When a couple are married, the domestic cat is a member of the family, cherished and loved, often particularly strongly by the children of the family.
When a couple are divorcing, the cat or the dog sometimes becomes a “possession” (“chattel” in old fashioned legal English) of the once happily married couple, to be used in the furtherance of their objectives within divorce proceedings.
In divorce proceedings one of the greatest difficulties often encountered is how the divorcing couple should share parental responsibility and residence with respect to the children of the family. A study revealed that almost half the members of a network of 180 family lawyers1 handled divorce cases over the last 12 months in which pets became a contested issue simply because the pet could further the ends of one of the parties.
During some of the cases handled by these lawyers the family’s companion animal has been used to influence children. The argument is that, in the eyes of some parents, whoever gets the companion animal also gets the children to live with them. If the children live with one party the other person can visit by arrangement.
In other cases, regrettably, the family cat has been put up for adoption when no agreement can be arrived at about where they should live. Sometimes this happens when the divorcing couple are unable to come to an agreement about the costs of caring for the animal. It is hard to believe that people can behave like this but, of course, divorce proceedings brings animosity and where there is animosity there is often an inability to come to an agreement about anything.
In other cases where animosity spills over to domestic abuse, it is not uncommon for the parties to abuse the family cat or dog as well. We often read about divorcing or separating couples in which the man usually has taken it out on the family cat sometimes in the most cruel and abusive manner.
As mentioned, the status of the family’s companion animal is reduced to one of a bargaining tool and possession much like any other object in the household when divorce proceedings start. This is a reflection on the mentality of humankind in respect of their attitude towards animals when under stress.
It is possible for a couple to draw up a separation agreement at the outset which deals with important matters including the children and what happens to the family’s pet when the parties separate. This should avoid bad behaviour.
There is also the question of whether, in households where there is more than one companion animal, they should be split up in divorce proceedings. I would have thought that the general argument is that they should stay together wherever possible although the natural instinct may be to separate them in order to satisfy the interests of the humans. What I’m saying is that one animal could be traded off against the other. This is probably a bad idea if the animals are companions amongst themselves which is quite likely.
It is sad that the family pet becomes a bargaining tool for use as “bait” by parents arguing over child custody matters. Adults should use their best efforts to think what is best for the children of the family rather than pursue their self-interests. The truth of the matter is that not only is the family cat or dog used as a pawn or a bargaining tool in divorce proceedings, the child or children of the family are not infrequently used in the same way; reduced to a family possession.
Ref 1: Consensus Collaboration Scotland who promote a collaborative approach to divorce.