Do Dogs and Cats Feel Jealousy?
I was asked by a new dog owner if dogs could be jealous and while I immediately said, “Yes, Of course,” I then had to stop and think about it.
When one of my dogs tried to get between myself and the dog I was petting, was that jealousy? To me it seemed like it. But was it really?
Anecdotal Evidence Abounds
When I posted on social media the question, “Do your dogs or cats ever show jealousy?” my page was inundated. Apparently jealousy to varying degrees is quite common.
Tamara H. has a rescued Doberman Pinscher, Alister, who is very attached to Tamara. When her older cat, Simba, wants attention and settles next to Tamara in her chair, Alister tries to get between Tamara and the cat. He’ll use his long nose to try and push the cat away. When Tamara interrupts him and asks him to lie down, he’ll do so but stretches his neck so that while his body is on the ground, his nose remains on her lap.
Amy S. has a dog, Fizz, who is very jealous of their newly adopted cat. He’ll try and steal the cat toys so that no one can play with the cat and will play with him instead.
Joanne S. has two dogs and a cat. When the cat is on her lap, one dog tries to get up on her lap so he can lie on top of the cat. The second dog has no issues with the cat on Joanne’s lap. Interestingly enough, the first dog has no jealousy issues with the other dog; just the cat.
Dogs don’t just get jealous of attention paid to cats, however; several people mentioned they had a dog who showed jealousy by trying to get between two people hugging each other. Barking when people were kissing also seemed to be common. One person, who didn’t want to be named, said she and her husband had to exile their dog from the bedroom because he would react badly when they were intimate.
There were a few reports of jealousy expressed by cats, plus quite a few episodes of jealous parrots and a few jealous horses.
What is Jealousy?
All of these anecdotes portray behavior that we see as jealousy. What is jealousy though?
In people, jealousy is a complex emotion that might include insecurity, a fear of abandonment, anger and a host of other emotions. Often regarded as a negative emotion, it is usually assumed to cause more problems than it could ever solve.
Those that study human behavior say that we don’t have much control over jealousy; it’s an emotion most of us will feel at some point in our lives. Our inner critic, that voice we hear in our head, torments us with questions and critiques and wonders, “Why?” When we’re feeling jealous, we question our relationships, partners, and friends. We imagine scenarios in which we always lose. Unfortunately, those feelings of jealousy and self doubt erode our confidence in ourselves. If unchecked, jealousy is a vicious circle that can ruin relationships and friendships.
Jealousy in the Animal World
A study by Christine Harris, a professor of psychology, and Caroline Prouvost, Harris’ former honors student at the University of California, San Diego, looked at the issue of jealousy in dogs. In their study, 36 dogs and their owners were videotaped in their own home while the owners ignored the dog and interacted with other objects. The owners were instructed to treat an animated dog or a jack-o-lantern pail as if it were real, petting it and talking to it. Then they were asked to read a pop up book that played songs.
The results were interesting. Dogs were twice as likely to push or touch their owner when the owner was interacting with the animatronic dog than when the owner was touching the jack-o-lantern or reading the book. Thirty percent of the dogs tried to get between the toy dog and their owner. Did the dogs think the animatronic dog was real? Or perhaps a rival? It’s hard to say but the dogs obviously thought the dog was real enough to be worried about it.
Harris stressed that most of the research on jealousy is between humans in relationships. But jealousy can show up early in life between young siblings. She suggested the emotions may have evolved with siblings competing for food and attention. She suggested that jealousy is not necessarily an emotion for humans in an emotional romantic relationships, but also can be seen in animal relationships.
Jealousy Should Not be Rewarded
In the home, jealousy should not be rewarded as it can lead to stronger and stronger attempts of the animal to get his way. Alister the Doberman, who is significantly larger than Tamara’s cat, Simba, could physically overwhelm or even harm Simba. Not that all jealous actions turn physical, but, unfortunately, many do.
Many behaviorists recommend walking away from a pet who is acting jealous because of the owner’s interactions with another pet or family member. Any attention (of any kind) paid to the jealous pet could be considered as potentially positive attention. After all, the jealous pet is trying to get the owner all to himself. Talking to the jealous pet, pushing him away, distracting him with a toy or any other attention could potentially reward him and cause him to repeat those actions.
Reduce Insecurity to Reduce Jealousy
Since jealousy is often rooted in insecurity, building the jealous pet’s confidence is one way to try and reduce jealous behaviors. Give the jealous pet some one on one time without the other pets interfering.
The jealous cat could get some play time with a favorite toy, some brushing and petting. The jealous dog might need some fun training, thereby boosting his confidence. A fun dog sport might do the jealous dog some good, too, as he could spend time with his owner while they have fun together.