Millions of animal lovers will be pampering their pets during national pet month which started last week. Kevin Harris-James looks at the impact of the rise in divorce rates on the wellbeing of pets.

In the Midlands more than 50 per cent of us dedicate time and money to caring for a pet. But, when married pet-owners face relationship breakdown, often much-loved animals that are treated as part of the family can be found at the centre of a difficult break-up.

Pets are increasingly becoming a bone of contention for those in the middle of a separation and the situation is affecting a wide range of people, from retirees whose children have left the nest to same-sex partners, to couples with young children.

Divorce is a hard enough process to go through without pets being involved. We are seeing a definite increase in the number of cases where the family dog, cat or horse has become a real sticking point. Often they provide an easy way to vent personal frustrations that would not otherwise surface.

The law regards a pet as an asset that must be divided following divorce but unlike the family car or computer things often become much more complicated because with animals, like all other matters of the heart, it’s obviously very emotional.

The following measures are recommended to keep pet stress and disruption to a minimum:

Plan ahead – include your wishes in relation to caring for the family pet in any pre- or post-nuptial agreements you have had drawn up with your spouse. Solicitors can easily add in any animals bought during the marriage. This will manage both parties’ expectations as to how things will work in the event of a break-up.

Be practical –– consider your living arrangements and working hours. The pet must be kept in suitable accommodation and adequate time devoted to caring, walking and spending leisure time together. The pet must be as loved as it was pre-separation.

Be realistic – pets can be expensive and vets bills, health insurance and food can all add up. Ensure whatever happens that these can be maintained.

Stay calm – do not shout or argue in front of your pets as they are very sensitive to raised voices and may become frightened and nervous.

Be open to alternative arrangements – try to be amicable where possible and negotiate sharing care and contact. A legal agreement can be drawn up to agree visiting rights and joint custody so that both parties can retain a healthy relationship with the animal.

Avoid separation from children where possible – bonds between children and their pets are very strong and can provide very important stability and comfort for both pet and child when other things are changing.

Following this advice will help ensure pets and their owners will continue to enjoy time together despite the changes.

* Kevin Harris-James is a partner and head of family law at the Midlands offices of law firm Irwin Mitchell.