Tag Archives: pets

Sit… Stay? When It’s Fido Or You.

A recent British psychology research study found, on average, couples fight about pet related concerns three times a week. Based on the average lifespan of a dog, that is more than 2000 arguments. Over 17% of the couples admitted that the arguments were significant enough that one or the other slept in the guest-room. Dealing with allergies, cleanliness, and overall sensitivities to pets and their behavior(s) were among the most significant areas of strife.

Reasons why pets may come between a couple:
Pets are a source of strong emotional connection, often pre-dating the start of new couple relationships

  • During the pandemic, in the face of loneliness, uncertainty, and quarantines, there was a significant uptick in animal adoptions. Not just during pandemic years, people report feeling significantly less alone at times of distress when they have companion animals.
  • Pets are good for medical health; they force people to get out of the house and take a walk, run errands to get food and supplies, and keep to routines essential for animal care.
  • Pets are great for mental health. A synopsis of studies on depression and suicidal thoughts indicates the following “perfect storm“ – feeling like a burden to others; feeling isolated; feeling hopeless/useless about the future. Having a pet can make people feel needed, loved, appreciated, and more structured on a daily basis.

As such, people may become a new couple in conjunction with an important pre-existing relationship… with a pet; a print by artist Stephen Huneck titled ménage a trois depicts a couple in bed with a large Retriever sprawled between them.  A male client recently told me after a series of hurtful arguments with his new wife about his love for his dog: “My pup was there for me when nobody else was. She is also my family.”

Pet problems spotlight deeper relationship issues 
Pets can become an area of compromise, acceptance, or non-negotiation. It’s not uncommon as a couples therapist to hear that an engagement or relationship ended because of disagreements over companion animals. Points of contention include shedding, licking, jumping up, pouncing, biting, accidents in the house, barking, begging or stealing food,  sleep disruptions, chewing, delegation of responsibilities, and odors.

While many of these concerns are certainly legitimate, they can usually be addressed with training, implementing household rules, and setting boundaries. When they cannot be addressed through training, couples therapy, or ongoing communication, it may speak to deeper-seated issues. Pet related conflicts can be based on cultural, family, religious, and individual differences in personal relationships with animals. In the United States, nearly 40% of pet owners describe their companion animal as their child, family member, or best friend.  However, many people grew up without pets, or in households or families where pets were present but not treated as “part of the family”.

Pets can create jealousy

In a 2018 survey conducted by Purina, it was found that half of all female dog owners say they would rather spend more time with their dog than their partner. Over 50% of individuals reported they turn to their pets as the primary source for emotional comfort during times of stress. At times, this can cause some feelings of resentment in human companions if time, attention, and financial resources are going to the pet rather than the partner.

Pets can spark financial arguments
Pets can be expensive. From standard veterinary care and medication, training, to the astronomical costs of medical emergencies, food, walkers and pet sitters, grooming, doggie day care, caring for aging animals and their needs, to treats, toys, outfits, and every type of accoutrement, the companion animal product and veterinary industry is increasing exponentially. Couples may not always agree on the appropriate amount of financial output for pets, from medical bills to cleaning requirements.

Spontaneity and event planning may suffer
Spontaneous outings, staying late at a party, taking a vacation, working late, and scheduling activities and events are all affected by having pets.

Pets require ongoing responsibility (both time and labor)
After returning from work, dogs have to be walked, animals have to be fed, kitty litter has to be changed. Pets require attention. These time sensitive commitments can be difficult for couples who are not used to building that into their day.

Pets can get in the way of intimacy
A questionnaire to 1,000 adults by Harris Poll found that over 70% of pet owners allow their pets to sleep on the bed. So that leaves about 30% of pet owners who don’t. If you’re someone who needs your pet there with you to sleep, it can cause an issue between you and your partner if they’re not into it.

What to do?
Practice Good Communication
If you’re starting a new relationship, take time to discuss your values regarding pets. If having an indoor cat or a dog that sleeps in your bed is important to you, you’ll need to ensure your partner shares these values or risk ending up in conflict. If you’re already in an established relationship, it’s time to begin communicating clearly and openly. Don’t get a new pet without consulting with your partner and getting their consent.

Get specific with the problem
When there’s conflict over pets, getting specific about the problem can help you figure out a solution. If your husband complains about your dog constantly or your wife snaps at your cat, you might assume that the pet is the problem or that your partner hates your pet. But a change as simple as teaching your dog not to beg or keeping your cat off the desk could remedy the issue. If you’re the pet lover, ask your partner specifically what the issue is and what would fix it. And if you’re the one resenting your partner’s pet, be clear about what you need to feel better.

Consult and expert
A poorly trained dog or aggressive cat can be frustrating to everyone, but the person who brought the pet into the relationship can sometimes feel more defensive. If your partner is annoyed by a specific behavior such as excessive mouthing, jumping, or scratching, it’s time to call an expert. A trainer can work with you to make your pet a more mannerly member of the family, and a veterinarian can help you uncover hidden health problems that could contribute to annoying behavior.

Accept differences
You and your partner don’t have to agree about everything. You may find that one of you is simply less in love with your pets than the other. As long as your partner isn’t abusive toward animals, they do not have to feel forced to cuddle with them.

Do the work
If you’re the one who brought the pet into the relationship, be prepared to do a little extra work. There’s no reason your partner has to love your pets as much as you do, or even spend as much time caring for them. As long as you can strike a fair balance that ensures your pet’s needs are met, consider giving your partner a pass on pet duties.

Related post: Teens and Their Dogs.

Pet Mental Health and the Return to Work

How do I prepare my pet for my absence?
Animal shelters and breeders across the country have reported record numbers of dog and cat adoptions in recent months. Our animal companions have been steadfast for us through our many months of worry, working from home, and uncertainty. What happens when our work routines change, sometimes abruptly?

