Millions of animal lovers throughout the country are preparing to pamper their pets as part of national pet month (4 April to 4 May 2009), which this year focuses on promoting pet health and happiness.
In Yorkshire we are a county of pet fanatics with more than 40% of us dedicating time and money to caring for a pet (Pet Food Manufacturer's Association, 2008). But when married pet owners face relationship breakdown, often much loved animals that are treated as part of the family can be found at the centre of a difficult break-up.
Pets are increasingly becoming a bone of contention for those in the middle of a separation and the situation is affecting a wide range of people from retirees whose children have left the nest to same-sex partners to couples with young children.
Peter Morris, a family law expert at Irwin Mitchell solicitor's in Leeds, offers guidance to minimise the negative impact of divorce on the well-being of both ex-partners and their pets.
Mr Morris said: "Divorce is a hard enough process to go through without pets being involved. We are seeing a definite increase in the number of cases where the family dog, cat or horse has become a real sticking point. Often they provide an easy way to vent personal frustrations that would not otherwise surface.
"The law currently regards a pet as an asset that must be divided following divorce but unlike the family car or computer things often become much more complicated because with animals, like all other matters of the heart, it's obviously very emotional."
He recommends the following measures to keep pet stress and disruption to a minimum:
- Plan ahead include your wishes in relation to caring for the family pet in any pre- or post-nuptial agreements you have had drawn up with your spouse. Solicitors can easily add in any animals bought during the marriage. This will manage both parties' expectations as to how things will work in the event of a break-up.
- Be practical consider your living arrangements and working hours. The pet must be kept in suitable accommodation and adequate time devoted to caring, walking and spending leisure time together. The pet must be as loved as it was pre-separation.
- Be realistic pets can be expensive and vets bills, health insurance and food can all add up. Ensure whatever happens that these can be maintained.
- Stay calm do not shout or argue in front of your pets as they are very sensitive to raised voices and may become frightened and nervous.
- Be open to alternative arrangements - try to be amicable where possible and negotiate sharing care and contact. A legal agreement can be drawn up to agree visiting rights and joint custody so that both parties can retain a healthy relationship with the animal.
- Avoid separation from children where possible bonds between children and their pets are very strong and can provide very important stability and comfort for both pet and child when other things are changing.
Following this advice will help ensure that pets and their owners will continue to enjoy time together despite all the changes that might be going on around them.