hen I adopted my dog, Montie, at 23, I was the first person in my circle to take an “adult” step like this. I was single and had recently moved to New York, and my friends were impressed when I suddenly became someone who woke up early to head to the dog park instead of wasting the morning hours hungover in bed. (To be clear, I was probably still hungover…but at least I was outside!)
I always assumed that when I eventually started dating someone seriously, he’d have a dog—or would want one, at least. I never even considered the other option: dating a cat guy.
I met Joe, my now-fiancé, in 2014. We’d both gone to the same college but he was a year older. We weren’t officially introduced until after graduation, at a party DJed by a mutual friend. While it was cute that we met IRL instead of on a dating app, that quaint reality did have one distinct shortcoming: I had absolutely no clue that he had a cat. Beyond that, there were no photos online—and therefore zero hints—that he shared his Brooklyn one-bedroom apartment with a one-year-old rescue named Tiger.
Joe didn’t mention Tiger on our first date (I, for one, blabbered on about my adorable terrier ad nauseam). He didn’t mention it on the second date, either. It wasn’t until our third date—when he invited me over to make pizza at his place—that I was formally introduced to Tiger. And by formally introduced, I mean with one swift claw-swipe, which immediately drew blood from my leg as I bent down to pet him. “Sorry, he’s sort of possessive,” I remember Joe saying.
This unexpectedly violent introduction didn’t really faze me. Maybe because we were still dating casually and I half-expected things to fizzle out, as they are wont to do, until, of course, they don’t.
Joe and I got more serious. And Tiger got more bloodthirsty. I never knew when an attack would happen (or where it would come from), so I stocked up on Band-Aids and tip-toed through Joe’s apartment, constantly on the lookout for claws. It got so bad that when I needed to travel from one room to the bathroom, Joe would preemptively scoop up and gently restrain Tiger until I had reached my destination.
We kept the pets separate for nearly a year and a half. Around that time, we started talking about moving in together. But before we could figure out logistics like timing and location, we had to figure out our pets.
My dog’s a rat terrier with a high prey drive who’s hated every cat she’s encountered (she even escaped once while in hot pursuit of a stray on the street). Then there’s Tiger, who was clearly not a fan of me, so I had a feeling my dog wouldn’t fare much better either. As the moving-in talks continued, we did a test run one night with the two of them together. I brought Montie over, and to put it plainly, the experience was hell.
In an otherwise pretty ideal relationship, it was unconscionable that this could be the dealbreaker. But still, we were at an impasse.
Giving up our animals for adoption wasn’t an option. Breaking up wasn’t, either. So I did what people do when they really don’t know what to do: I Googled things. First, I turned to random online pet forums for support; after an embarrassing number of hours spent scouring the internet, the answer was clear. We needed professional help if we were ever going to move in together, let alone all get along tolerate each other.
Based on a referral from a Brooklyn rescue, we hired an animal trainer who specializes in these types of situations (they’re more common than you might think). She branded herself as essentially “a couples’ therapist for pets.” And at $150 a session, she cost nearly as much as one for humans.
She told us that she’d know within two sessions if the animals would ever be able to cohabitate. Unlike human therapy, you can’t talk through your feelings—instead of unpacking emotional baggage, we were dealing with animal instincts. So we mostly worked with the tools we had: treats and time-outs. During the sessions, we saw some progress. The trainer practiced slowly walking Montie back and forth near Tiger using a short leash, talking calmly and praising both pets when they behaved. If the animals interacted peacefully (no biting, swiping or aggression), then they’d get rewarded.
But the angelic behavior was only temporary; for the first couple of sessions, things reverted back to normal as soon as the therapist left. Montie would chase Tiger; Tiger would swipe at Montie. We weren’t sure if we’d ever be able to leave them alone together without worrying about coming home to a bloodbath.
After three sessions and spending hundreds of dollars that could have been put toward our savings for a house, the therapist gave us the final OK. I felt massively relieved. Not only because the logistical problem was finally solved, but because the way we dealt with it showed that we were both all in on in this relationship—and that when things got tricky, we’d dig in instead of fall apart. It gave me relationship confidence that other dating milestones, like vacations or even anniversaries, couldn’t.
We combined our stuff and our pets a few weeks after and they’ve now been living together for nearly four years. Surprisingly, Tiger mellowed out immediately after Montie moved in, which makes me think that the cat wasn’t evil at all—he just needed some stimulation and companionship. Kind of like humans. They’re not best friends, and probably never will be, but they do tolerate each other.
No relationship is perfect—whether between humans or pets. We all know this. And hiring a professional pet therapist only solved one problem, but most importantly, it caused us to work through a very real obstacle early on. Now, with a new apartment and a wedding later this year, new issues are bound to crop up. We’ll get through these problems together, just like before—but hopefully with considerably less hissing and barking.
Illustrations by Ana Leovy.