Thursday, February 10, 2011

When Pets Come Between Partners

HomeAgain Newsletter- February 2011

When Brad Sender and his wife, Kim, of Austin, Texas, returned from their honeymoon and moved into their new condo, Kim’s English Cocker Spaniel, Roxy, refused to let Brad into the master bedroom. The dog growled and bared his teeth. Roxy declined to give up his place on the bed next to Kim, and Brad spent his first post-honeymoon night on the couch.

Cat owner Nancy Golden of Bedford, Massachusetts, had a similar experience when she met and married the man of her dreams, Jim Storms. Her long-time feline soul mate, CG, was furious at Jim’s intrusion and went on a hunger strike, crying piteously for hours.

“Jealous pets are a very common problem,” says animal behaviorist Dr. Nicholas H. Dodman, author of the best-selling book “If Only They Could Speak” and director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in Grafton, Massachusetts.

“I believe that animals are thinking, attentive beings capable of complicated emotions such as jealously and guilt. Consequently, they can manipulate and carry out attention-seeking behaviors, knowing the results will alter their owner’s conduct for their benefit.”

Bring in the Pet Shrink

Animal behaviorists are often called in to act as family counselors and use behavioral modification techniques to try and resolve situations involving the family dog or cat. Sometimes they even prescribe the pet mood-altering medications to deal with the type of human-animal triangle that embroiled both the Senders and the Storms.

The use of psychotropic drugs for pets is very controversial. Many veterinarians and behaviorists consider it trendy and unnecessary. Dodman believes, however, that without these new and developing treatments there would be an even greater number of animals abandoned at shelters or euthanized.

“The drugs can be used short term to get a pet around a sharp corner, or more or less indefinitely,” he says.

Who’s Really the Jealous One?

New York psychologist and psychoanalyst Dr. Joel Gavriele-Gold, PhD, points out that the pet owners are often a major contributing factor to a problematic human-pet triangle, usually without realizing it. The fact that so many innocent animals are given up to shelters under veiled excuses like, “My dog doesn’t like my new husband,” or “My girlfriend doesn’t like the cat,” prompted him to write his book, “When Pets Come Between Partners,” outlining the power play involved in many human-animal relationships.

“Jealous pets are a very real problem, but sometimes the animal is merely the catalyst for bringing out other unresolved psychological issues,” explains Dr. Gavriele-Gold. “When people are starting out together and one person demands that the other’s cat or the dog go, this is only the beginning of issues that are going to get much deeper and worse in other parts of the relationship. People tend to dump their own personal issues on their pets, and the animals wind up looking as if they’re the problem, when, in fact, they’re not.”

“I had a client who had moved to New York from New England with his wife and a mutt named Fred,” says Dr. Gavriele-Gold. “The couple was fighting and the husband blamed Fred, saying the dog couldn’t settle down in the city because he missed his girlfriend in New England. In the end, the couple got divorced and the husband went back to his girlfriend in the country, taking Fred with him!”

Another typical jealousy-fueled scenario is when two people each bring their own pets to a relationship. It’s sometimes difficult for the animals to get along.

“Pets, like people, react differently to different situations,” says Dodman. “Some see all changes as a threat, others see an opportunity. When it comes to dogs, this is a matter of personality rather than breed.”

Dodman evaluates cats on their alertness, sociability, and equability. “A cat that is active, very sociable, and equable is a dog,” he jokes.

If you have a pet that is having trouble adapting to changes in the household, ask your veterinarian to recommend a certified behaviorist or contact the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants at or the American Veterinary Medical Association at

Books like Dr. Gavriele-Gold’s “When Pets Come Between Partners” (Howell Book House), and “If Only They Could Speak” by Dr. Nicholas H. Dodman (W.W. Norton and Company) are also excellent resources.

Sandy Robins is an award-winning pet lifestyle writer. Her work appears regularly on,, and in various national and international publications. She is a member of the Dog Writers’ Association of America and the Cat Writers’ Association.

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