Why does my pet prefer someone else to me?

Hello! I want to start off by welcoming you to Ruff Beginnings Rehab (RBR). My name is Maxine, and I have been a part of the RBR team since 2011 working with both cats and dogs. Today I want to discuss favoritism in pets, how it can affect the relationship dynamic between not only pets and humans, but also cohabiting humans as well. My husband and I have three cats. We’ve noticed peculiar odds and ends to when one of our cats might prefer one of us to the other. I’ve also had clients complain about how a pet will show favoritism to one owner. So, let’s jump right into it.

Just like you and I can have favorites amongst our pets, pets have been known to gravitate to one person over another. Sometimes this can be easily attributed to the types of interactions that go on within the home between all occupants. My husband and I notice this not only with our own pets, but with clients’ pets. It’s based hugely on the personality of the pets. In the instance with our own cats, we have noticed certain quirks. At night, the cats like to sleep with me on my side of the bed. After my husband leaves for work in the morning, I’ll enjoy a thorough cuddle with my eldest cat before beginning my day. In the evenings, it’s my husband’s lap that they want. A couple different things that contribute to this are our daily schedules. They know when he gets home and plants his butt in the chair to play video games or watch TV, he’s not gonna be moving any time soon, and they take full advantage of that. Our cats are simply opportunistic cuddlers. When it comes to dogs, the dynamic definitely changes since my husband is more of the "fun one." Sometimes, favoritism in pets can be polarizing: a pet can be extremely loving to one human, and aggressive to the other. I have had clients joke to me about how the pet is the "other girlfriend/boyfriend." It’s quite funny in passing, but feelings of jealousy or resentment can take hold, especially if a person is making efforts to bond with the animal to no avail. If you talk to your animal all the time and it prefers your partner, perhaps it’s a matter of being overly engaged. Pulling back on both affection and talking to your four-legged counterpart all the time might be all it takes to alter your pet’s opinion of you. For more serious issues, professional help might be needed.

Whatever the reasons, there are some basic things to take into account if you’re finding you’re struggling with building a bond with your pet.

  • First, we need to take a look at the family dynamic. Who does the feeding? This is the

    first thing I look at when there’s some affection imbalance. Whoever is the one looking to build a stronger bond, is the one who should be feeding the pet(s). This is an easy way to create a direct correlation of something positive. Once the imbalance is addressed and progress is made, the responsibility of feeding can become more of a 50/50 job.

  • Playtime is the next big ticket item. Things to consider are the time devoted by each person to playing with the animal. Depending on the severity of favoritism, perhaps your partner or roommate exclusively plays with the animal while you ignore it, or vice versa as appropriate. I also like to look at play styles. For instance, you cannot roughhouse with a cat the same way you would with a dog. When engaging an animal in play, the type of play has to honor that individual animal.

  • Basic obedience with positive reinforcement is another great relationship building exercise with both cats and dogs. There are plenty of instructional videos for tricks that hold a wealth of information. Yes, cats can be trained, it just takes far more consistency than with a dog.

  • Sometimes, it’s a little more deep-seated than that. It could be an individual’s

    personality. If there is a loud and boisterous human in a household with a shy/fearful animal, the pets are more likely to run and hide than if they were confident and in the middle of all that attention and energy.

  • Sometimes it can be based on scent, where your pet might simply prefer the way you or your partner smell. After all, a cat’s sense of smell is 14 times greater than that of a human’s with 200 million nerve cells versus our 5 million. The cat also has an unusual organ in the roof of its mouth called the Jacobson's organ (or vomeronasal organ). It helps the cat with its sense of smell and can help distinguish pheromones. With dogs, the difference is even greater, up to 300 million nerve cells depending on breed. Every human has a unique scent fingerprint, and that’s pretty much everything a dog or cat needs to tell one person from another. Science has been studying just how powerful a dog’s sniffer can be more now than ever, especially with practical uses in law enforcement and military. So with all of this, it isn’t too far of a reach that our animal counterparts may favor one human scent to another.

    There are many things to attribute to favoritism behavior in our animal counterparts, but with some careful observation, you might be able to remedy the situation yourself through feeding schedules, playtime routines, or changes in the way you simply interact with your pet on a day-to-day basis. If this is something that you feel is affecting things on a more serious level, never hesitate to contact a professional.