Pet bereavement isn’t always tied to the death of a pet – instead, you may face being parted from a beloved animal or have lost them already, due to the end of a relationship. This can be just as heartbreaking as a physical death and incredibly complicated to navigate the practicalities and your feelings.
According to the Office of National Statistics, 42% of marriages in England and Wales now end in divorce but you don’t have to be married for the end of a relationship to be just as devastating. As 46% of households have pets, it’s fair to say that a huge number of animals have their lives turned upside down when their human companions decide to go their separate ways.
Who gets the pets?
One of the big questions at the end of the relationship is “Who gets the pets?” If the animal in question was your partner’s before the relationship began, then the pet may stay with them by default.
But if your pet(s) came into your life during your relationship or if you have become the main carer to a pet that was originally your partner’s, things may not be as straightforward.
At this emotional time, it can be heart-breaking and overwhelming to have to make a decision about your pets but it is important. You might want to ask the following questions:
- Who currently looks after the pets’ needs the most?
- Who does the feeding, walking, cleaning, vet’s appointments, etc.?
- Who can provide the most suitable accommodation?
- Will your work hours change and, if so, what will happen to the pets while you’re at work?
- Who will be better able to provide for your pets financially?
As hard as it might be to discuss these things while emotions are running high, the animal’s well-being must come first.
Dogs and cats are particularly affected by a relationship breakdown because they are excellent at reading our feelings and react to any stress and upset around them. While you work out where your pet will live, try to maintain as much as their routine as possible and minimise how much you row in front of them.
If your dog is going to have to move house with one of you, try to visit the new house and area as much as possible before the move so that they can become familiar with their new surroundings.
If you notice your pet acting withdrawn, lethargic, over-protective, aggressive or disinterested in life, it can be a sign that they are struggling with their change in circumstances and you may need to consult a vet.
Gone but still living
One of the hardest aspects of losing a much-loved pet due to the breakdown of a relationship is the knowledge that they have gone from your life but continue to live in the world without you.
Many people say that at least with the physical death there’s a sense of an ending that doesn’t come with the loss of a pet due to the end of a relationship.
Instead, you may be feeling a whole range of emotions. Your grief probably feels as raw and overwhelming as it would had your pet died. You may be mourning the loss of your dreams, your plans and the routines that shaped your life. You may also miss your pet’s special brand of comfort, companionship and unconditional love.
This can be a lonely time. Other people may not understand the depth of your grief, arguing that at least the animal you love is alive and well, even if you can’t be with them.
You may be wrestling with feelings such as guilt and jealousy. Will my pet think I’ve abandoned them? Will they be properly cared for without me? Are they missing their old life? Is someone else getting to share their life with my pet? Do they even notice that I’ve gone? At least if they had died, I could say goodbye.
These are all common and completely natural thoughts and questions. It’s tough knowing that you can’t sit down with your pet and explain what’s going to happen and why.
It can also be confusing to pull apart how much of your grief is for the end of your relationship and how much is for your lost pet. You may feel that you have to separate your feelings but the truth is that your losses – your pet, your partner, the life you shared together – are part of each other.
To see or not to see?
Whether you will be able to see your pet in the future will depend on the circumstances of your break-up.
In some cases, there is no choice but to sever ties with an ex, even if it means losing contact with a precious pet. It can also be distressing to see a pet used as collateral to score points against each other. You may decide to walk away in order to spare your pet from any further distress.
Some couples disagree so much about who gets to keep the pets that they decide to rehome the animal altogether. If you feel that neither of you is adequately able to meet your pet’s needs because of your change in circumstances, it might be kinder to find a new family for your pet, albeit a last resort.
If the end of the relationship has been amicable, you may be able to come to an arrangement about visitation rights so that you’re both still able to enjoy time with your once-shared pets. Some former couples agree to regular access or to turn to one another when they need a pet-sitter.
But for many people, this arrangement is too painful. It can be difficult to keep seeing an ex-partner and to move on when you’re still in touch. It can also be heart-breaking to live on the periphery of a pet’s life when you were once the centre of their world.
Only you can decide what feels right for you. It’s OK if you need to put reminders of your pet to one side and say goodbye forever but it’s also understandable if you want to maintain contact.
Allow yourself to grieve
As with all grief, there is no right or wrong way to do it; you don’t have to follow a timeline. You may feel that you’re not allowed to grieve because your pet is still alive but a loss is a loss, no matter how it occurs.
In many ways, the nature of the loss is a footnote because it doesn’t change the nature of the pain. Like any bereaved pet carer, you need to be kind to yourself, sit with your feelings, and take small steps through the pain from surviving into coping and healing.
Talk about your grief – whether it’s with friends and family or in a group like The Ralph Site Pet Loss Support Group on Facebook where you’ll find other people who have experienced similar loss.
No-one can ever take away the life, memories and – most importantly – the love that you shared with your pet. Over time, your grief will shift away from the pain of what has gone to gratitude for what you had but it will take time.
Planning for the unthinkable – writing a pet prenup
When a relationship is going well, it can be hard to imagine that there will ever be a time when you’re dividing up your life and moving on. It may be harder still to think that you might be at loggerheads with your current partner about who gets to keep the pets you share together.
Unfortunately, many former couples have to face this reality.
It might seem unthinkable now but one recommendation is to sit down with your partner while your relationship is in a good place and talk about what you would want for your pets in the event of a break-up. Hopefully, it will never happen but if it does and emotions are running high, it can be helpful to have a written plan agreed in happier times.
This can be done informally or more formally as part of a prenuptial agreement (before you get married) or cohabitation agreement (if you don’t intend to marry).
If you did end up having to go to court to resolve who your pets will live with, it’s important to know that they are viewed in the same way as inanimate property under UK law. If you’re not married, a court may make a custody decision using strictly legal principles, such as awarding the pet to the person who bought him/her. If you’re married, the court may be more inclined to look at who devoted the most time to caring for the pet.
Discussing these sad circumstances now could save you all heartache in the future.
Whatever the nature of your loss, do know that you’re not alone.
Until next time, very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support