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Pet custody disputes often just as tough as child custody

A married couple and a man have been battling it out in court for two years over the custody of a 25-pound French bulldog named Stitch. The legal battle has been, in many ways, as complex as some child custody disputes. Unfortunately, the law usually does not adequately address the intense attachment that many animal lovers have to their pets.

The law considers pets as mere property, although some judges do increasingly take into account the emotional ties that people have with their pets, and the welfare of the animals.

Stitch's saga began in 2010, when the small dog was found wandering on a rural highway. The woman who picked up the dog found the owners, a married couple, listed on a microchip embedded in the animal. But after they collected Stitch, another man insisted that the dog belonged to him. He was the boyfriend of a young woman whose mother had given the dog to the married couple against the wishes of her daughter and the boyfriend. The boyfriend reported to police that the couple had stolen his pet and filed a lawsuit. A judge ruled in his favor, but the married couple have not complied with orders to return the dog, instead opting to file an appeal.

Pet custody disputes like this are all too common, unfortunately. When they happen between divorcing couples, there are no hard, fast rules for determining who is more entitled to care for a pet when the spouses move to separate homes. Many judges opt to place the pet with the parent who has primary child custody, but if the couple is childless, the decision becomes more arbitrary and may not recognize a pet's needs or either spouse's ability to care for the pet.

Shared custody is often a good option because it allows both spouses to have time with their furry friend. Couples should consider who will have more time to spend with the pet -- particularly in the case of dogs, which need regular exercise and opportunities to go outside.

Just as in custody situations involving children, divorcing couples should put aside their self-serving interests as much as possible and take an honest look at what's best for the pet when determining where it should live after a divorce.

Source: Los Angeles Times, "Pet ownership disputes can be as messy as child custody cases," Ashley Powers, Aug. 22, 2012

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