Who gets the dog and cat?

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sad pupThe statistics tell it all – half the marriages in the U.S. today end in divorce. It goes without saying that this is hard on all parties involved, particularly those who had nothing to do with the decision to divorce. Warren Eckstein says the children and pets of those families are the innocent victims of often bitter and long-drawn-out struggles.

BECAUSE PETS ARE part of over 50 percent of all American households, clearly there are many animals who have been and will be forced to deal with the stress of being torn between two beloved people, and they consequently will suffer from broken-homes syndrome. While these situations are never easy, here are some measures that can be taken to relieve a little of the heartache involved – for the pets and the couple.


Anxiety travels from one end of the leash to the other. This means that a dog or cat is aware instantly when something is wrong with their owners – detecting it from the voice and body signals they manifest. The arguing and hostility that inevitably comes before and during a divorce can be terribly traumatic for a dog or cat, for a variety of reasons.

First, of course, the animal’s schedule is generally turned upside-down. Who’s going to walk the pet if one owner is there one night, but gone the next? When will the feedings and play periods (if any) take place? Will anyone be giving the pet his regular exercise periods, or will he be forced to lie around the house all the time, building up energy that would otherwise have been channeled to his regular run or ball game? The kind of upheaval that takes place in a divorcing household necessarily means that things just aren’t the way they used to be.

The house may seem deserted and isolated, or it may be filled with well-meaning friends and relatives, all offering advice. If, for example the woman’s mother moves in with her as soon as her husband moves out, then all the relationships in the household have suddenly changed at once. The previously independent woman may be treated like a child by her mother, who wants to pamper her and make everything all right. The husband who may appear on various occasions (or not at all) has suddenly changed from the man of the house to the villain on the scene. Surely, all of this must confuse and confound a pet.


The consequences of the family’s upheaval may take several different forms. In one instance, the owner who remains in the house may decide that the pet is his or her only friend, and thus may become overly dependent on the companionship of the dog or cat.

But male or female, the owner that the pet is left with may also be a tearful person who is lonely and depressed a great deal of the time, and who demands the pet’s undivided attention – and not necessarily in a positive, healthful way. Pets need privacy, just as we do, and it is impossibly for them to provide the sympathy and understanding that some severely unhappy people require of them. Some of this anxiety is bound to rub off on the pet, and they may begin to react negatively to the desperate clinging by becoming clingy themselves, losing their individuality or picking up some nervous characteristics.

The second scenario is often worse, however. In some households, the pet is blamed for the divorce. The couple (or one member of the couple) needs a scapegoat for his or her anger and frustration, and takes it all out on the dog or cat. The owner is no necessarily in a logical or coherent state, and probably can’t stop to consider how the pet is reacting to these unnecessary accusations. It is difficult to think about someone else when you are going through bad times, and it’s very easy to blame your troubles on the first thing you see.


The non-demanding relationship he offers his owner may put him in jeopardy when things are very bad, and he can react only with confusion and hurt. In the midst of a divorce, when both parties are living in the house but there’s a great deal of yelling and screaming, alternating with dead silence, a pet may begin to manifest signs of regression. He may become very nervous and fretful, and may even retreat to another room during arguments or may become sufficiently paranoid to feel the need to protect himself and some aggressive behavior may even be seen. The couple, unfortunately, probably will disagree on everything he’s doing, thereby making it virtually impossible to correct his behavior consistently.


The relationship of children and pets can be either wonderful or terrible when the parents are going through a divorce. In most divorce cases, the kids will develop a solid relationship with the pet. After all, this is the only member of the household not asking them to take sides or see a psychiatrist or get lost – the dog or cat may be the only constant in a very topsy-turvy existence.

In other cases, the child may take out all his hostility on the animal. Instead of showing his parents how angry he is that they are doing this, he may kick the dog or pull the cat’s tail. It’s up to the parents, of course, to see that no major friction continues, because a bad relationship between pet and child will only add to the hostility already in the household.