When it comes to pets in matters of divorce, the fact that we care so much about our animal companions is good news, because it means the courts are starting to look at animals as more than mere property.
Unfortunately, the fact that we care so much about our animal companions is also bad news, making pets a high-value item in the nastiest of marriage dissolutions.
"If you've got a mean divorce, whatever weapon is handy they're going to use," says prominent Manhattan divorce attorney Bernard Clair. "Money. Property. Children. Pets. Find what the other person wants, and want it even more."
Fortunately, Clair sees a trend toward a more humane handling of pets in divorce, perhaps driven by the higher status animals have in our lives.
"If a couple is at a point where a pet is loved enough to become an issue, then they need to ask a tough question and find the answer: 'What is best for this animal?'" he says. "The heart has to rule."
The heart, along with a dose of human decency, is a better arbiter of the issues than is a judge in most cases. That's because although some animal activists believe pet custody cases should be decided in the same way as child custody cases, that's not the way the law sees it now. "The best interest of the pet" is not a consideration, and the animal is pretty much considered property.
"People are better served when they can resolve their own controversies regarding pets during a divorce," says Clair. "It's a crapshoot when you leave the determination to someone else. That's true whether you find an enlightened judge or one who still looks at pets the same as silverware."
While Clair has seen joint custody arrangements where pets are shared, he doesn't think they work all that well. "I've seen little success with sharing a pet. The animal becomes almost schizophrenic."
His favorite arrangements are those where the pets go where the children do and can end up being a stabilizing influence on all involved.
"If the children are visiting the non-custodial parent, the pet follows the children," he says. "It works not only from the pet's point of view, but also from the children's. Mental-health professionals know the importance of a 'transitional object' that goes from one place to another and provides a source of comfort. A pet is perfect for that role."
In a more traditional divorce, says Clair, the mother gets the house, the pets and the children, leaving the father with feelings of loss and grief. "The pain is in the departing, and missing the pet can be part of that. Again, having the pet follow the children can be ideal for the father as well.
"The needs of all parties can be met by having the pet go where the kids do."
While judges cannot legally take the pet's best interest into consideration, Clair feels that some of them factor it in anyway -- and that changes are on the way in how the law will handle companion animals.
"You can't open a magazine anymore without seeing stories about animals. They have pain, and they suffer. As animals become recognized as sentient beings with the right to enjoy their time on this planet, the law will continue to evolve."
In the meantime, says Clair, it's still best for people to consider the needs of everyone involved in the divorce, to resolve issues as fairly as possible.
"Pets represent as much of an issue as how we're going to divide the flatware," he says. "People need to ask: What would be the best situation for the pet?"
Confinement key to moving a cat
Q: We've bought a new home, and we'll be moving our cat, Zephyr, with us. He's almost 10, and this is the only home he has ever known since we brought him home as a kitten from the shelter. He is quite the man about town in our neighborhood, and we want him to be happy at the new place. Do you have some tips for making the transition easier? -- D.W., via e-mail
A: The best way to move your cat is to confine him to a small area before and after the move. The ideal place is a spare bedroom where your cat isn't going to be disturbed. Set up the area with food and water, a litter box, a scratching post and toys.
Don't feel bad about confining your pet: He'll be more calm and comfortable in a small space during the transition. Confining your cat also prevents him from slipping out, which is a danger at both the old and new home. Your cat should be confined in his safe room before packing begins, be moved to his new home in a carrier, and then be confined again in his new safe room until the moving is over, the furniture arranged and most of the dust settled.
When you get to your new home, put the carrier down in the safe room, open the carrier door, and let your cat decide when to come out.
After he's a little calmer, you can coax him out with some fresh food or treats, but don't rush him and don't drag him out. A couple of days after the moving activity has settled, open the door to the safe room and let your cat explore at will, on his terms, but just within the limits of the house. He still needs to be kept completely inside for a couple of weeks, to start him forming a bond with his new surroundings.
If you've been contemplating converting your cat to indoors-only, moving into a new home is a great time to do it. He'd carry on like crazy in your old home if locked in, but in new surroundings he'll accept the change better. Part of the reason cats don't like to convert is because they've marked the outside as part of their territory and have a natural desire to revisit and re-mark. A newly moved cat will come to accept the territory he has been offered, and if the outdoors isn't part of it, he won't miss it so much.
Q: We're looking to buy a parrot. We found a breeder who'll sell us one at a discount if we take it just after it has been hatched and hand-feed it ourselves. We've never done this, and we've never even had a parrot before. She says it's easy, though. What do you think? -- H.J., via e-mail
A: I think you should pass, and find a breeder who wouldn't think of selling a baby bird that hasn't been fully weaned to a healthy adult diet.
