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Like, we didn’t see this coming? Pets are becoming the center of custody struggles among divorcing couples.

This principally involves childless couples; I would imagine any pets go with the children otherwise. But the big mêlée in December last year, which was featured in a New York Post story, involved a lesbian couple fighting over a miniature dachshund. One woman bought the dog as a consolation gift for the other after having insisted that she get rid of her cat. (Whatever the reasons, I do regard that as a wise step.)

For many couples, the dog—I have yet to hear of a custody fight involving a cat—sometimes becomes a surrogate for the child they never had and the separation becomes fraught with tension. As one judge noted, “People who love their dogs almost always love them forever. But with divorce rates at record highs, the same cannot always be said for those who marry.”

Prudent couples have gone so far as to include their animal companion in a prenuptial agreement. These are called, naturally, “pre-pups.”

While the term “pre-pup” for dogs is covered on at least one website, nothing at all shows up for cats. I can’t think what a prenuptial involving a cat would be called. If “ante-feline” gains any popularity, thanks largely to phonetics, everyone should remember I thought of it first.

Anyway, what is disturbing is that in some few court cases the matter is not being decided as a dispute over a property settlement, but as a case of deciding the “best interests” of the dog (no cases I can find have bothered with the best interests of cats, and probably for good reason, but I’m only speculating here). When it comes to dogs, a number of decisions have been based on which party is likely to be the better owner.

This is a can of worms waiting to be opened. How could one ever live down the social humiliation of being adjudicated less fit as a dog “parent” compared to the winning spouse? Information of that kind may become public record, accessible to dog adoption centers everywhere. Applicants may come under some threat of penalty if they falsely assert they have never been on the losing side of a pet custody battle. I am leaving aside too the questions of visitation, support, and other matters too numerous to talk about, not to mention the many cases decreeing which half of the couple must take the cat. (Mohammed, if you didn’t know, is said to have preached with a cat in his arms.)

Even without the trauma of a break up, pet “parents” will always do what they think is best for their dog. This increasingly entails buying pet food they themselves would like to eat. No, seriously. Pet food manufacturers long ago learned to market to owners. They do not market pet food for it’s quality, but for owners who appreciate an appealing label.

At the grocery I find an array of “gourmet” dog foods: “Savory rice and lamb stew with peas and carrots” is only one of them, and that was a store brand. More recognized brands feature entrees that smug waiters might comfortably recite in upscale restaurants:

“Tonight we have the chef’s ‘simmered beef with barley and spinach’ or if you prefer a male-pleasing serving of ‘turkey and bacon’. We also have an endearing ‘egg and bacon country platter’ for those with simpler tastes. If you would like heartier fare, there is a delightful ‘seared chicken’ dinner, and our ‘porter house steak’ is the definition of perfection. The ‘beef and chicken medley with green beans, carrots and wild rice’ of course is equally appetizing.”

That’s for dogs. Cats get girlie labels, stuff like “chicken soufflé with white meat and garden veggies,” a “flaked tuna and wild salmon pate,” and “tender beef” dinners. Dogs get food they can chop; cats get more delicate dishes. Clearly, there is species stereotyping going on. (Tuna for cats, by the way, is nine cents an ounce more than tuna for humans.)

These trends are absurd, and I suppose any appeal to rationality regarding pets will get lost. Don’t get me wrong: I have loved the dogs I’ve owned. But, being dogs, they came with all the pains as well as the pleasures of owning them. They brought happiness and unreserved affection to my life and sometimes constant aggravation. I am hardly one to go overboard in my fondness for a pet. Still, I agree with Martin Luther. Contemplating the death of his little dog, Tölpel (said to be a pseudonym for“Dummkopf”), he said with conviction, though with no mention of cats, “Be thou comforted, little dog, thou too in Resurrection shall have a little golden tail.”

Russell E. Saltzman is a dean in the North American Lutheran Church and assistant pastor of St. Matthew’s Church in Riverside, Missouri. His latest book, Speaking of the Dead, was published last July by ALPB Books. His previous articles can be found here.

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More on: Public Life, Pets, Divorce

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