Pet custody battles are on the rise, and they aren't always pretty

Pet custody battles are on the rise, and they aren't always pretty

By Shelley Walcott, Stephanie Graham. CREATED May 11, 2012 - UPDATED: May 11, 2012

MILWAUKEE - Chanel le Mieux lives in Bay View with her two cats.

Chanel laughs, "Only 2 does not make me a crazy cat lady!" She adds, "They're so sweet, and they're not needy."

In fact, a cat first brought her and her ex-husband together 12 years ago. That's when Chanel saw Cinders in an adoption ad.

"It broke my heart because she was pregnant and a stray, and someone doused her with lighter fluid and set her on fire," Chanel recalls.

Since she couldn't have cats in her apartment, she adopted Cinders and moved in with her boyfriend. They married soon after.

"She was our baby, she literally was our baby," Chanel says.

However, nine years later the couple decided to divorce, and caught in the middle was Cinders.

"When we split up we were like 'Oh no, I want you to have that, I want you to have that,' as far as physical things, possessions, but when it came to Cinders that was the rough part," Chanel explains.

Kelly Dodd is a divorce lawyer at Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek in Milwaukee. She says pet custody cases are on the rise, and at times, they can get ugly. "The people who do fight for their pets, they're very impassioned about it."

Under Wisconsin divorce law, pets are considered personal property--like furniture! That classification is a tough pill to swallow for pet owners.

"Some sympathetic judges have agreed, and are now applying something more akin to a best interest standard that you would normally see in child custody proceedings," Dodd explains.

Dodd has seen several of these cases in court, where both sides try to prove their case. For example, she says, "People have brought in credit card statements showing that they have paid for veterinary care. People have testified to their own observations of the psychological impact of the separation on the pets, and the disturbances in sleep and eating and behavior that have occurred."

Most cases do get settled out of court, and couples work out some sort of agreement.

"People get pretty creative. What I've seen are, for example, a week on/week off, a so-called placement arrangement," Dodd says.

Chanel decided to let her ex keep cinders, who passed away a few years ago. In Cinder's final years, Chanel and her ex shared vet bills, and Chanel was still a big part of her life. She says, "I still had visitation rights and everything."

Pet custody isn't only an issue for divorced couples. When Kelsey Wenner broke up with her live in boyfriend, she admits the toughest part was losing her cat Milo.

"We both were being pretty selfish and just wanted the cats," she recalls.

Eventually, Kelsey decided her ex would be the better cat parent at this time.

"I knew Milo was going to be happy in his environment. He was already used to where he was living," she explains.

In both of these women's cases, they put their pets' best interests first--a key to success in these cases.

"To me you should treat that pet's life like you treat a child's life, and give it the best possible life even though you may not be together," Chanel says.

Another tough scenario is when kids are involved. Dodd says many times families will keep the pets with the kids, and develop a shared custody agreement that combines both the childrens' and pets' schedules.