While an experienced hand-feeder may find the task easy (rote, even), taking care of a baby bird is definitely not for beginners. It's frighteningly easy to bungle the job, with tragic results.
When you factor in the risks, the trouble and all those round-the-clock feedings, raising your own hatchling isn't the bargain it may first appear to be. If you're thinking it's important for bonding, rest easy on that point as well. A healthy, well-socialized and fully weaned young bird will have no trouble at all bonding to you.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Regular exams a must for birds
Hiding signs of illness isn't something human beings need to do. Any parent can tell in an instant when a child is starting to get sick, and many of us live with mates for whom even an ingrown toenail is the reason for much moaning. Dogs, too, don't hide how they feel. Whining is a trait known to both canine and human sufferers alike.
Whining is fine when you're a social animal at the top of the food chain. When you're closer to the bottom, though, whining is a stupendously bad idea and can draw unwanted attention. When a prey animal or bird shows signs of weakness in the wild, chances are he's going to become a predator's next meal.
That's why birds are so adept at hiding signs of illness. Every avian veterinarian has dealt with the sad situation of a bird who was "fine yesterday" and now is dead or nearly so. But in most such cases, the bird was sick for weeks or months, hiding signs of illness as best he could.
Regular "well-bird" exams can spot little problems before they becoming life-threatening, and get a sick bird back on track before it's too late. These exams should include not only a physical component, but also evaluations of behavior and nutrition. They are an essential part of caring for a bird, because often when a bird is too sick to hide signs of illness, he's also too sick to be saved.
A list of veterinarians who specialize in avian care can be found on the Association of Avian Veterinarian's Web site, www.aav.org.
(Pet Rx is provided by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN.com), an online service for veterinary professionals. More information can be found at www.veterinarypartner.com.)
Agility is fun for people, dogs
If your New Year's resolution is to be more active, why not involve your dog? Recent studies have shown a trend toward obesity in people and pets alike, and exercise is one way to win the battle of the bulge. In addition, the more time you spend with your dog, the stronger the bond between you.
While at its highest levels of competition, agility is a sport for the elite athletes of the canine set -- border collies rule! -- there's still plenty of room for ordinary people and pets to have fun on the obstacle courses.
Indeed, enjoying time with your dog is what it's all about for Margaret H. Bonham, whose book "Having Fun With Agility" (Howell Book House, $15) is intended to get people started in this popular canine activity.
The book stresses positive training methods and safety on the obstacles, while giving plenty of information to lay the groundwork for the person who truly catches the agility "bug."
Pets get the royal treatment from luxury hotels
A few months ago I put in a short stay at Loew's lush Miami Beach hotel. Now, I'm more the kind of person who chooses moderately priced hotels, which until relatively recently were the only kind that put out the welcome mat for people traveling with pets.
Turns out the high-end hotels have discovered the pet market, too.
At Loew's, I saw well-mannered dogs all over the place, from the miniature schnauzer who paused to give me a sniff when I got out of my car to the golden who was heading off for a morning of window-shopping with his well-dressed owners.
Loew's has pet-friendly policies at all 20 of its properties in the United States and Canada, and added special packaged offers for pet lovers starting last June. The hotels charge a pet fee of $25 per stay, but set no limit on the size of the pet in question.
There's even a special page in the room service menu for pet food, with such tempting dishes as "Bow Wow Tenderloin of Beef" (beef, eggs and brown rice) or Kitty's Salmon Supreme (fresh filet of salmon for the finicky feline traveler). High-quality commercial pet foods are also available.
Loew's is not alone in recognizing that people love to travel with and pamper their pets. The Starwood hotels and resorts -- including Sheraton, Westin and W -- worked with the New York-based American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to come up with its own program to attract well-heeled travelers and their pets.
For those of us who just aren't budgeted for such grand accommodations, there are still plenty of comfortable options on the road. Among the more moderately-priced hotel chains, the Red Roof Inns and La Quinta Inns have been my favorites when I'm traveling with my pets.
ON THE WEB
Finding help in time of loss
The time has mostly passed when people who've lost a cherished pet were told "it's just a cat" or counseled to "replace" the animal quickly. Veterinary schools in the United States and Canada have long had pet-loss support hot lines staffed by students who listen to callers cry as well as offer them advice and support.
The University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine was the pioneer in providing such services. And its Web site (www.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/petloss/index.htm) backs up the hot line with practical information on loss and links to even more. The list of books on pet loss includes some specifically geared to children, including the classic "The Tenth Good Thing About Barney," by Judith Viorst (Aladdin Books, $6).
In another corner of the Internet, Pet Hobbyist (www.pethobbyist.com) offers a pet-loss online chat 365 days a year, along with discussion boards, a collection of memorial photos and articles on the grief process. -- G.S.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to email@example.com. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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