Getting custody of a child during a divorce is considered one of the most important parts of the separation proceedings to most divorcees. But, what does that mean for those couples who remain childless, yet share a pet? It is no secret that people love their pets and many cherish them as if they were children. This fact means pets are quickly producing another problem among divorcing couples.

Recently, there has been several headlines of couples breaking up and finding themselves fighting over who gets the dog or cat. For example, back in December the New York Post covered a story of a lesbian couple that embarked on a legal fight over their miniature dachshund. The dog came into the home after one of the woman bought the dog for her lover. The custody question turned into a landmark divorce case. Joey the dog became New York’s first matrimonial pet-custody case. The Judge in the case says he can’t believe it took this long for the issue to get legal attention.

“If judicial resources can be devoted to such matters as which party gets to use the Escalade as opposed to the Ferrari, or who gets to stay in the Hamptons house instead of the Aspen chalet, there is certainly room to give real consideration to a case involving a treasured pet,” Judge Matthew Cooper says.

The woman are still fighting over custody of the dog and will probably have to endure a long and costly legal battle. Despite this case, other states are reluctant to get involved in pet custody. Slowly, states are realizing that to many divorcing couples, pets need to be treated as humans in the legal proceedings to decide custody arrangements.

“The emergence of these court cases are a huge step for animal rights,” explains Michelle Paul, one of the leading San Diego divorce attorneys.  “For these couples, the pets are part of their families.”

So, what can a couple do to protect themselves and their pets in case a divorce becomes a reality? Just as couples sign a prenuptial agreement to protect financial assets, legal experts are now seeing the emergence of ‘pre-pups.” This slang word is used to describe the growing trend of pet custody decisions being added to prenuptial agreements. In fact, this new trend is making pet custody less of a property settlement issue. Most courts are debating on what is in the best interests of the animal. Which person is a better owner? Which person dedicates more finances or spare time to the animal?

Most pet owners are willing to always keep their pet’s best interest at heart, so it is surprising that this is such an issue.

“The fight over pet custody shows how difficult the divorce process can be,” Paul says. “It is the mentality of ‘if I can’t have it, no one can.’”

Battling for custody for the beloved family pet can be just as stressful as fighting for custody of a child. This is what draws many pet owners to sign an agreement to protect themselves from any possible legal fights in the future. These legally-binding documents explicitly detail what will happen to the pet in the case of a divorce.

This ‘pre-pup’ clause can save many separating couples from the conflict of deciding who gets the family pet. Many families believe their pets are more than just property, but instead another member of the family. This idea means courts can no longer treat pets as property, but instead must treat the issue as a traditional custody arrangement, much like a human child.

These ‘pre-pup’ agreements are more than just a statement of who gets Fido in the case of a divorce. Many couples are also making custody agreements and outlining exactly what will happen to the dear family pet. It is common to see visitation scheduling and even explanations on who will be responsible for vet visits, grooming, park outings and other basic needs of the animal.

While some may feel like these types of arrangements are over-the-top, there are several divorce cases that have proved these types of agreements can save plenty of heartache. A perfect example is the case of the aforementioned story of Joey the Daschund. If his owners had planned ahead, there would be no need for this long and expensive legal battle. Legal experts explain that it might be strange or uncomfortable to make plans for a divorce, but it can help alleviate any problems should the worst happen.

With more than 170 million dogs and cats living in American homes and an increasing divorce rate, it is inevitable that pet custody will soon be a common subject in divorce proceedings.