Don't get divorced - think of the dogs

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The Independent Online
Dogs feel the pain of divorce as much as children, say animal behaviourists.

The soaring divorce rate has led to a rise in the number of dogs and cats experiencing distress at the ending of a marriage. Dogs can become so upset that they wet their baskets and constantly beg for food.

David Appleby, a pet behaviour counsellor and practice representative of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC) says that a household riven by rows or a separation can lead a dog to demonstrate defensive behaviour, lethargy and in extreme cases self-mutilation.

"If the individual that the dog perceives to be the highest ranking person in the home leaves, then the dog may start to climb the social ladder of the pack. This can lead to behavioural problems especially if the owner that stays with the dog does not assert his or herself."

Jeri Omlobs, a psychiatrist in Cornwall and a member of APBC, has treated several cases in which dogs have suffered from stress due to their owners' separation and the disruption of their home life.

"Often the dog is just psychologically incompetent because people haven't trained them properly to be dogs on their own," she says. Ms Omlobs advises owners to maintain their regular routine whenever possible and not to use the dog as a pawn in the separation. "But it is still best sometimes to send the dog to a new home altogether."

The charity, Hearing Dogs for the Deaf, often takes in dogs which have lost their homes because of divorce and retrains them as guide dogs.

Most behaviourists believe that cats are less likely to suffer from stress during a divorce because they are more independent than dogs. But even cats can be traumatised.

"I have treated hundreds of cases of distressed pets over the last 36 years, very few of whom have been cats," says Dr Dennis Fetko, from San Diego. "Dogs are traumatised because they rely more heavily on the pack than cats do. They can also smell the departed family member, and see visual associations, such as a chair, but not the person. This leads to confusion and anxiety."

Peter Neville, a London vet,treats distressed dogs by trying to rebuild their confidence so they no longer rely on their owners as "an emotional crutch".

Mr Neville, who gives advice in divorce courts about the suitability of the owners for custody of their pets, recalls one such case in Cambridgeshire: "In the end we decided that the man should get custody, as he worked from home and could spend more time with the cat."