Is your jealous pet ruining your relationship?

Pets often demand a lot of care and attention – and this can put a strain on other relationships in your life. We take a look at what to do when your pet becomes a green-eyed monster. From the PetPeople magazine archive

When your dog insists that you cuddle up to him and not your new partner, or your cat disappears in a huff every time your partner shows their face, it could be down to a case of pet jealousy.

The problem of jealous pets is now of such sensitivity that Battersea Dogs & Cats Home have offered their advice to pet owners about how to best to bring your pet and new partner together. 'Jealous pets can be a deal-breaker for relationships, especially in the early stages,' says Pat Moore, Battersea's behaviour unit manager. 'Over-compensating by mollycoddling them doesn't work either, because it only reinforces jealous behaviour and exacerbates the problem further.'

Emotional emergency
Most domestic animals are instinctively attention-seeking, and all too aware that they can influence their owner's behaviour to their benefit. Similarly, they can develop disruptive behaviours if they believe that your undivided attention is under threat from a new member of the group, your new partner or, notoriously, a new baby.

'The problem is not jealousy as such,' explains psychologist Janetta Smith. 'That's a human emotion we tend to ascribe to animals. It is a case of having taken away something that your pet is used to having – undivided attention – and your pet not being able to rationalise why that has happened. That leads to stress and sometimes boredom. The best solution to jealousy is to take the emphasis away from the owners and provide other sources of stimulation.'

Certainly the problem is now taken more seriously than in previous decades. Science continues to debate just how much thinking, feeling and planning various animals are capable of. But last year studies by Dr Paul Morris at the University of Portsmouth provided some evidence to suggest that the emotional range of dogs, at least, is broader than most people realise. His research suggests that they not only feel the so-called 'primary emotions' of anger, anxiety and surprise, but also more complex responses such as embarrassment, guilt and, yes, jealousy.

Social withdrawal and loss of appetite are common, if usually short-term, signs of jealousy. But the situation should not be ignored, because the consequences can be serious, with long-term adverse effects both on a couple's relationship and the animal's wellbeing.

Enter the rabbit
These problems of attention, or rather lack of it, can also arise when a new animal, rather than a new human partner, enters the domestic domain. According to David Ryan, chairman of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, our domestic pets rarely make any distinctions around whatever it is that prompts their 'resource protection behaviour', as the experts call it.

'Another animal, or even a new thing, can be as much a perceived threat as a new partner,' says David. 'I've known for a reaction to occur if the phone rings or the television goes on. One lady had a dog that would bite her feet whenever it heard the theme to Coronation Street. It's never vindictiveness and the problems tend to pass by themselves – as long as the owners don't mishandle the situation. Dogs and cats are pretty good at working out new relationships and circumstances over time. It's why we can live with them.'

Indeed, sometimes the problem is not with the animal at all. Relationship counsellors also advise asking the question: is your pet the problem or merely a pawn in your problematic human relationship? Arguments between new partners can centre on how much attention a pet gets, hygiene issues and how much money is spent on their upkeep. And small wonder when, for example, according to an American Animal Hospital Association survey, 72 per cent of pet owners greet their pet first when they return home, 43 per cent have given their pet a present – wrapped, that is – and 36 per cent allow their pet to sleep in their bed.

Strange bedfellows
'What does that say for the intimacy of your new relationship if your dog still sleeps in the middle of the bed?' asks Christine Northam, a relationship counsellor. 'In any new relationship that involves a dog or a cat, some kind of adjustment is usually required. But couples need to be quite self-aware to spot when the real issue is not their animal's behaviour but their own regard for it.'

Problems with a person's regard for their pet, rather than problems caused by the pet, are a product of the rapidly changing nature of our relationship with animals, argues Phillip Hodson, fellow of the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy. Less than a century ago, animals were more often put to work, or readily used to human ends. The relatively new idea of the domesticated pet for pleasure means that we now often treat pets with the attention more typically reserved for children.

For some, a relationship with an animal – which is often a blend of dependency, perceived reliability, constant companionship, warmth and comfort – can be easier to comprehend and live with than the complexities and uncertainties of human relationships. 'However, I often remind cat-loving clients that if their cat was 10 times bigger, it would eat them,' jokes Phillip.

'Domestic pets now are almost family members, and sometimes the love that should or might be shown to a human partner goes to the animal,' he adds. 'If, ultimately, someone puts a pet's needs over those of their human partner, the relationship risks being up the creek without a paddle.

'The question to ask in these instances is, if you could feel about a human the way you feel about your pet, would your life be improved? That is what people in these situations need to remember.'

By Josh Sims
Originally published in issue 4 of PetPeople, the Petplan customer magazine