Between Us

Julie Scrapbook

Your house, my house or the doghouse?
By Martin Miller, L.A.Times Staff Writer

John and Stacey Gianforte were like two puppies in love. Or maybe kittens, depending upon whom you asked.

The couple, both special education teachers who met in Northern California, were set to be married and become one household. But there was a potential deal-breaker. They were already in committed relationships — to their pets. 

Before meeting Stacey, John had Tarla in his life, a 120-pound Anatolian Shepherd that even he described as a natural-born cat killer. And before John, Stacey had shared good times and bad with her playful tabbies, Benny and Gracie. “She wasn’t getting rid of her kitties,” said John, 32, an athletics coach accustomed to winning. “And I wasn’t getting rid of my dog.” 

Such disputes may sound trivial, even silly, especially to those without pets. But the collision between human and pet loyalties can mightily test, even destroy, the fragile bonds of a relationship. And given today’s mobile society and the importance of pets to people’s well-being, tensions between man, woman and beast are all too common, if not always talked about. 

“It’s an embarrassing issue,” said Carl Pickhardt, a psychotherapist who has written extensively about relationships and marriage. “I mean, come on, how can you make such a big deal over a little puppy dog or kitty? Of course, the issue isn’t the pet; the issue is the relationship.” 

The ability to accept all kinds of differences is a key to many relationships, psychologists say, and in cases when pets cause strife, the animals can be viewed as living symbols of the baggage everyone carries. 

“The pet is part of the package, just like the in-laws are part of the package,” added Pickhardt, who has a private practice in Austin, Texas. “If you don’t like the package, then you probably shouldn’t get together.” 

Considering that more than half of the nation’s population own pets, that the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology says 15% suffer from allergies and that new couples and step-families with pets in tow move in together every day, the potential for conflict is high. Los Angeles-based pet therapist Warren Eckstein, a regular on NBC’s “Today,” recently asked people to contact him if a pet were interfering with a human relationship. Within days, he received more than 300 e-mails. 

“It’s a major problem,” said Eckstein. “People can get jealous of the attention pets receive.” 

One man seeking Eckstein’s help complained that his dog of four years didn’t like his girlfriend of one. In an e-mail to Eckstein, the man said the ill will was the “biggest problem” in the couple’s relationship. Apparently, when he went to visit his girlfriend, with whom there was talk of marriage, his dog would sulk in the corner. If he took the dog with him to his girlfriend’s, the animal would get on her furniture — a big no-no. 

Eckstein, who likened some of the girlfriend’s behavior to scenes from “Mommie Dearest,” suggested she and the dog spend time together outside her home, figuring that a change of scenery would help dispel negative associations. Despite the efforts, four legs were stronger than two, and the couple parted ways not long after appearing with Eckstein on “Today.” 

Although pets can break some relationships, they can prevent others from even getting started. Sue-Ellen Brown, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Human-Animal Relationships at Tuskegee University in Alabama, owns four dogs, three horses and two donkeys and believes some pets wouldn’t survive long in her household. “If I met anyone with a cat, that would be it,” Brown said. “One of my dogs is bred to kill wolves, and they wouldn’t discriminate between a cat. It just wouldn’t work out.” 

In the vast majority of cases, however, the prospects of getting past such animal hatreds are brighter. With perseverance, most animals — and their human counterparts — can learn to get along or at least to tolerate one another enough to prevent the fur from flying, veterinarians say. 

The first thing to remember is that, on average, new animals need about a week, sometimes as much as a month, to learn to coexist peacefully. The affected animals, especially the one whose home turf is being invaded, will need special attention. 

Desensitizing the animals to one another’s scent is the key. The owners should arrange an introduction on neutral ground and, if appropriate, the animals should be on leashes or harnesses in case they are tempted to brawl. Next, other limited interactions can take place. For instance, the animals can be placed in adjoining rooms so they can smell one another under the door. 

Another tactic is for the owners to sit at opposite ends of a room and talk, while the pets stay on leashes. As the pets become more comfortable with one another, the people gradually move closer until the animals can touch. 

Here, as elsewhere in a relationship, the art of patience, of taking things slow, is important. 

“Pets are so sensitive to their owner’s emotions, so it’s very important the owners remain as calm and cool as possible throughout the process,” said Carol Osborne, a veterinarian in Cleveland. “Because the more nervousness and apprehension the pets see, the more nervous and apprehensive they will get.” 

For the Gianfortes, desensitization seemed to work. Though their cats and dog sometimes must be kept in different rooms, they have learned to live with one another. “A lot of days we’re scared to death that when we come home from work, we’re going to find two dead cats,” said John, who lives with Stacey in Coralville, Iowa. 

But for the couple, who recently celebrated the birth of their first child, the outcome was never in serious doubt. 

“We were going to make it work,” said John. “We love each other.”