While state legislators in Michigan and Wisconsin have recently introduced laws to bridge the gap between family member and possession for couples arguing over pets, most U.S. states still have no firm rules about the issue, says Favre. "Some judges feel there’s no law that allows them to take into account the best interest of the animal, and they are constrained to do anything but treat them as property." Despite that constraint, pet custody cases have spanned the globe in recent years, popping up everywhere from South Africa to Australia and China, where a court ruled earlier this year that a woman could visit her Pekingese, Beibei, twice a week if she pays support to her ex-husband. Pets are more likely to be treated as property by courts if they are particularly valuable or unique, Hennenhoefer says, such as a purebred or show animal.
For pet owners moving on with their lives, introducing a new flame to a pet, as Gyllenhaal did with Witherspoon, can hurt the ex even more than the new boyfriend or girlfriend. "My ex-wife is seeing someone else now, so that upsets me that he’s stepping in and taking my place with the cats," Ryan says. "It’s ridiculous, but it’s true. I feel like they’ve got a stepfather now, and I don’t really like that."