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Pet Prenups Could Help Curb Custody Battles

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – There can be plenty to fight over if you're going through a divorce - the house, the kids, the money. But who gets the dog?

Pet custody disputes sound like something from Hollywood.

In fact, Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon are currently battling in court over who gets the couple's eight Jack Russell Terriers. But filing papers over pets is actually a real thing lawyers deal with here in Minnesota.

While some couples ditch their vows to each other, more are vowing not to ditch their pets.

In a 2006 survey of American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 25 percent reported seeing an increase in cases involving pets.

"Ordinarily, pets, mainly dogs and cats. Although I've seen cases of birds, aquarium fish and I've even seen a rattle snake case," Marshall Tanick, a Minneapolis animal law attorney, said.

Tanick says this time of year is particularly busy for pet disputes.

"Around the holidays, the disputes intensify. The parties want to have the pet in their house during the holidays, such as Thanksgiving or Christmas," he said.

But deciding who gets the fur ball can get a little hairy, even in a court of law.

"I've read literally every case in the country on pet law and I can tell you there is no universal definition on who owns an animal," Barbara Gislason, a Minnesota pet attorney, said.

She says in the eyes of the law a pet is treated no differently than property.

"There is not only no law in Minnesota, there is no law in the country," she said.

But Gislason says judges are starting to take into account emotional bonds between pets and owners, and not just focus on who bought the animal and paid the vet bills.

"If the animal is closely bonded to one person, the judge may take a look at that," she said. "If there is a kid in the family that is closely bonded to the dog, or the cat or another pet, the judge may look at that."

If the clawing between couples continues, they can scratch out a custody agreement, much like they would if children are involved.

"The simple agreement may be the parties exchange, or have visitation, with the pet every other weekend," Tanick said. "One party would be given custody during the week and the other party every other weekend."

Tanick says couples can also avoid a snarly dispute with a pet prenup.

"If there is a living together arrangement, it's not a bad idea to think about having a clause in there as to what happens to that pet or what happens to a pet that you might acquire while you live together," he said.

In Minnesota, more couples are willing to fight for their pets than surrender them to shelters.  The Animal Humane Society says less than one percent of the animals it receives are products of a divorce or breakup.

If you're considering a pet custody arrangement, animal trainers say cats are less portable and are better off staying in one home.

To make the transition for dogs easiest, keep their routine as best you can. Even move their dog bed or water bowl from one house to another.

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