Breaking up is hard to do: the rise of the petnup

·6-min read
<p>Animal magic: Andrea Pugh with Bella</p> (Matt Writtle)

Animal magic: Andrea Pugh with Bella

(Matt Writtle)

When Jodie Weston and her ex-boyfriend bought Samuel together, he introduced a sense of energy and love to the home. Her stepdad had taken her childhood labrador, Sandy, four years earlier, leaving Weston heartbroken and longing for a pet to fill that hole. No dog could replace Sandy, so Weston bought a python.

“As soon as I saw a picture our hearts just melted,” says Weston, 27, a DJ from Beckenham. They had 10 happy months with Samuel — but it was not to be. Weston and her partner decided to separate and Samuel became an unexpected point of tension.

“You get a pet intending to be together forever... you never think about what will happen if you split up,” says Weston. “It got pretty messy and we were arguing for a while.” They tried joint custody, having the snake for a week at a time. Then his ex met someone else. “She didn’t like him sharing a snake with another girl, so we decided to give him to a sanctuary,” says Weston.

“I would definitely consider a petnup [a prenuptial or separation agreement specifically for pets] next time. I didn’t even know something like that existed, but it makes total sense.”

You’ve heard of the pre-nup — but now the pet-nup is on the rise. And while it might sound like the definition of a first-world problem — for the couples involved, it can get emotional (and expensive). Put simply, a petnup usually involves the drafting of a contractual agreement outlining the arrangements for a pet in the event that a couple separates. It tends to include who the pet will live with, what contact it will have with the non-owner and who will pay for the upkeep. Drafting one can cost between £500 and £1,500, plus VAT, depending on the complexity. They’re most common among dog and cat owners (followed by horses, rabbits and guinea pigs, according to the latest statistics), but the circumstances of Weston’s snake struggle are familiar to many couples. According to The Law Society, one in four divorces now involves a dispute over an animal. And Amber Heard and Johnny Depp’s bitter divorce involved a battle over who would keep their two Yorkshire terriers (Heard won).

And as the pandemic put pressure on relationships it forced many couples to start thinking about custody of the pet. According to data from Richard Nelson LLP, dog custody enquiries were up 50 per cent during lockdown and experts are predicting a post-pandemic petnup boom (animal charity Blue Cross has a free petnup document you can download on its website). Nelson says enquiries for April 2021 were up 239 per cent since August last year.

Jodie Weston’s python, which ended up at a sanctuary (Handout)
Jodie Weston’s python, which ended up at a sanctuary (Handout)

A recent survey found 15 per cent of pet owners are more smitten with their pet than their partner. Pet grief counsellor Julie Wood says custody is often seen as the worst part of a divorce, above the house or assets.

“Trying to get joint custody of our beagle was the worst thing I did with my ex,” says writer Almara Abgarian, while Anna-Louise Dearden, 47, a senior content designer at MindGym, insists saying goodbye to her labernese, Stella, each week can be harder than saying goodbye to her teenagers. “Because she doesn’t go off to her room for hours on end”.

Author and entrepreneur Angelica Malin says that watching others go through a custody battle has left her nervous for future relationships. “My friends ended their engagement very badly and couldn’t have a clean break,” she explains. “They had to see each other every other week to hand the dog over... eventually they had to get a dog walker as a mediator.”

For others, custody doesn’t even reach a decision stage. “She said she’d sold them but it turns out she’d given them to the neighbours,” says Keith Grinsted, founder of loneliness support group Goodbye Lonely, who’s ex-wife gave away his two parrots at the same time she revealed she was cheating (ouch).

Mike Bourton with one of his two dalmatians (Handout)
Mike Bourton with one of his two dalmatians (Handout)

Consultancy executive Mike Bourton had an equally traumatic experience with his ex-partner of seven years. When she told him she was having another man’s baby and leaving him, he let her take their dalmatians because they were brother and sister and he didn’t want to split them up. “It was agonising, they were everything I’d ever wanted”. Patch and Misty had lived with the couple at their flat near Earl’s Court. Bourton believed keeping the dogs together was the right decision at the time, but two weeks later he discovered his ex had given the dogs away. “That just broke me,” he remembers, still emotional. “I could forgive everything else, but I could never forgive her for what she did with the dogs.”

Bourton says he saw the dogs like family members, but the law doesn’t see it that way. Unlike children, pets are still legally considered “chattel” — similar to a car or computer — meaning there are no visiting rights and lawyers normally consider the owner to be who paid for the pet, aside from practical care arrangements or emotional attachment.

“A judge will not be interested who takes the dog on better walks or gives him the better belly rubs,” says Theo Hoppen, a partner at Langley Solicitors. “They are unlikely to get involved in arranging visiting hours, financial support or any other decisions pet owners feel need to be made.” A petnup, therefore, is an increasingly popular “preventative measure”, says Hoppen, especially considering that Bourton’s experience is reflective of a wider gender disparity when it comes to custody.

 (Handout)
(Handout)

According to animal charity Blue Cross, 56 per cent of cases see the wife or girlfriend keep the pet, while just 29 per cent of men retain full ownership after a split. When children are involved it becomes even more complicated. “She was like a living comfort blanket for the girls,” says Andrea Pugh, 35, founder of sustainable shopping platform It Won’t Cost The Earth. When she and her husband Steve divorced four years ago, they agreed that their whippet, Bella, would travel between their homes alongside daughters Harriet, 11, and Sophie, nine. Bella was an “anchor” for the girls during a time of upheaval, but Steve’s new partner didn’t like the agreement so the dog now lives with Pugh full-time. The decision is technically against the petnup.

Not only is prioritising the pet’s wellbeing the right thing to do, but it can also improve relations with an ex, says Dearden. “It’s made us calmer and more civil with each other,” she says of sharing custody of Stella with her ex-partner for the last three years.

Dearden now has a direct debit into her ex-partner’s account to help with vet bills, but can see how pet custody could get heated when finances are involved if the couple doesn’t have a formal petnup agreed. Entrepreneur Harriet, 41, has experienced this first-hand. “He only messages about the money,” she says of her ex-husband, who left her with four of their five dogs in February. “We’re going through mediation at the moment, splitting everything 50/50, but the dogs aren’t included. I’m sure that as soon as the divorce goes through, he’ll stop paying the insurance and food.”

Weston is now considering buying a new dog, but admits the experiences with her ex was deeply traumatising. Would she take out a petnup next time? “Definitely. Dogs can live for 15 years... not many relationships survive 15 years these days.”