Only (Fur) Child vs. Pets with Benefits

While I will always remain the only child of my biological parents, I did not spend my wonder years alone.

After my parents divorced and re-married, I found myself competing for valuable parental resources with five new “step” brothers and sisters between my two new families. Later, a new half-brother and half-sister arrived, further dividing the resources pie.

It was so much to absorb at the time. In my sadness, anger and fear, I chose to withdraw from my new siblings. Who knows how rich my adolescent life could have been had I embraced my new families.

Of course, the complex dramas wrought by change do not play out the same way in a companion animal’s mind as they do in the human mind. However, companion animals DO feel many of the emotions that we do. And at no time may these be more evident than when we try to add a new member to our companion animal family.

Some pets already in the home may take to a new arrival without reservation while others may be wary at the very least and possibly aggressive at worst. Then, there’s the reactions of your “new” pet. Unfortunately, there’s no way to reliably predict the outcome – the last thing we want to do is play Russian roulette with pet compatibility.

Should the pets be a good match, the benefits to both the pets and owners are many. Multiple animals provide play and companionship opportunities when we’re not always available and when we are out of the house. Interactions between pets heighten mental stimulation and prevent boredom which could translate into fewer behavioral problems.

More than one pet in the home increases the chances for socialization and exercise OUTSIDE the home for both the pets and owners (more walks and chances to meet your neighbors, trips to the groomer, etc.). Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that children in multiple pet homes develop fewer allergies than children in single- or no-pet homes. Multiple pets may provide valuable lessons in responsibility, caring and nurture for each child.

While it is possible for multiple pets to experience reduced separation anxiety while they are together, it is also possible that the effects of separation may be magnified, according to Kathy Diamond Davis of Veterinary Partners. Moreover, there are no formal studies on whether having more than one pet in the home prevents loneliness in dogs, says Duffy Jones, DVM, founder of Peachtree Hills Animal Hospital in Atlanta. Per Jones, “there is so much individual variation between dog personalities."

If you want to bring an additional pet into your home, here are some factors to consider:

  • There is much variability in personalities, even between pets of the same breed.

  • Early socialization of your existing pet and the knowledge that the pet you are adopting has been socialized greatly increase the chances for harmony between the two. Socialization builds confidence, adaptability and acceptance.

  • Pets of the OPPOSITE sex (always neutered, of course!) usually fare better together.

  • Your new pet should be YOUNGER than your existing pet; territorial disputes are less likely to erupt. Having pets that are a few years apart may also stave off exponential vet expenses as both pets age.

  • Be sure your new pet is healthy!

  • Adopting pets of different species is best done together when the pets are young.

For those of you who decide that bringing home a second pet into your home is not the best idea, there are alternatives for increased play time and socialization. These include doggie day care, playgroups and doggie “co-ops,” arrangements with carefully screened friends and neighbors who also have pets. I personally don’t recommend dog parks as there are huge differences in attention span and responsibility among dog owners within this uncontrolled environment.

A good formula for introducing old and new pets:

  1. If possible, bring home a small article of clothing “scented” with the new pet for your existing pet to sniff.

  2. Let your new and old pets sniff each other under a door or other partition.

  3. After the “sniff fest” let them see each other in a neutral space (outdoors, a third-party’s home, etc.).

  4. Begin SUPERVISED, one-on-one interactions, 15 minutes at a time; gradually increase the duration that the pets are together.

  5. As the pets bond, be sure that they periodically spend some time away from each other to ensure that they don’t become more bonded to each other than to you.

Probably the most key element to success is managing expectations. Pets may take a year or more to thoroughly bond to each other. As I eventually found out with my new families, the joy and freedom of togetherness was well worth the wait.