How a Pet Can Make or Break Your Relationship
There should be a word for that moment when you realize your relationship is over. For me, that moment could be summarized in one syllable: dog. I adored my foster dog, Zoe, immediately, but my boyfriend really, really didn’t. With that, our bond began crumbling, and months later we broke up. After seeking a new place that would welcome Zoe and me, I moved in next door to a kind, smart, hilarious and handsome man with a pet of his own. He and I became fast friends, then partners. And a year-and-a-half later, we were married on the doorstep where we met. Animals have since remained a key part of our relationship.
Looking back, it doesn’t surprise me — or animal behavioral experts — that the same animal that drove one relationship apart ignited and still fuels another. As rewarding as pet parenting can be, it often isn’t easy, nor is it anything to take lightly. If you’re considering adding a furry friend to your relationship, take some time to weigh out the pros and cons.
Pro: Better Health and Longevity
Getting a pet can boost your overall wellness, leading to a longer life. “They act as a social lubricant and help regulate our moods, emotions, mental states and physical shape when we interact with them and meet their needs,” said Russell Hartstein, a certified dog behavior consultant and trainer in Los Angeles. “Most couples will have overall better health and live longer if they are pet parents.”
Dog ownership may be especially beneficial. A panel of experts with the American Heart Association reviewed studies on dog owners and determined that they tend to be more likely to exercise, have healthier cholesterol and blood pressure levels, be less vulnerable to the physical effects of stress and more likely to survive a heart attack than those who do not own dogs.
Read more: The Health Benefits of Pets
Con: They Can Increase Stress
Pets can become a source of tension if one partner isn’t a fan or for other reasons, such as high levels of responsibility or financial costs. And that stress can hurt more than your relationship. The more stressed you feel, the more stressed your pet will likely feel, according to Patti Wood, a body language expert for humans and dogs. Research shows that even cats — animals considered emotionally distant — are sensitive to owners’ emotions. “You are the leader of the pack and typically one of their sole sources of animal contact,” she said. “They match and mirror your nonverbal cues, so it can be taxing.”
Listen now: How to Calm Down in Under 3 Minutes
Pro: More Touching and Cuddling
No, not just with your animal. When you pet, hold or lock eyes with a dog, your body produces more oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle hormone,” according to a 2009 study published in Hormones and Behavior. Other pets, including many cats, birds and guinea pigs, are equally affectionate. In turn, this can make you more inclined to connect physically with your partner, which invites even more of the hormone.
Read more: 8 Ways a Dog Will Change Your Life
Con: Financial Costs
From food, toys, bedding and leashes to pet-sitting and medical fees, pet care can get costly. The first year of caring for a medium-size dog is likely to cost you more than $1,270, according to ASPCA findings. Your first year of cat ownership could cost around $1,070. If your pet has special health needs, such as a chronic illness, injury or food allergy, costs could run much higher. Other research released in the U.K. in 2017 showed that a dog could cost you $27,000 to $42,000 over the course of their lifetime — which is seven times more than participants estimated. A rabbit could end up costing $12,400 to $19,000, and a cat could cost you up to $31,000. You can save funds on medical expenses with pet health insurance, but that comes with a monthly fee.
Pro: Stronger Empathy and Communication
Little seems more important than empathy and communication when cultivating intimacy. The ability to feel or understand what your partner is feeling and communicate about everything — from your needs and desires to your challenges and frustrations — goes far. Oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone” that interacting with pets can promote, is also closely linked with these relationship attributes — so much so that scientists have considered it “nature’s love glue.” A study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology in February 2014 showed that oxytocin levels are extremely high during the falling-in-love stage of a relationship. A pet may help keep those punch-drunk feelings alive.
Con: Less Freedom
Unless you get a goldfish or a hermit crab, pets are a pretty big responsibility. Once you have at pet, you might miss some of the freedom you previously had to do most anything you want at any time. “Many couples just look at the cost of purchasing a pet, which is the smallest component of being a pet parent,” said Russell Hartstein, a dog consultant and trainer. “The real cost comes in meeting the dog [or] cat’s needs behaviorally, nutritionally, emotionally, energetically and medically. The list is long.”
This means arranging for someone to take care of your pet’s exercise, feedings and hygiene when you’re away. It may also mean fewer spontaneous outings. And unless you have a pet that travels well, you may need to trade some vacations for staycations — or at least make some trips shorter.
Read more: 7 Reasons Not to Fake a Service Animal
Pro: Less Anxiety
Ever heard the phrase “happy wife, happy life?” It probably applies to all genders and relationship styles. Pets can help ease anxiety, which affects about 18 percent of the population to a serious degree, and reduce loneliness, which doesn’t only affect singles. This is important to note, seeing as loneliness can distort our perceptions of others, according to psychologists, and even make us devalue our relationships. Some quality time with a pet might help prevent or manage these effects. Research shows that petting an animal you don’t even own can help sooth your nerves.
Con: They Can Make Breakups Rockier
Pets may not be kids, but for many couples they become just as much a part of the family. If you and your partner break up, determining who gets the pet or who cares for it when can add challenges and confusion to an already-tumultuous situation. If you decide to alternate care, adjusting to two separate lives can also be hard on the animal, according to Erin Askeland, a pet behaviorist and training manager at Camp Bow Wow.
“Couples who break up and don’t want to continue any kind of relationship may not want the pet at all — often due to the pet reminding them of their former significant other — or may argue over who gets to keep the pet,” she said. Some of these couples even go to court, she added, which is costly and often ends with the pet in a shelter.
Pro: More Joy and Laughter
To me, this is the biggest benefit of welcoming a pet to your life and relationship. They can enlarge your heart and fill your days with warmth, joy and compassion. “When I was just finishing inpatient treatment [for depression], I got a dog. I honestly believe he’s kept me stable,” said Jessica, who added that her relationship with her boyfriend has also benefited. “Our dog just does the craziest things and is constantly entertaining. We’ve never laughed this much.” While a pet should never replace prescribed treatment for depression or any illness, the added perks may be just what the doctor ordered. Even if you aren’t struggling emotionally, more smiles and laughs are almost always a good thing.
Con: It Can Cause Grief and Loss
As soon as I met Zoe, I feared the inevitable heartbreak of losing her one day. And it did hit me hard, but love for her helped me through it. She lives in my heart, and I’m a far better person because of her. Even so, I can see why for some pet owners the devastation becomes chronic and debilitating. And because everyone grieves differently, it’s difficult to predict how a pet’s death will affect a couple.
In research published in Anthrozoos in February 2007, people who felt the strongest emotional connection to their pets held the most risk for complicated grief and post-traumatic stress syndrome after the pet’s passing. When a pet dies suddenly, shock can exacerbate the grief. Therapy and time can help, but nothing will ever replace that special being.
Read more: The 15 Best Dog Breeds for Running
What Do YOU Think?
If you’re thinking of getting a pet, consider ways it could affect your life and relationship and how you’ll manage any challenges. Discuss all of this with your partner, maintaining open communication. If you’ve never had a pet, you may want to start by walking shelter dogs, pet-sitting or fostering before you adopt. If you’re like me, your time fostering will be momentary and you might end up with two soul mates on a journey you’ll never regret. If you’re like my ex, you’ll probably be glad you skipped going all-in.
How have pets enhanced or taken away from your relationships? Let us know in the comments!