(PETS) Divorce is never easy, but now more than ever it can turn into a cat fight–literally. With pet guardianship at an all time high, it’s becoming more likely that Spot or Fluffy will be a part of the battle.

Half of the accredited law schools in the United States, such as Harvard and Yale, offer courses in Animal Law that include pet custody. According to the Associated Press there has been a 15 percent  rise in pet custody cases over the last 5 years, with issues range from vet bills to visitation rights.

Right now every state in the U.S. considers pets property, but that doesn’t mean who ever bought Fido is going to get custody. Courts are slowly opening up to the idea of treating pets like family members. Often times judges will try to make a decision for the animal that seems to be in their best interest, regardless of who paid for or adopted them. If kids are involved in the custody battle, the children and pets are usually kept together, like siblings. While it’s great that animals are being taken care of in the legal sense, what about the feelings of the other involved parties – pet guardians? Is it really best for it to come down to a decision made in a court room or are there alternatives?

Making a plan for your pet’s future in the event of a split or divorce is often a good way to avoid the courtroom later. The goal is to keep animal family members from becoming victims of the divorce or being used as a way to retaliate against a spouse. Pets are very in tune with our emotions and are sensitive to changes in family atmosphere. Chances are, they know their guardians are fighting, and it stresses them out. The sooner the issue is resolved peacefully, the better. Often, the best choice for both the pet and the guardian is a shared custody arrangement, although making sure the pet is acclimated to the new house is always important before leaving them alone.

Some basic guidelines to follow are to always put the welfare of your pet first. Make financial arrangements to cover all costs that might arise, and do not use your pet as punishment against an ex. And although every family is different, the decision should always be made with the same unconditional love and respect your pet has for you.

— Elisabeth Torres, exclusive to Global Animal