The ex-couples who share custody of their pets

The day I met my now-husband’s ex, I was standing at the front door with an 18-year-old Chihuahua, Indy, in one arm, and a bag filled with food, medication and favorite toys in the other.

We met so I could hand Indy over for her designated weekend at “Mum’s house”.

The two of them had been sharing custody of Indy since they split, and continued until the old girl’s health failed, and she had to be put down. He and his ex both went to that final vet visit, and held Indy as she died. When it came to the bill afterwards, the costs were split evenly.

A dog custody arrangement was one I hadn’t encountered before. As well as time, the two shared food and vet expenses. We kept water bowls, beds and toys at home. She had matching sets at hers.

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We have our own family pets now, and if we ever found ourselves no longer happy in marriage, I cannot imagine leaving the animals behind.

And I am not the only one.

Divorce coach Kelly Sutton says pet custody is a common issue that arises when relationships dissolve. And sharing time with the family animals is a common solution, especially when children are involved.

She even has her own arrangement with her ex-partner and their dog.

Despite splitting 10 years ago, the pair share expenses, and he will take the dog when Sutton travels or when he has the children. It is a situation that works really well for the family, and Sutton says her ex-partner will be a part of the decision-making and process when end-of-life care comes into play.

When it comes to her work, Sutton deals with custody arrangements for dogs, but horses, goats and other animals come into play as well.

Divorce coach Kelly Sutton and her ex still share expenses and time with the family dog.


Divorce coach Kelly Sutton and her ex still share expenses and time with the family dog.

“It’s a situation where family pets are pretty much considered exactly the same as children,” she says, and parenting plans involving animal care are a common part of her work with couples.

The family dynamics will often dictate whether the animals share houses, remain at one home or whether there are other plans in place but, in most cases, the shared custody works really well.

“I’ve even had people [who] live in different cities, and the dogs spend the time between the cities,” she says.

When radio broadcaster Jay-Jay Feeney​ and podcast host Dom Harvey ended their marriage in 2017, the couple’s 8-year-old Sydney Silky, Kanye, became a child of divorce, spending most of his time at Dad’s house, but with plenty of Mum time as well.

The couple has also been lucky to have an amicable split, Harvey says. And the custody arrangement is fairly relaxed. While Kanye was a 40th birthday present for Feeney, both agree the small canine bonded heavily with Harvey, so he lives primarily with Dad, while visiting Feeney most days, some weekends and when Harvey is away.

“I don’t think there was a discussion at all,” Feeney says of the custody arrangement. “It just sort of happened. There’s no way I would have been able to cope if I hadn’t been able to see him.”

Jay-Jay Feeney and Dom Harvey split amicably, and still share time with 8-year-old Kanye.

Abigail Dougherty/Stuff

Jay-Jay Feeney and Dom Harvey split amicably, and still share time with 8-year-old Kanye.

As for the expenses and medical decisions, the pair have no arguments, and Harvey says they are in agreement as to what care he needs, and believes they will do what is best for Kanye when it comes to end-of-life care or major medical expenses.

They have been lucky so far, though. Kanye is healthy, although he does see a dog psychologist for anxiety.

And while the pair remain great friends, Feeney does “squabble” with Harvey over his parenting style.

“I’m always telling him off, like any parent,” she says, referring to Harvey’s tendency to let the dog off the leash more than Feeney would, or spoil him too much.

“I blame Dom sometimes for ruining Kanye when he’s really spoiled. We both spoil him, but sometimes I’m like, ‘it’s your fault’.”

While in the eyes of the law, animals are treated as chattels when it comes to splitting assets, most pet owners consider their four-legged friends as family members. Choosing to share custody of household pets is a solution that works for many.

But Christchurch-based lawyer, Duncan Cotterill partner Amanda Bradley says it is rare for these cases to make it all the way to a judge.

She says by the time court proceedings are required, the issue of pet custody has already been resolved through negotiation or the pet has already settled in one of the homes.

“The care of pets is an issue that is often raised by clients, but usually robust advice is required due to pets being categorized as chattels under the Property (Relationships) Act,” she says.

And while shared custody is an option, the high emotions involved in breakups can make that difficult.

Divorce coach Kelly Sutton says shared custody of animals following a breakup is quite common.


Divorce coach Kelly Sutton says shared custody of animals following a breakup is quite common.

“Pets can be used as a bargaining chip, or a tie to the other person when a clean break is needed,” Bradley says.

“Shared animal custody can work, usually in cases where there are children, and pets move with the children, but it takes both parties to put in the effort to make it work,” Bradley says.

But for Virginia (last name withheld by request), a shared custody arrangement initially suited her and her partner when they split 10 years ago.

There was a “bit of a squabble” over who would get to keep ownership of the dog, so the pair decided to split custody.

“Every week she’d be dropped off to me, or I’d drop her off at his.”

It was an arrangement that worked well until Virginia’s ex began seeing a new partner who did not want the dog, and so full custody landed on Virginia’s lap. “It was fabulous,” she says.

And while Virginia kept the dog full time, bills and medical decisions continued to be split.

“When she was ultimately put to sleep from old age we were both there with her. That was years after our breakup, and it was really sweet,” she says.

“[We] were two people who, despite our differences, genuinely loved the dog.”

Animates general manager of marketing Nathalie Moolenschot says shared custody of pets can work, but it is important to keep routines similar at both houses to ensure a well-adjusted pet.

She suggests keeping the timing of the visits, what the animals are fed and where they sleep consistent, but also says consistency in parenting style is important, too – whether the animal is allowed on the bed or how often they are given treats – largely to curb behavioral problems for the other “parent”.

It is important to keep consistent routines when sharing custody of a pet.

Abigail Dougherty/Stuff

It is important to keep consistent routines when sharing custody of a pet.

“It’s also really critical to decide who will be the main decision maker when it comes to the pet’s health and how medical decisions will be made,” she says.

“This is a common point of tension that our vet teams have noticed and experienced. When someone has made a call around the pet’s health, but expects the ex to be part of the cost.”

She also recommends having one person take control of treatments, vet checkups and other essentials, to ensure nothing is missed, and a clear record is kept.

While Moolenschot says shared custody can work really well, it is important to keep the pet’s welfare at the center of any custody conversations. If the animal becomes distressed, conversations need to be had.

For herself, a shared custody agreement for her cat years ago did not work out, and she retained full custody of the pet.

But she is also aware of the attachment both parties tend to form when it comes to family pets. When she and her current partner got the family dog ​​Cara, they agreed the pet would be Moolenschot’s.

“I tell you now there’d be a custody battle,” she says. “Hey adores her.”

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