NEW YORK (MainStreet) When Michael Felber divorced, he left two cats with his ex-wife in their East Village apartment in Manhattan because moves are stressful on pets.
"But when she sold the co-op and moved to an all woman's residence, pets weren't allowed there so I ended up taking the cats into my new Hell's Kitchen apartment 18 months later," Felber told MainStreet.
Even though it was his ex-wife who found their first stray cat Troubles Truffles (aka TT), Felber felt he had a stronger bond with the feline and its subsequent white-bellied orange companion CC.
"I was especially affectionate with them," he said. "We played a lot and they slept with us."
Within three years of their divorce, Felber's ex-wife was remarried and had moved back to Japan.
"She was free to visit our cats at anytime," Felber said. "I never used TT and CC as a bargaining chip."
Although Felber's divorce didn't involve a pet custody battle, more couples are fighting over cats and dogs in divorce court than ever before.
"Pets are considered personal property and from what I understand courts treat them as such," said Jeff Landers, founder of Bedrock Divorce Advisors. "So that at least legally puts pets into the same category as furniture, cars and jewelry."
About 27% of lawyers have noticed an increase in the number of couples fighting over the custody of a pet during the past five years, according to a recent survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML).
"Pet custody cases are not an everyday occurrence but far too many spouses attempt to initiate these disputes as a negotiating strategy often believing that they can use the animal as a kind of bargaining chip," said Maria Cognetti, president of the AAML. At 88%, dogs fetched the top spot as the most disputed family animal with cats scratching their way to a distant second at 5%.
"If the other party is extremely attached to the cat or dog, they may not want to risk losing an argument and could give in on some other issue or asset," Cognetti told MainStreet.
While dogs and cats were the two animals most commonly battled for, horses galloped into fourth place at 1% after "other" in third place with 6%.
"I had a few cases where there was ownership of horses and that was relevant financially because of the value of the horses and the expense of their upkeep," Landers told MainStreet. "The care of dogs can also be quite expensive with doggy day care and doggy doo cleanup services."
AAML attorneys cited iguana, python, African grey parrot and even a giant 130-pound turtle among the most unusual animals handled during a pet dispute.
"The best way for divorcing couples to handle pet custody is the same way they should handle child custody, which is ideally by working it out without court intervention," Cognetti said.
The AAML study further found that 22% of attorneys said that courts are more frequently allowing pet custody cases and 20% cited an increase in courts deeming pets to be an asset during a divorce.
"There is at least a small movement toward more acknowledgement of pets as assets," Cognetti concluded.
Written by Juliette Fairley