For Nancy Golden of Bedford, Mass., life was good. She was a successful business executive with a beautiful apartment and a doting feline soulmate named C.G., who enthusiastically welcomed her home from the office each evening and shared her bed.
And then life got even better. Golden met and married Jim Storms, the man of her dreams. But the moment they all moved in together, Golden, who now goes by her married name of Storms, found herself embroiled in an unusual ménage à trois with her husband and the cat.
C.G. would wake Jim up by screaming at him nose to nose, much like a baseball manager yelling at an umpire after a bad call against a player. She also cried constantly, refused to eat and would glare at the couple in disgust when they tried to be intimate.
“C.G. felt she was being displaced and was obviously unhappy. It was very upsetting,” recalls Storms. “ I took her to various doctors and even tried to get her a cat companion, but that didn’t work either.”
'Animals do manipulate'
Enter animal behaviorist Dr. Nicholas H. Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University in Grafton, Mass., and author of several books including, "If Only They Could Speak."
“Animals do manipulate,” says Dodman. “They are capable of attention-seeking behaviors, knowing the results will alter their owner’s conduct for their benefit. So it’s not unusual for a ménage à trois involving the family pet to go awry."
And pets can have a serious impact on a relationship. "Seventy percent of people asked to choose between their spouse and their dog will choose the dog," he adds.
Animal intelligence, emotions and self-awareness have always been highly controversial subjects, with many experts disagreeing over the degree to which animals can feel. Dodman firmly believes animals are thinking, attentive beings capable of complicated emotions such as jealousy and guilt.
"C.G. made it very clear that she considered Jim an intrusion," says Dodman. "She had a very pushy personality and jealously wanted Nancy’s undivided attention."
In these situations, Dodman describes his role of animal behaviorist as a combination of three things: first, a family counselor, sorting out the family dynamics that involve the pet; second, a psychologist, treating the disturbance using behavioral modification techniques; and third, a veterinary physiatrist, prescribing mood altering medication and dealing with underlying medical problems that may be fueling behavioral issues.
Prozac for pets?
While some veterinarians and behaviorists may consider the use of psychotropic drugs for animals unnecessary and trendy, Dodman believes that without these new treatments there would be an even greater number of animals relinquished to shelters and ultimately put to sleep.
“People think of Prozac as cosmetic pharmacology. I don’t give it to dogs and cats so that they are good at cocktail parties or to boost their self-esteem," says Dodman. "Drugs such as Prozac are best thought of as mood stabilizers. They can be used short term to get a pet around a sharp corner, or more or less indefinitely.”
And Prozac definitely had a positive effect on C.G. After beginning treatment with the drug, she mellowed out and became less aggressive toward Jim.
People most often to blame
The dynamic between an owner and a pet plays a key role in the development of bad behavior after the arrival of a significant other, says Dodman.
"They feed off each other in a number of ways. Storms’ own background and the fact that she was emotionally overwrought probably fueled the situation. Someone else may have told the cat to take a hike and get over it, but she got down on her hands and knees and the cat obviously enjoyed the attention," says Dodman.
New York-based psychologist and psychoanalyst Dr. Joel Gavriele-Gold, author of "When Pets Come Between Partners," agrees that often people are a major contributing factor to a human-pet-human triangle.
“I see this situation a lot. When pets become entangled in human relationships, invariably the animal is a catalyst for bringing out unresolved psychological issues," says Gavriele-Gold. "People tend to dump their own personal issues on their pets and the animals wind up looking as if they’re the problem when they’re not.”
Gavriele-Gold tells the story of female client who had a boa constrictor named Crunch and went through various boyfriends over the years. Often she and her boyfriend at the time would end up in the bathtub together and the snake would slither down the shower curtain, surprising the unsuspecting suitor. On more than one occasion, she was forced to call the paramedics to prevent the man from going into cardiac arrest.
“Finally,” Gavriele-Gold says, “ I got her to understand that she had a fear of commitment and this was her way of keeping a distance in her relationships. Ultimately, she met a guy who loved snakes and they rode off into the sunset together.”
A sign of deeper problems
The topic of whether a pet is the pawn or the problem in these situations was also highlighted by Dr. Phil, America’s favorite living-room therapist, late last year when a newly married couple appeared on his show claiming that the wife’s daughter was highly allergic to the new husband’s cats.
The husband said the felines had never been a problem when the couple was dating and, furthermore, he’d made every effort to contain them to a specific section of their home. The wife questioned Dr. Phil as to whether he thought she was being selfish in asking her husband to get rid of the cats.
“If it’s a health issue that puts your daughter in jeopardy, it isn’t even a close call," said Dr. Phil. "You’ve got to do something responsible with the cats. However, if you are resenting that he pampers the cats and not you, that is an emotional and not a cat issue. You’ve got to deconstruct this and find out what the real issue is.”
Often when people are starting a relationship and one demands that the cat or dog must go, this is only the beginning of issues that are going to get much worse in other parts of the relationship, says Gavriele-Gold.
While the key issues that drive personal relationships all play out in human-pet-human triangles, Gavriele-Gold says that control freaks are one of the biggest problems he encounters.
“Watch out,” he cautions, “for someone who doesn’t own a pet, or who owns one that doesn’t shed. And beware of someone who doesn’t keep plants unless they are cacti.”
And what happens when two people each bring their own pets to a relationship? How do you know if they will be compatible in a joint household?
Rachael Kreisler is president and co-founder of Kissykat.com, an Internet dating site that focuses on matching people who have pets. Kreisler’s three cats first met her future husband’s dog via Web cams set up in their respective households.
“Animals can help break the ice when trying to meet new people,” says Kreisler. “We have an initial questionnaire that allows people to outline their needs and their pet’s needs, too.”
When it comes to mixing dogs, people should evaluate the likelihood of success based on the animal's personality rather than breed, says Dodman. "There are three characteristics that determine dogs’ interactions with people and other animals: dominance, fear and their prey drive. A dog with a high score for dominance, fear and a heightened prey drive would be a very difficult pet to manage. It would be bossy, in control, frightened of everything and chasing everything in sight."
And, he says, it’s best to mix opposite sexes. “But remember that a dog incumbent in a house will need to stay in charge.”
Cats should be evaluated for their alertness, sociability and equability. “A cat that is active, very sociable and equable is a dog,” Dodman jokes.
Looking for answers
When Time magazine hailed the Bow-Lingual, the gadget that claims to translate dog barks into English, as one of the coolest inventions of 2002, many pet owners thought the device was the answer to understanding their dog’s wants and needs.
But Dr. Sophia Yin, D.V.M, who has done extensive research in acoustic communication in animals at the University of California at Davis, says that while the Bow-Lingual is fun to play with, the translations aren’t very trustworthy and many don’t make sense. So frustrated pet owners are back knocking on behaviorists’ doors for answers.
Dodman reminds owners that before they focus on their pets, they should take a look at themselves. “Sometimes in desperation an owner will joke and say, 'Perhaps I’m the one that should be taking the Prozac.' And I counter. ‘Well, maybe you should.'"
Sandy Robins is a freelance writer and columnist based in Irvine, Calif. Her work has appeared in numerous publications in the United States and internationally.