Pets and divorce: What does your dog really want?

In New York child custody cases, courts will always consider the best interests of the child first and foremost in arriving at their child custody decisions. In certain circumstances — when the child is old enough and mature enough — courts will also ask for input from the child when making their determinations on what is in the child’s best interests.

But what about pets? Should divorcing spouses think about the best interests of their pets when deciding who the family dog will go to in their divorce proceedings? And, can we know what the best interests and preferences of an animal would be?

Example case regarding dog custody

A recent article in Scientific American helps to shed a little bit of light on the dilemma of trying to determine what your dog wants when you and your spouse get a divorce. The article offers the example of a 2013 divorce case, Travis v. Murray, that came before the New York Supreme Court. A same-sex couple had not been married for even a year and they were parting ways. One spouse moved out while the other spouse was traveling on business. She took her things, some furniture and the family dog.

In court, the spouse who moved out argued that the dog was hers because she purchased him at the pet store. The other spouse argued that the dog was hers because it always sleeps on her side of the bed. In this respect, the other spouse claimed that it was in the best interests of the dog to stay with her since the dog had a stronger bond with her.

The New York Supreme Court had to decide whether or not to hear the custody case for the animal. The court granted the hearing. Nevertheless, it’s a tricky issue to decide a case like this. One cannot know the best interests of a dog unless one knows how life as a dog feels.

Owners ultimately settled the case

In Travis v. Murray, it would have been difficult to determine how the court would decide the matter. Perhaps it was due to this lack of clarity that the spouses decided to settle their dog custody dispute before the hearing took place.

In studies highlighted in Scientific American, however, researchers have determined that dogs — when given the freedom of choice — will often choose praise from their owners 50 percent of the time, and food or treats the other 50 percent of the time. Does this mean that, just like in child custody cases, courts should consider both the basic financial needs of dogs as well as their needs for love and attention? Perhaps finding a balance between the two is the best course of action when it comes to deciding dog custody cases in New York family law courts.