how to help pets deal with relationship emergencies

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how to help pets deal with relationship emergencies
Posted by Dr. Ernie Ward on Apr 16 2015

During the past two decades of clinical practice, I’ve seen the blueprint of families change due to separation and divorce. Something we often don’t think about is how we can help our pets deal with relationship emergencies and ease their anxiety and stress during one of life’s most challenging phases. If you’re going through a hard time in your relationship or facing farewell, try these tips to keep your pet’s emotional bonds strong.

Don’t fight in front of the kids. This rule applies to your four-legged children, too. I’ve seen numerous dog bites and cat scratches triggered by temper and raised voices. Our pets watch us for emotional clues and when tension occurs, they go on alert. Frequent fighting also stresses our pets and can lead to self-injury, decreased appetite, illness and escape.

Don’t take it out on your pet. When we’re stressed, we often inflict emotional injury on those around us, including our pets. I once had an otherwise incredibly kind older client accidentally shove a cat off a countertop too hard during an emotional outburst, cracking the cat’s paw as it tumbled down. While that’s an extreme example, snapping, yelling and otherwise berating pets for minor offenses is common when you’re under duress. Keep calm and use time with your pet to chill and focus on a relationship that will never fail you.

Set aside time for talks and walks. Your dog or cat knows something is wrong when you’re facing relationship challenges. Make time each day, if only 15 to 30 minutes, for quiet walks, petting or playtime with your pet. This should be a time for both of you to put aside the day’s dilemmas and connect. Make it a priority and stick to your schedule.

Discuss your pets with your partner. If your relationship has seriously soured, decide what you’re going to do with the pets as soon as possible. Neglecting to agree on shared responsibilities or ownership early in the separation process allows the pets to be used as bargaining chips later. Ideally, one partner would be given ownership rights with an arrangement for visitation by the other. Shared parenting can work, but is often a challenge. Dogs and cats thrive on routine and stability and the constant shifting from one home to another can be stressful. That doesn’t mean it can’t work; it means it takes work to succeed.

Talk to your veterinarian. I’ve seen pets experience severe depression, become sick or completely change their personality due to family fighting. In some cases, I’ve prescribed anxiety-relieving medications to help get a pet through a crisis. In most, I’ll advise herbs, oils, supplements and training techniques to reduce stress. If you’re undergoing separation, I strongly recommend telling your vet so they can help.

Relationship problems affect everyone in your home, especially children and pets. While you’re confronting your own issues, be sure to help those around you who are also suffering.