Custody Battles Over Pets

Pet custody may be a topic you've never heard of before, but it's actually a subject that's becoming more familiar in divorce settlements, reports The Early Show's resident veterinarian, Debbye Turner.

Pets are increasingly becoming a more important part of the family, and for lots of couples who split up, the big question isn't how to divide the assets, but who will get custody of the pet.

Martin Stephens and Jo Shoesmith are both animal lovers who adopted six pets during their 8-year marriage: three cats and three dogs.

Stephens and Shoesmith involved the animals in all aspects of their family life, even taking them on trips and to see Santa!

"We weren't able to have children, so for me, they became my kids," says Shoesmith.

But in 1997, Shoesmith and Stephens decided to get a divorce.

"I think we both really, from the get-go, were concerned about how we were going to deal with the animals, and where they would stay, and for how long," she says.

It was so important to both of them, their divorce document includes the pets.

The divorce papers said "shared time," but did not specify.

In the beginning, all the pets shuttled between Shoesmith and Stephens for a week at a time. They soon learned the cats preferred not to travel, and the dogs did well with longer visits.

"We wanted to make sure that for our own benefit, we continued to have access to the animals," recalls Stephens. "And also for the dogs' benefit, we thought it would be good for them to continue to interact with both of us."

Just like Stephens and Shoesmith, most couples work out the details themselves. But there are rare instances where the custody battle finds its way into a courtroom, says Valerie Stanley, an animal rights attorney.

"So when a couple decides to split, and they have companion animals that they have to consider, they often will ask the court to consider what is the best interest of the animal, when the couple cannot themselves agree," says Stanley.

And if the judge's decision is violated, there can be real consequences.

Steve Brennwald is not even divorced yet, but custody of Roxy is a key issue.

"If I had been married to somebody who wasn't reasonable, I would take it to court," he says. "Obviously, you have people who think the whole pet custody and visitation is like, 'Come on, you're serious?' But I don't care, frankly. It's my dog and I love her."

Even though many view their pets as members of the family, the law doesn't agree.

"The legal system and the courts still consider companion animals as personal property. So the courts are never really asked to consider what's in the best interest of a sofa, or a TV, or a set of dishes. But this is a very different situation where you have a sentient being involved, " says Stanley.

"The next natural step for a family that is separating is to make provisions for the things that are most valuable to them. And it's maybe no longer just grandmother's china," says Shoesmith. "It's the cats and dogs and other animals that are in that family."