CRITTER CUSTODY BATTLES
Owners and experts share what happens to pets when couples break up
Sitting in her apartment in Berlin with her cat Müesli purring next to her, Swiss expat Sarah Neuenschwander sometimes thinks about her other cat, Meow, that
she left behind in Beijing.
When Neuenschwander, 44, a professional organizer and her expat ex-husband decided to separate last summer, she wanted to keep both cats.
But due to multiple factors, including relocation arrangements and each cat’s personality, she ended up with only one. “An animal is for life,” she said. Breakups and divorces can be ugly, and when pets are involved, it makes the situation much harder.
Sometimes they both want to keep the pets, and one has to convince the other to give up custody. At other times, pets are viewed as reminders of the failed relationship and abandoned.
Metropolitan talked to pet owners and animal experts about what happens to a couple’s pet when they break up, some of the deciding factors when negotiating who gets the pet, other consequences and how one maintains both a pet and a healthy romantic relationship.
Who gets the cat?
“I wanted to keep both cats because of my commitment to take care of them until the end of their lives,” Neuenschwander said. “I didn’t want to split them up.”
She was the one who found the cats and brought them into the family, and as she was at home more often, she spent the most time with them.
One of the reasons she had to leave Meow behind is that only one pet is allowed to accompany each passport holder on a flight, and she didn’t want to put the other cat through the ordeal of traveling in cargo.
Although her ex-husband would have preferred to keep Müesli, the more loving of the two felines, Neuenschwander won custody.
“We both bonded a lot with both cats,” she said. “Müesli helped me a lot emotionally during some very difficult times. Meow is super quirky, like the quirky kid you have in the family.”
It was a hard decision, but the arrangement turned out well. Now that Müesli the dominant cat is gone, Meow has started to show her own personality and has become very loving now that she is the only cat in the house. Neuenschwander does not worry about her as much, but she still misses having both animals.
“Now Meow is a hutong cat, as my ex moved into the hutong,” she said. “He told me that she is very happy.”
Since the former couple did not have any children together, they treated their pets like some parents treat their children. They paid a lot of money to take the cats with them when they relocated from Norway to China in 2015. Neuenschwander also got involved with grassroots animal rescue organizations while living in Beijing.
“We’ve been divorced for a month now, and I realize he did me a favor. I’ve learned and grown a ton. Plus, I’m so grateful to have been able to live in Beijing because of this relationship.”
After the divorce, their communication is down to a minimum, but now and then, he sends a photo or two of Meow. “I am sure he misses Müesli, and I miss Meow very much,” Neuenschwander said.
Talking about custody
Among the four cats they had, two liked Cesare Song better. The other two preferred his ex-girlfriend. But instead of causing a scene or dividing the cats up according to which owner they favored, the two calmly discussed their options during their breakup.
“Talking about custody of the cats took us a while,” said Song, 30 a research fellow in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. "Both of us want the best for the cats, so we did our analysis and made the decision."
Song and his ex got four cats, Juan, Luna, Neo and Latte, together when they were both studying in Italy. They returned to Song’s hometown in Xi'an with the four cats after graduation.
Song and his ex did not want marriage or children, but after returning to China, they felt more pressure from their relatives and friends. In the end, she returned to her hometown in Jiangsu Province.
Song got all four cats because his ex's parents have two dogs, and he lives in a three-bedroom apartment, which provides ample space for the cats.
Having gone through some tough times where they would have called it quits had it not been for the cats, Song said the animals will be like a forever bond betwen them.
“Although we’re no longer together, the cats still connect us, as our bond," he said. “It’s just like when parents divorce."
Making reasonable arrangements
Rita Sun, 37, and her ex-husband separated in 2010, and they didn't make clear arrangements about their eight cats and two dogs. Whoever was more available would take care of them, and that person
was mostly her ex.
In 2013, one of the cats got thinner. Sun thought it was mostly because the cat missed her and she decided to take them over.
“I am committed [to animal welfare]. He supported me out of love, and he likes pets too. He’s just not capable of keeping so many because his job is more timeconsuming,” said Sun, who had rescued the animals from the street.
Now that the couple has been divorced for about a year, their pet situation is simpler. He keeps one dog and a cat who has trouble getting along with the other cats. She keeps the rest. Both get to visit, and if one goes on a business trip, the other will take things over.
Although her own story was simple and without any disputes, in her friends’ circle, she hears stories where people might get into physical fights and legal disputes, or snatch their co-owned pets and hide them from their former lovers during a breakup.
Sun said that since most of her friends are more mature, it is more often to see cases of people fighting over pet custody than abandoning co-owned pets due to breakups.
“Most people are very reasonable and economically able to keep pets. But for young couples, many of whom are college sweethearts who decided to keep pets out of impulse, they might abandon their pets after breakups,” she said. “I would advise young couples who are barely capable of taking care of themselves at the moment not to take pets.”
Balancing romance and pet-ownership
According to Sun, nowadays many people would prioritize their relationship with their pet over their romantic relationship, especially before marriage.
“It’s partly because women are more independent now,” she said.
However, in the younger demographic, Song said that some people get their partners or people they are courting a pet as a gift. Also, some couples get pets together because they want something as a symbol or guarantee of their love.
Song pointed out that people’s relationship with their pet should be independent of their romantic relationship with their significant other.
When deciding whether or not they should get pets together, Song said it is important that the couple both like pets, instead of just wanting to be nice to their partner.
“Try not to associate the animal with your feelings for the person,” said Mary Peng, the CEO and founder of International Center for Veterinary Services in Beijing.
Peng told Metropolitan that balancing one’s relationship with one’s pet and that of your partner is challenging for modern couples, regardless of their age, marital status, or sexual orientation. They need to balance both their romantic relationship and their relationship with their pets.
Although the leading causes of pet abandonment are still pregnancies, relocations and college students going away during vacations or after graduation, pets being abandoned after breakups are not rare, she said.
It is common for a couple to get a pet to see what it is like to have children. However, if it does not always work out, which could possibly lead to them abandoning the animal after their breakup, Peng explained.
She advises couples to talk about custody beforehand. “You sit down with your partner and say, ‘Hey, who gets the dog if we divorce?’” Peng said. “People don’t talk about it when they are happy, but they need to.”
Neuenschwander also advises that couples talk about it, or include the issue in their prenuptial agreement, should they have one.
“Do what’s best for the pets. If they’re more bonded with one person, let them stay with that partner, or the one with more time and dedication, or more space,” she said.
“Keep in mind that an animal is a sentient being, not an object. Their well-being, just like that of human children, comes first.”
Breakups and divorces are tough, and when there are co-owned pets involved, it makes things even more complicated.
Experts advise couples to talk in advance about who gets their pet in case they separate and to put their pet’s interest first.