Parting Ways

When couples split up, its important to keep any animal companion from becoming a pawn.

When Kim Gildea and her husband Tim divorced, the couple arrived at a split decision regarding their four cats. We each had our favorites, said Gildea. Kim kept Alex, the tortie-colored cat she had when she met Tim, and Madeline, one of the Ocicats the couple adopted together. Tim kept Max, the second Ocicat, and Abby, a deaf white female.

Choosing favorites is one way divorcing couples determine with whom the cats stay. Usually the person who wants the cat is the person most attached to it, says Katherine Houpt, VMD, PhD, of Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine and board certified in animal behavior. Nine out of ten times, thats the woman, and the person whom the cat likes best.

Bonding Makes a Difference
Other decision points include with whom the cat has bonded most closely. Does the cat seek out one partner more often, climb in one partners lap, or sleep with one partner? Which partner is best suited to care for the cat in terms of available time and finances? Will a partner who works late or travels a great deal be able to satisfy the pets emotional and physical needs? Who has played the biggest role in caring for the cat? Does one partner usually feed the cat and scoop the litter box?

If the cat has bonded with other household animals, the person who gets custody of them may be the best one to continue caring for the cat. If the cat has bonded with children, the partner with custody of the kids should probably keep the cat.

For the childrens sake, the cat should go with the kids, says Dr. Houpt.

When a divorce is amicable, partners usually make decisions based on logic, keeping the pets best interest in mind. Unfortunately, divorces arent always amicable, and the pet may become a pawn in the separation. The cat may be something that one partner uses to get back at the other, says Stephen Zawistowski, PhD, certified applied animal behaviorist and ASPCA Science Advisor. Who wants to care for the cat should really be the deciding factor.

Cats Are Creatures of Habit
Most cats like set schedules and staying in the same place, so a cat may be more attached to her surroundings than to her caregivers. Who stays in the family home may make all the difference in the feline psyche, says Dr. Zawistowski. As a result, shared custody options in which the pet moves back and forth between one partner and the other usually does not work well with cats.

If the divorce is preceded by a lot of strife, your cat may experience stress. A lot of disruption could impact your cat, says Dr. Zawistowski. If there is lots of screaming and yelling, the cat will chill out somewhere else.

If you see signs of stress, have your cat checked by a veterinarian. Stress can include excessive licking or even pulling out hair; litter box problems or terrorial spraying; excessive meowing, sleeping or hiding; or a change in playing or eating habits.     

Although splitting up with a partner can be traumatic for you and your children, dont assume that a divorce will necessarily have a negative impact on your cat.

Merging cats when two people move in together is frequently more of a problem than when two people divorce, says Dr. Zawistowski. And if a lot is happening in the household, and your cat is not acting normally, dont automatically assume shes suffering from a behavioral problem. It may be a medical problem, and the stress is exacerbating it, says Dr. Houpt. A trip to the veterinarian should be scheduled.


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Purrfect Partners
Jinx is an all-black, short-haired cat with a big tummy that makes her look a bit like a bowling ball. She was abused as a tiny kitten, so, even today at 17 years old, she is timid around most people. Last year, she was successfully treated for hyperthyroidism with radioactive iodine. Today, she has the early stages of cancer.

Even with these health and behavioral problems, her human companion feels that Jinx has provided her with a lifetime of love and support, and the time and expense she has expended on Jinxs behalf has been well worth the effort.

When my dad passed away three years ago, my cat was a big source of comfort to me, said Jody Rundle, who has had Jinx since she was eight weeks old. Many people dont get to see how sweet and affectionate she can be because she is so fearful. But after a long day at work, I come home and shes there waiting for me. It relaxes me when I hear her purring.

Like Jinx, cats are more than just the family pet – they have become members of the family. According to the Humane Society of the United States, three-fourths of American families share their home with at least one companion animal. And, according to a recent poll of animal lovers, 83 percent said they consider themselves their pets parent.

A recent study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine (Vol. 64, No. 5), suggests that companion animals have a soothing effect on stressed out people. For many people, pet animals appear to provide a kind of social support that will help them to remain calm in a potentially stressful situation, said Jim Blascovich, a University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) psychology professor and one of the studys authors.

The study provides evidence that animals help people better cope with loss and stress. According to the findings, pets seemed to calm people down even better than other humans.

Our pets, sitting next to us, arent evaluating us like our friends or even our spouses, explained Blascovich. And perhaps, most importantly, cats offer us unconditional love. This level of absolute love and devotion has guaranteed cats a permanent place in our hearts and in our homes.

It is well-documented that animals have a profound affect on our physical and psychological well-being. Pets help lower our blood pressure, increase our activity level and be less depressed. Animals are especially beneficial for older adults, children, and people dealing with emotional and physical disabilities.

One could argue that people with dogs are in better cardiovascular shape because they walk their dogs on a daily basis and therefore score better on the tests. That could be possible, but given that people dont walk cats, Id say thats not the reason, said Blascovich, who noted that both cats and dogs equally diminished the stress levels of their human companions.

Pets provide a function that is more than just friendship, Blascovich concluded. The more youre attached to your animals, the more they serve this function.

By Karen Lee Steven