London, July 21 : Lawyers in the U.S. are reporting a sharp rise in the number of custody battles - not for access to children but for the right to look after family pets.
American courts are now regularly ruling on what should happen to dogs in divorce cases, making heart-wrenching decisions on which partner will get custody of the animal.
"The incidents seem to be increasing markedly and judges are having to deal with them," the Telegraph quoted Joyce Tischler of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, as saying.
"Sometimes the couple is using the dog in the same way that the children sometimes get used, as a way to keep the relationship going, but at other times they are fighting because animals are considered family now," Tischler added.
One such case is Jennifer Keene, who not only faced the collapse of her marriage but dealt with the trauma of breaking up their canine family too.
She and her husband were the proud owners of Moxxy, an Australian cattle dog, and Sixxy, a pointer mix. As part of their divorce settlement, they agreed to take one dog each.
However, the experience was so depressing that the dog trainer from Beaverton in Oregon wrote a book to help other couples going through the same experience, 'We Can't Stay Together for the Dogs'.
"This is a traumatic decision for some people. Almost half of all divorces each year involve dogs," Keene said.
"When my husband and I divorced, it was clear we had to do the best for our two dogs. Each of them was attached to one of us, so we split the pack. It would have been more traumatic to separate them from their human friend than from one other," she added.
However, she warned that this is often not the best solution.
"Pet parents must work together. You've got to communicate, compromise and always put the dog first. Dogs get distressed when there is conflict. It can lead to behaviour and health problems," she added.
Robert Fennessy, a lawyer from Walpole, Massachusetts, said: "Often it's the animals that engender the highest emotional response between the parties. Even more so if it's a childless couple, and the animal then becomes the child.
"In young, short-term marriages sometimes the only property of value is the pet that they both acquired. The pet gets stuck in the middle," he added.
Lorrie Elliot, an animal lawyer from Seattle, Washington state, said: "It would be much better if we had a law that said animals are more than property."