I was recently a panelist at the 2019 annual meeting of the New Jersey State Bar Association discussing legal issues about how to share pets after divorce. As pets become increasingly important in many households in the United States, their disposition after divorce has become the subject of legal disputes during divorce. Analysis of the economics related to pet ownership should be used as a tool to help inform adjudicators decide where the beloved pet should reside to insure they are properly cared for.
In the US, 67% of the estimated 84.9 million households reportedly owned a pet, according the 2019-2010 National Pet Owners Survey (“the Survey”), conducted by the American Pet Products Association (“APPA”). In the 2017-2018 Survey, APPA reported 89.7 million dogs and 94.2 million cats reside in US households, and if you add less traditional pets, like poultry, reptiles and also include horses, the total approaches 400 million. Americans spent nearly $67 billion dollars on their dogs and cats in 2016, including over $30 billion for veterinary care, supplies and medication, $28.23 billion for food, and $5.76 billion for pet services like grooming and boarding (an area expected to continue to expand). APPA 2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey.
At the same time, improvements in veterinary medicine have resulted in the increased life expectancy of pets. Geriatric pets develop many of the same problems seen in older people, such as cancer, heart disease, metabolic disorders (e.g., kidney disease, liver disease, diabetes), osteoarthritis and senility. Virtually any treatment available to humans is also available to animals, but the cost of that care can be significant. If divorcing parties are bickering over pet ownership, the willingness of each to provide and pay for reasonable veterinary care for the rest of the pet’s life, can help inform the adjudicator when deciding “pet custody” issues.
The human-animal bond is a well-recognized and powerful phenomenon, which makes decisions about “pet custody” particularly emotion-ridden. While divorcing parties may allege that the pet would be better off with one party, pets will often be just as happy with either party. In addition to the medical and economic considerations described above, if “custody” is shared, the parties should agree to provide consistent food, housing, and exercise to avoid disruptions that could result in medical or behavioral abnormalities (of the pet). A board-certified veterinary behaviorist should examine any pet if there are concerns about behavioral issues—before or after divorce. Since veterinarians have a statutory, professional and ethical duty to the pet owner, ownership issues must be resolved even if custody is shared, to ensure that the veterinarian obtains informed consent before any treatment is provided.