By Nicole Pajer
Sometimes our pets behave in a way that suggests they are jealous. When we bend down to pet another dog, our pup may shove his way in front of us, knocking our hand away from his canine companion. A cat may excessively meow when you’re not paying attention to him, or a dog may annoyingly whine when another pet in the house gets a treat and he doesn’t. But are these actually jealous behaviors? Experts disagree.
“Pets don't experience jealousy in the true sense of the word,” says Katenna Jones, associate applied animal behaviorist and owner of Jones Animal Behavior in Warwick, Rhode Island. “What you are most likely seeing your pet exhibit is assertive, pushy, or rude behavior—e.g., the pet that bulldozes other pets out of the way—or social hierarchy, where a higher-ranking pet displaces another pet.”
On the other hand, a recent study found that dogs “exhibited significantly more jealous behaviors (e.g., snapping, getting between the owner and object, pushing/touching the object/owner) when their owners displayed affectionate behaviors towards what appeared to be another dog [an animatronic toy that moved and vocalized] as compared to nonsocial objects [a children's book and a plastic jack-o'-lantern].”
Suzanne Hetts, applied animal behaviorist and co-owner of Animal Behavior Associates in Littleton, Colorado, concludes the jury is out on whether a pet feels the same type of jealous feelings that humans do. When a pet is determined to get your attention or his favorite toy back, “We have no idea whether a pet's emotional state is equivalent to what people label as jealousy,” she explains. “In most cases, this is better described as a competitive situation where the pet is competing with another individual—human, dog, cat, or otherwise—for something it wants.”
Jealous-Like Behaviors in Pets
Regardless of what you call it, this type of behavior is often unwanted or unhealthy. Here are some jealous-like behaviors that pet parents should be on the lookout for:
Aggression. “This can often be in the form of biting or nibbling of the animal or person getting attention over them,” says Dr. Scarlett Magda, founding president of New York City-based Veterinarians International.
Going to the bathroom indoors. “Our pets can’t express their thoughts and feelings in words, so instead, they sometimes express their feelings in actions,” says Dr. Geoffrey Broderick, a veterinarian in Huntington, New York. “If you see them peeing or pooping in places where they shouldn’t, they may be trying to tell you something.”
Paying extra attention to their owner. According to Broderick, this can come across as a pet cuddling up extra close to you and suddenly licking your hand or face. “This is a sign of affection and they are trying to get your attention,” he says.
Pushy behavior. Magda notes that this often comes in the form of a pet “inhibiting another person or animal from moving freely on a regular basis or pushing their way into a situation demanding the attention of their owner.”
Growling, hissing, or getting into a fight with another pet. This may especially be an issue in a multi-pet household where pets are competing for their owner’s attention and resources, Broderick points out.
Trying to scare off strangers. “Pets may aggressively bark, hiss, or growl when owners are greeted or visitors arrive,” Magda says.
Doing a trick. According to Broderick, this is a surefire sign that your pet is trying to get your attention.
Crowding your space. “Cats sometimes will lie down on your work table or sit on your computer keyboard to get attention or even start knocking things off the table,” Broderick says. “A dog may sit up and beg to try and get your attention or sit up on their hind legs.”
Leaving the room. Sometimes when our pets get mad, they may have a tendency to withdraw, Broderick says.
What Causes Jealous-Like Behaviors in Pets?
According to experts, jealous-like behaviors in pets typically suggest boredom or a ploy for attention from their owners. “Sometimes, just like people, they can feel insecure,” Broderick explains. “They need individual attention, lots of cuddling, and activities to keep them busy and to keep them from being bored. Sometimes, our pets just want us and they don’t want to share us with another pet or person.”
In circumstances like this, here’s what could be going through your pet’s head: “I see you doing something. You look happy. I want that,” Jones says. A lack of resources (only one toy for multiple pets), social conflict, too small of a space, stress, lack of exercise, and genetic disposition can cause jealous-like behavior, she adds.
Magda advises pet owners to pay close attention if one pet or family member is receiving more attention than another, a new pet or family member has arrived in the household, or there is inequality in the amount of food or treats between pets.
How to Stop Jealous Behavior in Pets
Here are some of Magda’s tips for nipping this type of behavior in the bud, before it gets out of control:
- Keep a diary to record circumstances that cause signs of jealousy/aggression to occur, so you know what to look for. This can also be helpful for behaviors that you cannot manage on your own, as you can share the list with your vet or a professional animal behaviorist.
- Avoid giving too much attention to one pet versus another.
- Train dogs to feel safe in their crate so they can feel relaxed during their “time out” period. Give cats a space to call their own as well.
- Feed pets separately to avoid conflict during mealtimes.
- Ignore your pets when you arrive home so they don’t feel like one is getting more attention than the other. The level of emotional excitement will diminish, preventing signs of aggression from occurring.
- Put leashes on both dogs when walking two at a time and consider a gentle leader for better control.
- Don’t pet one animal at the expense of the other.
- Have at least two of all toys and beds but remove food-based toys unless supervised.
- Catch your pets being good. Give them attention and praise when they are acting the way you want them too.
Managing unwanted behaviors and keeping our pets mentally healthy are keys to avoiding unpleasant situations down the line, Broderick says. “As pet parents, we need to attend to their physical and emotional needs, just like we do for our human children,” he says. “Our pets just want to feel loved.”