Once upon a time, two people met, fell in love, moved in together, created a blended family of beloved pets, and then broke up. Let’s face it, not every love story has a fairytale ending. However, just because a couple decides to part ways, that doesn’t mean their pets have to. I co-parent cats with my ex, and it’s becoming more and more common as couples choose to parent pets instead of kids. Much like children, when a couple breaks up, pets can grieve the loss of both their human parent and their furry friend if pets get separated during the dissolution of a relationship.
I once had a friend who shared two dogs with her boyfriend. When they broke up after more than five years together, and he moved out, she told that the dogs were not taking it well. “They’re acting like children of divorce,” she confided in me. Years later I had my own experience with this, which confirmed what I’d always suspected — pets are complex emotional creatures. My girlfriend and I each came into the relationship with pets. She had a dog and a cat and I had a dog and two cats. My cat Teddy immediately bonded with her cat Bam Bam. They played constantly, cuddled together, and appeared to be head over heels in love with each other. My cat Gypsy tolerated other cats, but never formed any significant bond with them. She preferred people.
While my ex and I were still together, Bam Bam developed an aggressive form of cancer and died at age 7. Teddy mourned the loss of his BAE, but he bounced back quickly because he still had Gypsy. Even though they weren’t as close, Teddy likes having another cat around. A few years later, Gypsy died at 18. By that time my ex and I had broken up, but we remained close friends, and she eventually adopted a new kitten named Ziji. Even though we were no longer together, we still watched each other’s pets while one of us was traveling. Because one of us always seem to be on the road, Teddy and Ziji spent a lot of time together.
Similar to his courtship with Bam Bam, Teddy instantly fell for the fluffy little kitten, and after Gypsy’s death he was clearly depressed being the only feline in the house. He even refused to eat when he was separated from Ziji. After a few attempts at keeping the cats apart, it was clear that Teddy — who had never lived without another cat — was lonely. We decided that we would pass the cats back and forth like a divorced couple sharing custody of the kids. And, as soon as he was reunited with his girlfriend, Teddy ended his hunger strike.
Teddy’s behavior is actually totally normal, and a 2016 study found that pets can grieve for up to six months after experiencing the loss of either a human or animal friend. While co-parenting pets is an option for couples who part on good terms, that’s not always the case. Amanda Bruton, an attorney at Sodoma Law, experienced this first hand when she and her husband separated. She noted in a blog post that she and her ex tried co-parenting, but ultimately it didn’t work for them. “After sitting down and discussing this with my ex, we were able to amicably decide that I was the sole owner of my Maltipoo. It was a stressful situation, because as a pet parent, I couldn’t bear the thought of losing my dog.”
Bruton also explained that each state has different laws, and while every couple wants to believe that their love will last forever, sometimes it doesn’t. “When thinking about adding a new addition to your home, there is one important conversation that needs to be had before [bringing home] your new furry family member,” she advised. “A couple must discuss, no matter how awkward the conversation may be, should things in the relationship go south, which owner will be given pet custody in the event of a divorce.”
For me and my ex, sharing custody of our fur BAEs works for us. If that’s not an option for you, and you end up as the sole pet parent or you and your ex decide to each take a pet, you can help your cat, dog, bird, lizard, or rabbit through a separation by being patient and attentive, and they’ll likely help you by offering a lot of extra love and snuggles. While it won’t be easy, you’ll both come out of the experience stronger than ever.