To my non-single clients, especially the young-and-in-love

I’ve been in relationships before that are just like yours. You met, fell in love, and eventually moved in together. Obviously the next step is to get a cat or a dog to add some more love to the home. You will get a bunny and you will name him George and you will love him and pat him and squeeze him. Love, love, love.

But… who will actually own that dog or cat? You? Or your BF/GF? Or both? If you aren’t legally married, this can be a nightmare to determine.

This really becomes important when the almost-inevitable happens – you and your significant other break up. And statistically, this this is more likely to happen than not (sorry). At that point, who does Max go to live with?

At our veterinary hospital we’ve dealt with this situation many times (lots of people split up, oddly enough). Max’s owner is listed as Green, say, and the “other person with decision-making authority”  is listed as Blue. (In many veterinary software programs there is only one filed for owner name, and a field for spouse/significant other/relative. Usually the first person to bring the pet in is listed as the “owner”.) There is a breakup, everyone accuses everyone of cheating, it’s a hot mess, and Blue currently has possession Max. Green wants the dog back, stating that they own him, not Blue.

Believe me, no vet wants to get in the middle of deciding who owns this dog. Our records are ambiguous at best. Although the first name on the file is Green, both Green and Blue have been in separately and together as a couple over many years dealing with the dog. Neither objected to the other’s ability to care for the dog, make decisions, or pay the bills over the period of time they were together, so we have no idea which of the two legally owns the dog.

As a veterinarian this has a great deal of importance. I need to know. I have an ethical obligation to protect the confidentiality of the records, and to ensure that I have informed consent from the legal owner for everything I do for a patient.

The dilemma for the veterinarian becomes one of authority and records ownership. If Blue brings the dog in to be neutered, but I know that Green didn’t want to have that surgery done, whose decision “wins”? When the dog goes to another clinic, does Blue have the authority to make a  request for the dog’s medical records? Will Green sue the clinic for breach of confidentiality if the records are released, because he’s Green’s dog and Green is the only one who can say what happens with those records? I am going to stay far away from this particular fight.

If you obtain pets as a couple, things are very murky and legal ownership may ultimately be decided by such factors as whose credit card the adoption fee or initial purchase went on, whose name is on the municipal licensing paperwork, or who can prove that they paid more of the bills for the pet. The amount of love you have for the animal probably won’t even play into it.

In the end, if the split is acrimonious and you two can’t figure it out, your vet will need some kind of official (maybe legal) document from one or both of you that states who owns the dog. This might come in the form of a court decision or divorce documents or separation agreements that address custody of the pets. Sometimes one of the parties will write a letter saying they relinquish all claims on the pet, which from the vet’s point of view is fine. It doesn’t have to be lawyerish and expensive, just crystal clear.

So… think carefully. If you already own an animal it’s fine if you give your GF or BF the authority to bring him in to the vet and even to make some decisions about the pet’s care. But have a conversation with someone at the vet clinic to make sure that you are listed as the ultimate decision-maker and have the only legal claim on on the pet’s medical information, and that their authority does not extend to euthanasia decisions, for example.*

It’s so cynical and anti-good-feeling, but if you and a girlfriend or boyfriend are getting a pet “together”, take pains to make it clear that really only one of you is the legal owner of the pet. This is kind of a hard/awkward conversation to have with someone, because you are basically planning in case of a breakup. Nonetheless, you should have it. And the lawyer-y side of me says to get that in writing.

Some quotes from a semi-relevant discussion on reddit:

My ex of 6 years and I bought a dog together about 3 years in. When we broke up, that was totally the saddest part, he has no idea why his master disappeared and never saw him again.

Just found out that he (the dog) passed away a couple weeks ago. I never got to say goodbye. Not gonna lie, I teared up at work when I saw it on facebook. I don’t miss that relationship at all, but man I miss that dog.

The worst part was that me and my ex gf picked out the dog together when he was a puppy and raised him together. Its heartbreaking that I don’t get to see the little guy anymore.

If you’ve lost a pet in a breakup, I’m really, really sorry. I can’t imagine anything sadder than losing both a significant human relationship and contact with an animal that I love. Frankly, by the time a breakup happens I’m sure I’d miss the pet a hell of a lot more than I’d miss the person. It must truly suck.

*There has been more than one case of “retaliatory euthanasia” reported. A couple breaks up and one party is so incensed that they decide to retaliate by having the pets euthanized. It’s an evil thing to do and you’d never imagine someone who theoretically loves an animal doing this, but people sometimes do inexplicable things, and worse, and worse.

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