Phyllis DeGioia didn’t mean to become the other woman.
It started innocently, with a kind gesture. The Madison, Wis., woman offered to care for a friend's cat for nine months while the owner, Susan Shalaby, was out of the country. DeGioia had every intention of returning the cat when her friend returned, but Chelsea had other ideas. After Shalaby came back, she moved in with DeGioia until she could find a place of her own and expected Chelsea to resume her place on her bed.
But with some pets absence does not necessarily make the heart grow fonder.
“She put Chelsea in her bedroom and shut the door. Chelsea wouldn’t stop clamoring to get out, so she finally let her out, yelling, ‘Fine! Go sleep with your real mommy!’ Chelsea raced to my bed,” DeGioia says.
After a tearful discussion, Shalaby agreed that Chelsea could remain with DeGioia.
“When Sue and I were talking about my taking Chelsea, she was pretty upset,” DeGioia said. “It’s very hard to admit your pet likes someone else better.”
Country songs are filled with anguished lyrics about cheating wives and husbands. But sometimes it’s not always people who are doing the leaving and breaking hearts. Dogs and cats can also cheat on their owners, leaving their own homes in pursuit of something better, or different. And perhaps more painfully, some pets carry on affairs right under their owner’s nose.
Audrey Pavia of Norco, Calif., has an 8-year-old Pembroke Welsh Corgi named Nigel who forgets all about her when their friend Arden Moore visits.
“Whenever I know Arden is going to be around, I prepare myself emotionally for what's coming,” Pavia says. “As soon as Arden enters the room, Nigel is no longer my dog. All his attentions and affections are completely focused on her. My obedient dog who normally watches my every move doesn’t exist when Arden is around. He is her dog. I am invisible. And if I insist that he listen to me — which I must do with an uncharacteristic stern voice — he looks at me with great disdain. I can almost hear him saying, ‘Geez, I wish you'd get lost.’ ”
Luckily for Pavia, Moore’s husky mix, Chipper, is there to shower her with the same affection Nigel is giving to Moore. Chipper clearly prefers Pavia, says Moore.
“We’ll both call Chipper, and she’ll give a full-body wiggle and run straight to Audrey with a happy grin,” she says.
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Nigel and Chipper’s puppy love for another person is natural and healthy, says Moore, the author of 20 pet books who is currently in the midst of a national tour for her books “Happy Dogs, Happy You” and “Happy Cats, Happy You.”
“I don’t mind. I think it’s actually healthy when our pets ‘cheat’ on us because it shows that they are very social and welcoming to other two-leggers,” she says. “It helps us not to have pets that are so Velcro'd to us that they may have separation anxiety.”
Grass is always greener
Some upwardly mobile pets may look for another home if they meet someone who has tastier food, more time for affection, better toys or a softer couch.
Veterinary behaviorist Terry Curtis of the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Gainesville has a cat that moved in with her after throwing over her first owner.
Molly, an orange tabby, originally belonged to Curtis’s neighbors, who also had two dogs and a newborn. The cat started coming over to visit Curtis and stayed longer each time.
“At my house, she could have toys, get more attention and not be bothered by the dogs,” Curtis says. When Curtis finally moved, Molly went with her. “The neighbors were really good friends of mine and they loved Molly, but they could tell she was happier with me.”
But take heart, says Curtis, it’s usually them, not you.
“I don’t think it’s any more complicated than they find a different place that’s more attractive to them,” Curtis says.
And sometimes, things just aren’t meant to be. Some dogs or cats just prefer certain lifestyles or personalities. Brussels Griffon breeder Sharon Sakson of Pennington, N.J., placed one of her older females with a friend who wanted a companion dog.
“Hallie was my dog, but I always sensed her unhappiness at having to share my attention with other dogs,” Sakson says. “With her own person, she has blossomed.”
Fight to save your relationship
But if you don't want to put up with your pooch pining for another — or worse, give him up, it’s easy to develop a stronger bond with him. Start by teaching him, on leash, that he can have everything he wants, but only if he sits and looks at you, says veterinarian and applied animal behaviorist Sophia Yin, who practices at San Francisco Veterinary Specialists.
For several days, instead of just randomly petting your pooch or giving him a treat, let him practice getting what he wants when he sits and focuses on you. Reward him with five seconds of petting at a time, then stop. By stopping in between, you’re rewarding the dog for continuing to stay with you and look at you, Yin says.
“Play little games where you have the dog sit, give a treat, then run, stop, sit, get a treat again," she says. "Basically, you’re teaching the dog that you’re fun.”
When your rival for his affection visits, let the dog see her, but keep him on leash and don’t let him approach the person. Reward him for focusing on you while the guest is there. Once your dog consistently focuses on you, he can see the guest again.
“They’re telling the dog, ‘You can have what you want, but remember that I’m here and you should ask me first,’” Yin says.
Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written many articles and more than a dozen books about dogs and cats. She belongs to the Dog Writers Association of America and is past president of the Cat Writers Association. She shares her home in California with three Cavalier King Charles spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.
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