Making Peace With Your Partner’s Pets

If “man’s best friend” strikes terror in your heart or you can’t stomach kitty litter, should you date an animal lover? Below, we explain how to make things work without raising any hackles.

By Susan Johnston

ou’ve finally found someone who’s smart, attractive and appreciates your quirks. The only trouble is, you can’t stand his or her pet. Maybe Fido has a habit of chewing everything he can get his furry paws on, or Fifi leaves cat hair all over the house, or Myrtle the turtle just plain creeps you out. As much as you want to move
I think it’s definitely important to bring it up early.
the relationship forward and build a life together, your vision of domestic bliss doesn’t include another person’s furry (or scaly) friends.

Is it time to issue an ultimatum? Not so fast! A 2010 poll conducted by the Associated Press and asked 1,500 people which one they’d choose if they were forced to pick between their significant other and their pet; 14 percent of respondents prioritized pets above their partners.

Alisa Bowman, relationship expert and author of Project: Happily Ever After, says that disagreements over pets come up more often than many people realize. “In addition to spending time with a pet, it becomes part of your life, unlike a hobby,” she explains. Bowman adds that, in addition to causing feelings of jealousy over the time and attention lavished on a pet, it can also prove to be problematic when one person has a large animal that makes the other person feel unsafe. However, it is possible for a reluctant animal person to make peace with a partner’s pet, regardless of whether it’s included as part of the initial dating package or comes up later on. Read on for some tips from experts and real-life couples who overcame this issue in their own relationships.

Don’t wait too long to bring it up
If you’re really uncomfortable with animals (or even allergic), you may be tempted to stay mum at first and see how the relationship progresses. Unfortunately, that can complicate things later when you’re emotionally invested but haven’t yet considered the logistics of building a future together. “Don’t let it drag on,” urges Kiai Kim, coauthor of the cheekily titled AlphaDog, Get The Bitch You Want: A Man’s Guide to Dating by a Woman. “I think it’s definitely important to bring it up early, like within the first three months of the relationship. Don’t even think about moving in together if you have trouble with someone’s pet.”

Bowman suggests framing things as a chance for you to problem-solve together rather than an opportunity for you to vent. “Voice it as a problem and say, ‘Can you help me find the solution?’” she emphasizes. Instead of letting her cat allergy ruin a budding romance, Erin O’Harra, 25, of San Francisco, CA moved in with her boyfriend and his silver tabby cat, Cap, after the boyfriend agreed to keep Cap’s bed and litter box in his attached garage. Now, Cap has the run of the house (except for the couple’s bedroom) during the day and stays in the garage at night. “He offered to send the cat to live with a relative, but I know how much he loves her — and I didn’t think it was fair to make him choose between us,” she says, adding that they “started discussing how to make the living situation work for all three of us before we even started looking for a new place.”

Discuss how you’ll handle any pet care responsibilities together
Just as couples fight over who does the dishes or leaves dirty socks on the floor, couples with pets sometimes argue over who should walk the dog or clean out the aquarium. When Rich Redman, 46, of Kent, WA was
Now we have to behave a bit differently towards each other.
engaged to his now-wife of 13 years, Joanna, the pair quarreled after she brought home a pair of sugar gliders (marsupials native to Australia). “Back then, she didn’t think about our shared responsibility,” he recalls. “She only thought about her love for these adorable animals. We had an argument about personal freedom versus our shared life.” Redman didn’t want to be saddled with another person’s pet-care duties, but he came to understand that having pets made his wife-to-be happy. The most recent addition to their home is a pygmy rabbit. “We talked about it, and we worked it out that she would take care of the rabbit,” he explains. “If it seemed like too much for her, we would find a rabbit adoption agency.” Redman has taken on some of responsibilities and says that he accepts them as part of being a husband. “When pets become an issue, couples should see it as an opportunity to talk about how each one of them sees their relationship,” he adds. “We both had to make adjustments.” She learned to consider how adopting these pets would impact their life as a couple, while he learned to accept their growing menagerie of animals as part of their marriage.

Consider hiring a behaviorist or animal trainer to help you adjust
Melissa Cassera, 31, of Marlton, NJ gained new confidence around Jake, her husband’s 50-pound Australian shepherd, with the help of a behaviorist. (Jake had previously belonged to Cassera’s late father-in-law and had aggressive tendencies.) Cassera didn’t even know that Jake was coming to live with them until the dog was about to be dropped off. “At the time, I was angry because [my husband] didn’t even consult me,” she says. “But he told me he wanted to keep the dog because he felt it was the one thing that would help him heal [from the loss of his father]. That really choked me up.”

The couple began working with a behaviorist who told her they shouldn’t keep the dog unless Cassera could learn to embrace him. So, Cassera committed herself to making the situation work. The behaviorist put her through a series of exercises — including putting her hand inside Jake’s mouth and walking him — to build trust with the animal. Cassera also learned how Jake’s behavior mirrors that of his owners. “Now we have to behave a bit differently towards each other,” she explains. “We can’t fight or freak out. We had to really change our own behaviors to help our dog behave better.” Cassera’s 31-year-old husband Gary, who’s now a dog trainer himself, says the experience strengthened their connection as a couple. “[Overcoming her fears] made her feel powerful,” he says. “That’s a very attractive quality in a relationship.” Though Melissa doesn’t spend as much time with Jake as Gary does, he doesn’t mind because he appreciates how she’s accepted Jake into their home.

Even if you don’t love a particular pet as much as your partner does, you can still admire his or her ability to care for another creature. As Bowman points out, “If someone’s compassionate with an animal, that person is probably going to be equally compassionate with you.”

Susan Johnston is a freelance writer who has written for The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, Parade, and many other publications.
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