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Custody decisions: Best interest of the child, dog, cat, bunny - 2

Couples who are separating or divorcing often disagree about who gets the pet. In some extreme cases, one spouse will abuse the pet, using custody as a weapon. A few states, Illinois among them, have laws that protect animals in domestic violence situations. Fortunately, those cases are few and far between. Most of the time, when a pet enters the picture, he or she is the subject of a custody and visitation arrangement.

The last few years have seen a growing number of pet custody cases, according to anecdotal evidence. One attorney says he's seen a 15 percent jump over the past five years. He has his theories about the reason for the trend, too: an increase in "unconventional" unions, in which the partners treat their pets as if they were children.

Whatever the reason for the uptick, family courts are treating pets differently, too. Judges and mediators are not surprised to hear couples argue over custody and visitation schedules. Some say they see couples agree on houses, debt and children but disagree on the subject of the family companion animal.

When there are children involved, courts will often put the pet with the children. Shared custody of children = shared custody of dog. If the ex-spouses live far apart, the travel can get complicated. People will find a way to cope, though, until lawmakers realize it's time to address the issue in statute or family court guidelines.

As an aside: The adjustment can be hard for the pet. Animal experts suggest that exes with shared custody have identical bowls and toys at each house. If the pet has a favorite blanket, it should probably travel with him. Creating a sense of stability will help to avoid any behavioral issues.

Source: Associated Press, "Divorce lawyers: Pet custody cases increasing," Sue Manning, Feb. 28, 2012

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