The Problem With Sudden Changes In Routine
A change in routine, such as suddenly being alone for many hours every day, is a major cause of separation anxiety for dogs and cats.

Separation anxiety is more than a little whimpering when you head out the door. It’s major, unwanted behavior that happens every time you leave or are away. For dogs and cats, this can mean excessive pacing, barking or howling, whimpering or self-grooming as you get ready to leave. In some cases it can mean urinating or defecating around the house, often in places where scents linger, such as on bedding or rugs, or destroying household items in your absence. Extreme clinginess or neediness is another symptom.

What To Do. And Not.
First, it’s important to understand that it’s not about you. Animals don’t act out of spite. Instead, it’s a signal of extreme distress and frustration that should be approached like any other psychological symptom. Your pet doesn’t want to experience separation anxiety any more than you want to.
For this reason, scolding is NEVER the answer. For one thing, your pet won’t connect the punishment with something that happened hours or even a few minutes earlier. And punishment may only exacerbate your pet’s anxiety and stress.

Similarly, going to the opposite extreme by praising or giving affection when your pet is suffering anxiety also will make the problem worse. The goal is to create a balanced relationship so your pet tolerates being alone. First, get your pet checked out by a veterinarian to rule out physical conditions, such as a urinary tract infection if your pet urinates in inappropriate places.

Next, make sure your pet gets plenty of exercise and mental stimulation. For dogs, this may mean a long or brisk walk every day. Getting exercise shortly before you leave the house may put your dog in a more relaxed state while you’re gone. It’s harder to feel stressed when the endorphin levels are elevated.

Start by leaving the house more frequently, increasing the duration each time. This will help your pet get used to the idea of you being away, and that you always come back.

Don’t underestimate your pet’s ability to learn and recognize details in your daily routine. If you normally wear certain clothes for work, carry a particular work bag, or give them a special treat before leaving, begin these “rituals” again as we leave for our excursions.

Our pets’ walks or mealtimes may have been shifted because we were home more. Maybe we slept longer or napped, went on more walks to get out of the house, or maybe ate dinner later or stayed up late watching movies. Reinstitute your pet’s old walking and meal times. Resist the urge to feed them, take them on a walk, or take them outside to play during hours you will normally be at work. Keep to a routine as much as possible.

Treating Separation Anxiety With Behavior Therapy
We are talking about your behavior not the pup. The goal is to make your absence seem like no big deal. Making a fuss over your pet when you leave or arrive home only makes matters worse. If you treat it like it’s routine, your pet will learn to do the same. I get my stuff together and calmly walk out the door. I don’t say goodbye to the puppies.

Try to figure out when your pet starts to show signs of anxiety and turn that into a low-key activity. If it’s when you pick up your handbag, for example, practice picking it up and putting it back down several times over a few hours. Similarly, get dressed or put on your shoes earlier than usual but stay home instead of leaving right away. Try starting your car’s engine and then turning it off and walking back inside.

Next, practice short absences. When you’re at home, make it a point to spend some time in another room. In addition, leave the house long enough to run an errand or two, then gradually increase the time that you’re away so that being gone for a full day becomes part of the routine.

Changing The Environment
Boredom makes separation anxiety worse. Providing an activity for your pet while you’re gone, such as a puzzle toy stuffed with treats, or simply hiding treats around the house will make your absence less stressful. Other options for dogs and cats include collars and plug-in devices that release calming pheromones.

To maintain your bond while you’re gone, place a piece of clothing that you have worn recently in a prominent place, such as on your bed or couch, to comfort your pet. Give them their favorite blanket. Similarly, you can leave the TV or radio on – there are even special programs just for pets – or set up a camera so you can observe and interact with your pet remotely.

Separation anxiety is a real thing, and as our routines change in the months to come, we can help transition our furry companions.

Teens and Their Dogs

Pets and teenagers, a natural connection. Having a companion animal has been shown to have significant mental health benefits for teenagers, especially girls, who often identify their dog or cat as their primary confidante.

Some of the research:

– Pets reduce loneliness
A 2018 study, published in the PNAS Journal, showed that pets reduced adolescent loneliness and social isolation, and helped kids feel they had a friend, especially if they lived in a city.  In the study, teens told dogs their secrets, talked to them, and cuddled with them.

-Pets provide emotional intimacy
A pet helps tweens and teens build empathy, particularly if the pet is hungry, sick, scared of thunderstorms or fireworks, or injured. Having a cat or dog to come home to, cuddle with, cry on, and play with provides teens with unconditional love and a safe space for emotional intimacy, particularly during the chaotic tween and teen years. In fact, one 2018 study in the Journal of Applied Development Psychology reported that children often feel closer to pets than their own siblings.

-Pets increase health and wellness
A 2017 study in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing reported that just a 10 minute visit with a pet reduced the stress hormone cortisol in teenagers. Imagine then, how having a pet around all the time affects longterm health.
The study showed that when you are in the presence of a pet you feel bonded and attached to, blood pressure decreases and respiration becomes more steady.

-Pets provide the benefits of physical touch
In 2012, the journal Frontiers of Psychology linked petting animals to the release of oxytocin in humans. This release reduces stress and increases feelings of well-being for pet owners.  Petting animals also reduces cortisol levels, the stress hormone.

-For long term social and emotional benefits
A 2019 study in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology observed that girls had a stronger response to having a pet, and may need the pet even more than boys during their turbulent teen years.

Embolden Psychology

Embolden offers the ADOS-2, the gold standard assessment for kids on the spectrum.

Combined with psychoeducational testing, it helps provide comprehensive information and recommendations to help children and teens six and up.

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