New Couples: How to Keep the Pets and the Peace
Before you move in with someone, follow these steps so everyone gets along
By midlife, we’re usually pretty comfortable in our space and with our own lifestyle, and that can create some problems when we get serious about someone new. As a pet lover and blogger who’s “been there,” I’d like to address the sometimes complicated issue of moving in together and how to anticipate and resolve potential pet problems.
There are a few basic scenarios involving blending families with animals. In the ideal world, both people would feel the same way, and their pets would get along like the Brady Bunch. But what happens if your new partner has a cat that you’re allergic to? Or your dog growls each time he sees your fiancé? What if you both have pets that don't love each other the way you do?
Blending Families With Pets
“I come with cats.” That’s what I told my husband 23 years ago when we first met. Being with someone who doesn’t like animals — especially cats — was a deal breaker for me. Fortunately, he had grown up with cats, dogs and a horse and took to my two felines immediately. When he started staying over and would get up in in the middle of the night, my black cat, Gigolo, would sometimes jump up on the vacated pillow. When he returned, my guy knew not to disturb the cat, and I knew this man was a keeper.
When our last cat, Mr. Earl Gray, died at age 20, it was a blow to all of us, especially our 12-year-old son, who grew up with him. For a few months, our house was depressingly empty. But in mid-November, when my husband asked what I wanted for my birthday, I didn’t have to think about my answer. “You know exactly what I want.” But my dear husband wasn’t ready and needed more time to heal.
So unbeknownst to him, I started checking ads on Petfinder. When he’d walk into my office, I’d immediately click on another screen. A friend of mine calls it “kitty porn” — when you’re surfing websites for a pet, and as soon as your spouse walks in, you hide the screen.
I didn’t like keeping secrets from him, and after a couple weeks I confessed. I was thrilled that his response was, “Let’s look together.” Within two weeks, we adopted two adorable kittens.
(MORE: Longing for a Dog)
Dog Lover and Pet Hater
Not everyone is that lucky, however. Hoping love would conquer all, my neighbor Becky gave her dog to a friend when she moved in with her fiancé, who isn’t fond of animals (to say the least).
That was 10 years ago. They now have two children — but still no dog. Becky misses having a pet and constantly thinks about getting one for the kids. But her husband still won’t budge on the subject. He’s never had one and doesn’t want the responsibility.
This is tricky; Becky could try to talk (or guilt) him into getting a dog, but that could put a strain on their marriage. She knew from the beginning that her husband didn’t like dogs. Yet she chose to be with him.
“If she really wants to be around dogs, she can volunteer to walk and play with the dogs at her local shelter,” suggests Jonathan Klein, a certified professional dog trainer and owner of I Said Sit dog training.
When Your Partner Is Allergic to Pets
Having an allergy doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t live with pets. It’s a matter of degree — and making lifestyle accommodations. According to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology, nearly 10 million people with allergies choose to live with pets. Following these steps will reduce the allergens in the house.
- Replace carpets with a solid surface, like hardwood. Carpets are magnets for cat and dog hair and other allergens. Clean floors on a daily basis and use a vacuum with a HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filter, which prevents dander from escaping back into the room.
- Purchase a HEPA air cleaner and place it in the room where you and your pet spend the most time.
- Keep your cat or dog out of the bedroom. Dander collects on pillows and sheets.
- If you allow your pets on other furniture, purchase slipcovers that can be removed and laundered.
(MORE: 6 Best Small Dogs for Your Empty Nest)
If You Both Have Dogs
To introduce two dogs, Klein suggests meeting at a dog park or by taking a walk together then following these suggestions.
- Once the dogs begin to accept each other, graduate to a visit to the home you are planning on moving into together.
- When they play nicely, use positive reinforcement in the forms of praise or a treat.
- Never leave them unsupervised. Watch your dog’s body language and make sure he is relaxed. If you see bared teeth or hear growls, separate the dogs immediately. If you are fearful that they will fight or if you have an aggressive dog, call a professional dog trainer.
Professional Animal Training
When your dog has behavioral issues that you can’t correct, you may need to hire a professional. Depending on the animal and the situation, the training (behavior modification) can take anywhere from a few sessions to a few months. Some people have more success having the professional come several days in a row rather than once a week.
“A trainer will lay a foundation of leadership and teach you both tools that the dogs could to respond to,” says Klein. “They learn they will get treats for positive behaviors. A trainer will incorporate a few exercises to make pleasant associations and teach the animal solutions so they have ways to get out of trouble. That is much more successful than reprimanding them.”
To find a dog trainer in your area, contact IAABC (International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants) or APDT (Association of Pet Dog Trainers). Additionally, The ASPCA offers tips for finding pet trainers.
Introducing Two Cats
Cats are territorial and can be unpredictable. The first thing to do before introducing cats to each other is to borrow a blanket or toy from one and give it to the other. This will get them used to each other’s smell. Here are other ideas:
- Before introducing them, make sure both cats have been fed, had their nails clipped (by a vet if you can't) and have exercised (play with them to tire them out).
- In advance of a visiting cat's arrival, prepare a comfortable space in a room with a closed door. You should do this only if you and your partner are planning on combining households. Moving is stressful to a kitty and requires lots of patience. You are uprooting your territorial creature, and you may need to enlist the help of a professional cat trainer.
- If you want to do this on your own and have decided which home you’ll move into, bring the cat to the new place and keep him in one room with the door closed. Make sure there is a litter box and bowls for food and water.
- Allow them to poke their paws under the door. Cats are naturally curious and will sniff each other through the door. Don’t worry if you hear hissing. This is normal, and you may have to keep this up for a few days until they acclimate. If this isn’t happening, call a trainer.
- When you’re ready for them to meet whisker-to-whisker, have an extra litter box nearby and a cat condo with multiple ledges and spaces to hide.
- You can rub a dab of tuna oil or wet cat food on each cat’s head. This could lead them to groom each other.
- Praise them when they positively interact, and reward them with treats.
Cats and Dogs
Klein, who lives with a cat and a dog, suggests when you do combine households to initially confine the new pet in a single room with food and water. Cats will need a litter box. “Expect some hissing or growling and barking for a few days,” he says.
When the protests quiet down, let the cat roam throughout the house, but keep the dog is on a leash. “When you’re ready to have them meet nose-to-nose,” Klein says, “let them interact at their own pace. Don’t push them, but always be close by. And never leave them unattended together.” If a couple of weeks go by with lots of hissing and growling, call a professional.
Michele C. Hollow writes about pets and pet care at Pet News and Views.