get relinquished each year to animal shelters and pet overpopulation is an overwhelming problem that shelters are struggling to combat on a daily basis. Bringing an animal into your lives, as a couple, can be an extremely positive event. However, plan for the unexpected and have some sort of understanding regarding what will happen to the pet should the relationship not work out. After all, the last thing most vets want to see is a couple insisting their young, healthy animal be put to sleep because they were breaking up. And I definitely would prefer not to see those pets show up in the shelter system in the future.