Pet custody is a tricky topic for child-free millennials

By Rose Surnow

Mario Batres relied heavily on his dog Blue while he was recovering from a four-story fall at work as a carpenter. Photo courtesy of Mario Batres.

When you’re super happy and in love, the last thing you want to think about is breaking up one day. But if you do decide to go dutch on a pet, it’s worth having the hard conversation. 

As birth rates decline and raising kids becomes more expensive, many millennials are treating their pets like surrogate children (myself included). Which is why, when couples with dogs break up, it can get really complicated. If you’re really concerned, you can put something down in writing. 

A pre-pup, if you will. 

When my friend Michelle split with her partner of 10 years, they shared three dogs together. But after the break-up, she couldn’t take them on full-time. Michelle kept one, they traded the others, and everything was copacetic for a year – until Michelle’s ex decided that it was too upsetting to see her, even just at drop-off and pick-up. 

“I did a gentle reach out. I was like, ‘Can I please just see them for a couple days? I will arrange for somebody to pick them up, we can choose a location, I don't need to know where you live. Like, you never have to talk to me or see me. Just for the chance to see them for a few days, even one day, even an afternoon walk or anything. I will do whatever it takes, make it as easy and painless for you as possible.’ And they just came back to me and said no,” Michelle says. “I said, ‘Hey, is this forever? Or is this just for now?’ And they said, ‘Not sure.’”

Michelle hasn’t seen her pups for five months. We’re not using her last name because she’s afraid it could hurt her chances of seeing the dogs again.

I asked Michelle if she considered getting a lawyer involved, and she said she’s just hoping her ex will have a change of heart.

But for some people, a lawyer is the next logical step. 

“Legally speaking, he's hers,” says Mario Batres of the American Staffordshire mix, named Blue, he shared with his ex for five years.

As opposed to child custody, in civil court, pets are seen as property. That means no one's going to help you get your dog back if your ex refuses to let you see them. Unless you have something in writing that protects you.

Jill Ryther, of Ryther Law, helped Batres with his case.

“Possession is nine-tenths of the law, so in this situation, whoever has the dog, cat, horse, whatever, has an upper hand,” she explains. “A lot of times what we try to do in situations like that is come to a settlement, which is going to be a custody arrangement that the parties agree to.”

Ryther’s law partner Sarah Thompson says this kind of case is becoming more common.

“We have a lot of same-sex cases, right. And I think we tend to have cases where they weren't married, there's no intention of having children, and very much those dogs or cats are their children.” 

In Batres’ case, the lawyers negotiated an agreement for joint custody but eventually, his ex tapped out. Now the dog is his.

“Currently, I have full custody,” he says. “It ended up being a little too painful for both of us to go through sharing him. And ultimately, she did what I couldn't do, and relinquished her ownership.” 

Luckily, some people have a much easier time negotiating with their exes. Anthony Holiday peacefully splits his dog Earl with his former partner, and recalls conversations early on in the breakup about what to do with Earl.

Anthony Holiday’s dog Earl is a huge Swifite, and he and his ex-partner had to play her music on repeat the entire 10-hour drive home from adopting him. Photo courtesy of Anthony Holiday.

“He was very sweet about it. He was like, ‘If you want to keep him, I'll still help pay for stuff,’” Holiday recalls. “So I was like, ‘I'm very open to sharing, especially if we're going to still share the cost of him. It makes sense to just share him.”