Pets can become casualties of divorce

Divorce has upended cruelly the lives of Sam and Sophia.

Not their own divorces, of course. Rather, it's the divorces of their owners that have landed Sam, a friendly but wary 3-year-old mixed-breed dog, and Sophia, an elegant 10-year-old tortie-point Siamese cat, into the Nevada SPCA shelter, 4800 W. Dewey Drive.

Sam, an otherwise friendly little guy who's a bit skittish about meeting strangers - reach out to pat his head and he reflexively pulls back - was brought to the shelter by his owner, who cited a divorce as the reason for giving him up, said Doug Duke, executive director of the Nevada Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Sophia, whose regal manner and striking markings make her stand out among other residents of her room at the shelter, also was brought in by her owner, who, Duke said, cited a "separation" as the reason.

As unwitting victims of their owners' marital difficulties, Sam and Sophia aren't alone. Each week, Southern Nevada shelters and animal rescue organizations receive dogs, cats and pets of every sort who, by virtue of their owners' impending marital breakups, lose their homes, too.

Granted, it doesn't usually come to this for the pets of divorcing couples. However, Duke said divorce is the sixth most-common reason - after foreclosures, the death of pet owners and problems stemming from financial reversals and hardships - that pet owners voluntarily surrender their pets to the Nevada SPCA shelter.

On any given day, at least one pet whose road to the shelter began with an owner's divorce will go up for adoption, he said.

Andy Bischel, development director for The Animal Foundation, which operates the Lied Animal Shelter, 655 N. Mojave Road, said about 50,000 animals come into the shelter every year and that, in 2010 and again in 2011, about 45 impounded animals annually were brought there for the specifically cited reason of an owner's divorce.

However, the numbers represent only instances in which owners specifically cite divorce as the reason for surrendering their pet. It wouldn't include, for example, cases in which an owner substitutes another, perhaps less personal, reason for turning in a pet, impounded strays who become strays because of an owner's divorce and pets for which no specific reason for impoundment or surrender is cited. It also doesn't include pets who were abandoned and found in homes and yards who might have been abandoned because their owners split up or pets who simply become collateral damage in a couple's disintegrating relationship.

There's really no way of knowing precisely how many pets are abandoned because of divorce, Duke said, "but we suspect a lot of other turn-ins we get are when owners start fighting and have marital problems."

Yet, Bischel added, "you can't pass judgment on people who come in, because they're actually doing the right thing," because, at a shelter, the pets at least have a shot at finding a new home.

Southern Nevada animal rescue organizations also regularly see pets whose divorcing, or divorced, owners choose to give them up.

"We've had quite a few owner surrenders where there's been a divorce situation and one spouse didn't want to take the dog and the other couldn't keep the dog, or both of them couldn't keep the dog," said Cynthia Cartwright, fundraising and event coordinator for Las Vegas Labrador Rescue.

Some spouses end up leaving Southern Nevada after a divorce and can't take a pet with them, she said. Or, divorcing spouses may have to downsize and move into smaller rental homes or apartments, "and a lot of these places won't take pets over 20 pounds.

"So we have rescued and placed quite a few Labs from divorce situations. Most of the time, they don't want to get rid of the dog and usually call us because they don't want to take the dog to a shelter because they're afraid of what may happen. They know we're no-kill, so we're going to keep them and find them a home."

That doesn't necessarily make the process less heartbreaking.

Once, Cartwright said, "we went to pick up (a Labrador) from the house (the husband and wife) were moving out of, and the husband was just really emotional. When we put her in the back of my car, he put his arms around her and was hugging her. He got all choked up because he didn't want to give her up, but he was moving into an apartment and didn't know what to do."

If there is an upside, it's that most divorcing pet owners give up a pet only for reasons of benign, if sad, practicality.

"The interesting thing is, when people talk about this, you expect people to be, in a lot of cases, fighting over the animal, and they do," Duke said. "But we see many cases where Mom and Dad split up and one of them is, maybe, leaving town and they're overwhelmed, or they both have to downsize their living situation."

But there are instances in which a family pet becomes caught in the middle of a domestic power struggle. Debbie Pietro, president of Golden Retriever Rescue Southern Nevada recalled a case in which a wife surrendered the family's golden retriever to the organization while her husband was away on a trip.

But, she said, it turned out that "they were fighting badly and ready to divorce."

As it routinely does, the organization - which Pietro said typically sees between 10 and 20 divorce-related surrenders a year - had the dog neutered and prepared for adoption to a new home, on the basis of the paperwork signed by the wife.

But, Pietro said, "he came home from wherever he was and he walked in and said, 'I want my dog back.' He was swearing, 'How dare you neuter my dog.' "

It was, she added, "the worst case we've seen."

"It's absolutely heartbreaking when the animal is used as a pawn, and somebody would be mad at a spouse and turn the animal in to the shelter," Duke said. "We have people who come in and say, 'I never expected my wife or husband to do this.' The problem is, they did, and our interest here is the best interests of the animal."

Under Nevada law, pets are - no matter how much we might think otherwise - property. So, in a divorce proceeding, a pet is, from a strict legal standpoint, not very different from a house, a car or a jewelry collection.

But divorce-related disputes about the family pet aren't necessarily about the pet.

"People who are determined to fight about something will find something to fight about, whether it's the kids or, if there are no kids, the microwave oven or, if that's not available, Fluffy," Las Vegas family law attorney Marshal Willick said. "If you're fixated on the concept of fighting about something, that 'something' may make little difference."

"I've seen every conceivable iteration of people-animal interactions. If you could imagine people being kind, cruel, possessive, jealous, angry, it all plays out."

Willick once saw a case in which a woman "was willing to trade off pretty much everything in order to take the dog and go," and "cases where the animal gets caught in the crossfire."

"Luckily, I have not had a case - although I've read about them - where somebody has done something to the animal just to hurt the other party," he said.

Willick noted that the traditional legal notion that pets are property seems to be changing, both by legislation and by case law. Increasingly, he said, living creatures are being treated more as individuals rather than as chattel.

"But it's an evolution," he said.

By virtue of their long-term relationships with both animal patients and human clients, veterinarians routinely witness the ways divorce affects pets and their owners.

"It's a regular part of life and a regular part of being a veterinarian," said Dr. Christopher Yach of West Flamingo Animal Hospital, 5445 W. Flamingo Road.

Fortunately, said Dr. Ann Bradley of The Ark Animal Clinic, 1651 N. Rancho Drive, most divorcing pet owners work together and do what's best for their pets.

Usually, one spouse will assume primary custody of the family pet and become its primary caregiver, she said. Often, that will be the spouse who, informally, already had assumed most of the family's pet care responsibilities even before the divorce.

Yach said some divorcing couples arrange for pet visits, just as they would for children, and care for the pet on occasions when the one spouse is out of town.

A few couples even decide to continue to share in the costs of caring for the pet after the divorce. Yach said he has clients who have remarried but still show up for most of the pet exams together with the one pet they had together and make decisions with each other, even though one of them is the primary caregiver.

Although it doesn't seem terribly romantic, thinking about such what-ifs when a couple adopts a puppy, a kitten or another pet may make things easier later on if the relationship doesn't last. Like most things, Duke said, it comes down to that marital communication.

"My best guess is a lot of these decisions on abandonment are made very emotionally and very quickly and on impulse," he said. "Not every case. We have people who come in here who have given lot of thought to what they have to do. But others come in and they're already angry the moment they walk in the lobby."

Contact reporter John Przybys at or 702-383-0280.