A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

When Families Fight over Pets

‘My son won’t let me see my grand-dog!’

By Ruby R. Benjamin, Ed.D.

Sandy got caught up in a dispute between his “dad” and his “grandmom”

People often refer to their pets as members of the family. As such, the pets are subject to many of the joys and tribulations of the household. Children and pets go through their own stages of development as do their parents and guardians. They bond and grow together, but not always harmoniously. We often hear of custody battles going on for years over who is responsible for the care of the child and under what conditions.

Oftentimes, children are used as pawns against spouses and grandparents. So, from time to time in my practice of psychotherapy, I hear complaints from adult children. They express feelings of resentment about their parents disregarding their instructions about rearing the grandchild. Parents want consistency in the rearing, but the grandparents, I am told, do as they please. They claim to have years of experience about raising children and know better. Unfailingly, this results in my patients’ frustration, sense of powerlessness and even rage.

It happens the other way round, too. Debby, an older woman and a grandmother, began one of her sessions irritated that her daughter wouldn’t let her take her grandchildren out for the day. It seems that this refusal started after Debby brought her grandchild to church against her daughter’s wishes. Although Debby apologized, her daughter no longer trusted her mother out alone with the grandchildren. Unable to control her mother’s behavior and to express directly her anger, her daughter was using the children to retaliate.

Carol and George learned how to resolve their differences without putting Sandy in the middle and using him as a negotiating chip.

I was accustomed to adult children and elders reporting on the bad behavior of both toward each other and to use the grandchildren in their ongoing struggles for control and power. But I hadn’t expected the explosion when Carol arrived. She started talking as soon as she entered the office.

”My son won’t let me see my grand-dog, and I’m the one who bought him,” she lamented.

During her tirade, I learned that Carol and her son, George, had had one of their frequent arguments and Carol had refused to agree to what George wanted. George, in turn, decided to withhold Sandy, his dog, from his mother. George knew that his mother had bonded with Sandy and she took great delight in caring for him. He would not release Sandy for the weekend so his mother could enjoy him. This passive aggressive act frustrated Carol, and it gave George a sense of power over his mother.

George felt he had no other choice because his mother never listened to him anyway. Carol felt that George was punishing her by denying her Sandy because she did not accede to his wants.

I mentioned gently to Carol that George had, in fact, learned his lesson well. It had been Carol’s practice to withhold something important from George – herself – until George did as she asked. Carol and I worked on this issue, and she and George learned how to resolve their differences without putting Sandy in the middle and using him as a negotiating chip.

In custody battles, it is all too common for spouses to put the children in the middle of contentious divorces. Recently, as pets have become increasingly important in the lives of people and have, in some cases, replaced children, pet custody disputes have become a common part of divorce cases.

A recent statistic reported on CBS stated that pet custody battles are up 23 percent, and pet custody and visitation rights are a developing aspect of law in divorce cases.

For thousands of years, animals have been considered to be property under the law. But the courts have begun to take the broader view that pets are not simply products whose value can be determined by their purchase price or adoption fee, and that our relationship with them is more complex. While pets still don’t have legal rights, as children do, judges are taking their needs into consideration when ruling on custody matters.

Attorneys can employ pet behaviorists to observe the body language of the pet, and then to make recommendations to the court, as is done in in child custody cases.

In some pet custody cases, the attorneys have gone so far as to have the two guardians stand at opposite ends of a room and call the pet (usually a dog) to see which way the dog will go. Other attorneys have employed pet behaviorists to observe the body language of the pet interacting with each guardian, and then to make recommendations to the court, as is done in in child custody cases. Joint custody is also considered.

And while nonhumans still can’t be direct beneficiaries when you write your will, more and more people are also setting up trusts that will provide for their pets. Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia now allow pet owners to endow pet trusts. People want to be reassured that their pet will be taken care of if they aren’t around.

Leona Helmsley, the late self-appointed hotel queen, made sure that her pet Maltese, Trouble, would never want for anything and set up a $12 million trust for him. The children contested the will, but that’s still a whole lot of doggie treats.

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What do you say? Have you been caught up in a situation where a pet, maybe your own, finds herself being a pawn in what is basically an argument between other family members? Let us know in a comment or on Facebook.


Dr. Ruby Benjamin is a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City with individuals and couples. She specializes in relationship issues with self, others and, sometimes with canines. She is on the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Center for Mental Health, the Metropolitan Institute for Training in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy and is a consultant to Doctors without Borders, Peer Support Network.