Battle of the exes: A veterinarians role in co-parenting

Do you often face clients battling over a pet in a divorce situation? How do you handle pet parents who let their furry children get caught up in human emotions?

Author Steven May addresses the difficult issue of co-parenting pets after a breakup or divorce in his new book, "What About Wally?" In the book, May and his co-author David T. Pisarra examine the effects of a divorce on a pet, and how pet parents can best handle a co-parenting situation.

May talked with Trends Today to offer insight and tips for veterinarians who may find themselves getting dragged into a battle of the exes.

What is a veterinarian’s role in handling clients who may be in the middle of a divorce? When should they step in, and when should they stay out of it?

The right course of action for a veterinarian who finds themselves in the middle of what may be a contentious divorce battle is to remember their role. Their main concern has to be to provide the best care possible to the animal. But since the job of a vet isn’t just what’s learned in a book, emotions often come in to play. Providing a sympathetic ear and manner is an important part of any vets work but caution should be exercised when dealing with divorcing couples. Listening is one thing but choosing sides is another. Remember, anything that you say to one pet parent might be twisted around and shared with the other. So keeping the relationship professional is the best course of action.

What kind of advice should veterinarians gives couples who are considering divorce?

A divorcing couple may look to their vet as the expert in all facets of pet care and that includes behavioral. The reality is that pets can suffer emotional trauma from their owners divorce. Their exercise and feeding schedule may be changed, the attention they were used to getting might diminish and if a divorcing couple fights a lot that can certainly impact a pet.

Family law attorneys will counsel their clients with children that it is their responsibility to act in the best interest of their child. Of course, mitigating circumstances do exist such as one parent being physically or verbally abusive in which case they shouldn’t have access to a child…or a pet. I’ve found that by encouraging the co-parenting of a pet, or at least explaining the benefits of doing so, a common ground can be formed which oftentimes leads to a more agreeable divorce.

In a divorce situation, which parent should a veterinarian follow orders from?

Unless circumstances present themselves that make it clear that one parent is not acting in the best interests of the pet, the veterinarian should follow the requests of the parent of record. As a vet it’s important to remember that you are not the cause of a couples problems and shouldn’t be a pawn in their game. Some divorcing couples will go to great lengths to hurt each other or shed a bad light on their spouse which can then be used in court. If a vet feels like they are being sucked in to this kind of scenario it’s best to focus solely on the care of the pet and distance themselves from any internal battles.

What should a veterinarian do if a pet parent becomes vindictive and attempts to treat the pet poorly?

Some states currently mandate that veterinarians report any suspected acts of cruelty to the appropriate authorities and others will grant immunity to those that do so. The first step, if any kind of abuse is suspected is to try and counsel the client about the harm they may be causing to an innocent bystander; namely their pet. If a vet believes that counseling isn’t working then I encourage them to first speak with the other parent to inform them of the situation and then proceed to report the suspected owner causing the harm to the ASPCA.
Remember, veterinarians aren’t marriage counselors or family law attorneys. They have been entrusted to act in the best interests of the pet and sometimes that means stepping outside the boundaries of typical veterinary care, particularly if one spouse is attempting to "put down" an otherwise healthy animal, just to hurt the other spouse.

As a third party, what can a veterinarian do to make a custody battle easier on a pet?

The best course of action to alleviate any potential emotional or physical trauma to a pet of divorcing couples is to explain both the positive and negative impact it can have to the pet parents. The reality is that owners who bring their pet to a vet have some level of care about its well-being. While we all know that some people view their relationship with animals differently than others, by explaining the role of the pet parent, the benefits of co-parenting or at least the importance of making decisions that best serve the needs of the animal, most cases will result in owners taking the time to consider the options.
A book I recently co-wrote, "What About Wally: Co-Parenting A Pet With Your Ex," delves in to that very issue. It explains both the legal elements at play as well as the behavioral impact divorce can have on the pet. And as one who is currently co-parenting I can say, without question, that the decision has not only has greatly benefitted our dogs but has made our post-divorce relationship much better.