Getting a pet with your partner is a big step—so big, in fact, that many couples joke it’s a test run to becoming parents. But even though we may think of pets as a type of parenthood light, we still often underestimate the effect that getting a pet can have on a relationship. Just like having children can’t actually fix a broken relationship (in fact, it will often bring any issue to the surface), getting a pet is not going to automatically bring you closer. Sure, getting an animal can be an incredible bonding experience, but you have to have a strong foundation to begin with.
"Getting a pet is not the same as having a child with your partner. However, some of the same elements apply," says relationship expert Kiaundra Jackson. "Any couple considering getting a pet together should ask themselves the following questions: Are we ready for this responsibility? Do we have the extra financial means to care for this pet? If our relationship does not work out, how will we handle this? Why do we want to add a pet into our relationship in the first place?"
Meet the Expert
Kiaundra Jackson, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of The Art of Relationships: 7 Components Every Relationship Should Have to Thrive.
In some ways, a pet can make you feel like a real little family—but you’d be amazed at how one tiny little creature can reveal every relationship crack and turn your world upside down if you’re not ready. Here’s what you need to consider.
What to Ask Yourselves Before Getting a Pet Together
Is Your Communication Strong?
Just like any potential relationship pitfall, you want to make sure that your communication is strong. If you have any underlying tensions, there’s a good chance that getting a pet will bring them out. "Don't be fooled!" says Jackson. "Just because you are adding a new pet into the relationship, it does not mean it will change the communication between you and your partner. If you and your partner struggled in this area before, chances are you will continue to struggle if there isn't anything done about it." Make sure you’re ready to communicate about your needs—and your pet’s needs—and that you’re both ready to navigate this together. If you tell yourselves to expect the unexpected and know that it may be stressful, especially in the beginning, you’ll be in a much stronger position to take on the challenge.
Are You Financially Stable?
Pets are expensive—far more expensive than you might realize if you’ve never owned one as an adult. In fact, the average cost of owning a cat or dog is over $1,000 in just the first year. It’s not just the food, the medications, the potential dog walker you might have to hire—pet owners can be hit with huge expenses if your pet has an accident or even just eats something it shouldn’t. Pet insurance can help, but that can be expensive, and it doesn’t always cover the full cost of emergencies. If you’re both financially strapped, then getting a pet may make the problem worse. Make sure you’re in a strong position financially or, at the very least, can put aside the money you need for the newest member of your family.
Are You Ready to Take This On for Life?
They say that a puppy isn’t just for Christmas, it’s for life—and the same mentality should apply to your pet ownership. As much as you might want to get a pet to bring you and your partner closer together or as a test run for having children, it’s important to remember that this is a living, breathing being that is going to be affected by the choices you make. Above all, you have to be sure that you and your partner are ready to really make this commitment. Don’t think of this as a test run, think of it as an active choice. You may want to come up with a backup plan in case you and your partner don’t work out, but always make sure you’re considering your pet’s welfare for the long term.
What Type of Pet Is Right For You?
It may be that you’re both decidedly dog people or cat people, but you should also take your position into consideration when choosing to get a pet. Carefully—and realistically—evaluate your expectations, lifestyle, possible allergies, and living space. If you have the physical space and stamina to keep up with the overactive needs of a large-breed puppy, go for it. Otherwise a cat or smaller, low-maintenance pet may be better suited. Do your research about the personality and physical traits of different breeds within the same species as well. Certain animals, for example, may be naturally at ease around small children and other pets while others may be prone to medical conditions later in life or susceptible to anxiety in high-traffic areas. This decision is quite the big one, so make sure you're making an educated choice from the start.
Are Major Life Changes on the Horizon?
Getting a pet is a long-term commitment, not a temporary move. You will be responsible for this animal for the entirety of its life, so be sure that you're up to the task before signing up. If you anticipate any big life changes like having a baby, moving, major income or employment changes, extensive travels, or medical procedures in the near future you should carefully consider how the addition of a furry friend would impact these situations. Changes in schedules (working night shifts instead of day shifts, for example) should also be acknowledged as a pet will need attention just as much as it will require care.
Who Will Be Responsible for What?
"Team work really does make the dream work," says Jackson. "No one wants to handle all the tasks of caring for a pet on their own. This is where communication, boundaries, rules and expectations come into place. It is important to express to your partner what you will and will not do." If you’re getting ready to take on a pet, you want to make sure that both of you are ready for the challenge. This idea that one of you will magically transform from someone who’s kind of irresponsible into a mature, fastidious pet owner just isn’t realistic. Unvoiced expectations and assumptions will only eat away at your relationship and can build resentment over time. Set a system in place that clearly outlines each person's responsibilities and hold yourselves accountable.
How Having a Pet Together Will Change Your Relationship (And Lives)
Getting a pet with your partner is a huge decision because of the resounding impact it will have on your relationship and your lives. You will be in charge of ensuring all of the pet's needs are properly considered and taken care of. Seeing to those needs (exercise, nutrition, living space, medical care, and emotional wellbeing) will absorb quite a bit of your free time and your disposable income. "Pets can be cute at first but they do require responsibility," notes Jackson. "I remember having a friend who owned a dog with their partner. Every time we would go out to eat or hang out, one or both of them had to go home first to take the dog for a walk or make sure it was okay. It was an inconvenience for them that required more planning and less free time." If your relationship doesn't have a solid foundation of teamwork and communication, the added burden of caring for a third entity will only exacerbate those issues.
How Long Should You Wait to Get a Pet Together?
Choosing to get a pet can make you and your partner feel closer than ever but if you’re choosing to expand your family, make sure that you’re ready—because a pet won’t erase existing relationship problems. As with many life and relationship stages, timing is everything but no specific timeline exists for everyone. "Relationships change and mature at many different times," says Jackson. "It should be based on responsibility, finances, clear communication, maturity, and desire." So start with a strong foundation, think about the consequences, and make a plan. If you go into it with thoughtfulness and a little planning, getting a pet can be an incredible addition to your family. "I have worked with a couple where the wife wanted a pet and the husband did not. Ultimately, they wound up getting a dog and it helped tremendously with her mental health, thus improving their overall relationship too," she continues. "Pets can be emotional support animals knowingly and unknowingly to many. One or both partners may need it, which can ultimately enhance their relationship too."
Is getting a pet good for a relationship?
Whether a pet could be beneficial for a relationship largely depends on the relationship itself as well as the individuals within it. Jackson asserts that the addition of anything to a relationship solely for the purpose of bettering that relationship can be concerning and unhealthy in itself. Relying on external sources to fix things will never be a solution. "You should want to make additions to your life because things are already going well and you want to expand and share that with others," she continues. "Happiness is an inside job and good relationships require time, work, and energy that is reciprocated."
Can a pet ruin a relationship?
While getting a pet won't singularly result in the demise of a relationship, it will amplify the dynamics that are already there. "If there is already drama, discord, poor communication, cheating, lying, and so forth—no pet will make that better," adds Jackson.
Will getting a dog fix your relationship?
While a new pet may feel like an easy fix for a rocky relationship, the resulting effect would be temporary and fleeting. "It is more like a band-aid," explains Jackson. "Anything new feels fun, enjoyable, and can help things go well for a while. However, the root issue will continue to be there if it isn't a change, couples therapy, or a suit in one or both partners' behavior."