It's Saturday night and your friends call you to go out. Perhaps they want to check out a local live band, or drop by a party someone is having. But, frankly, you'd rather just stay home and play with your cat.
Your friends say you love that cat too much. Could they be right? In other words, is it possible that you love your pet too much?
The answer: It is possible to form unhealthy attachments to animals, but the attachment must become pretty extreme. In the brief example cited above, the answer is probably no. A lot of people would rather forego a night in a smoky, noisy bar for a quiet evening home with kitty, who would certainly enjoy the company.
But if the relationship with your pet excludes meaningful relationships with human beings, then there may be a problem. "People can have unhealthy relationships when they lose objectivity," explains counselor Marty Tousley, RN, MS, CS. "But it depends on the individual situation."
Tousley notes that human-animal bonds are unhealthy when we expect our pets to take the place of people. While our bonds with pets are beautiful and fulfilling, they should not supplant our desire to be with people.
In an article she authored, Tousley uses the example of a woman who has gone through unsuccessful relationships with men, perhaps a failed marriage or two. "A woman may find it safer, easier and more emotionally fulfilling to focus her relationship with a pet, who is never demanding or critical, and would never leave her feeling rejected or abandoned. In effect, she would be using her pet to mask her own fears of intimacy and commitment with men," writes Tousley.
She offers six points a therapist would consider: How much you allow your pet to interfere with daily life.
Whether your pet has seriously affected important relationships (spouse, close friends or relatives). This is different from merely wanting to date someone who likes your cat or dog, where you want to find someone who shares interests and priorities.
If you relate to your pet to the exclusion of relationships with family and friends.
Whether you regularly turn down invitations when your pet is not included.
If you spend most of your time thinking about your pet, to the exclusion of other matters (such as your own health).
If you believe you cannot live without your pet.
This last point is very important because most of us will outlive our companion animals. A person who is co-dependent on his or her pet may suffer debilitating depression when the pet dies.
What About the Pet?
Smothering your pet with healthy love really isn't a problem – just ask your pet. But it could be unhealthy in other ways or just downright confusing at times. Your pet may conclude that he or she is the alpha – the leader – by your behavior. This can lead to future behavior problems with the two of you jockeying for the leadership role.
Or they may become so attached to you that they eventually suffer separation anxiety. This is a behavioral disorder that often originates with the pet, but can be made worse by your actions. When you're home, your dog follows you around and insists on staying as close to you as possible.
Although this may seem cute, worse things may follow. When you leave, your dog may urinate on the carpet, howl or destroy property – not out of spite but out of frustration. An animal behaviorist may be need to be consulted in these cases.