How to Be a Better Pet Owner: Finalist #1

by Gajan Retnasaba on May 17, 2013

We will be publishing some essays from finalists into our new Veterinary College Scholarship. The topic this year is: How to Be a Better Pet Owner: Advice from a Veterinary Student.

Pets are a source of great joy to a large slice of the world’s population. We love our pets and do everything we can for them – for many people, their pet is the closest friend they have. Companion animals of any species, however, come with responsibility. Almost all of us can remember our first dog or cat and those scary words “Big Responsibility” as a life was bequeathed to us. In the veterinary profession, we most often see animals when they are feeling less than optimal. The following are some tips to prevent that need for intervention, leaving you, your animals, your budget, and the world a happier place.

There are many ways people first acquire their pet, but though they sometimes feel emotionally held to a position – we rescued him, we’ll just keep the kittens, etc. – deciding to adopt or keep a pet is an important choice requiring the participation of the full household. When considering a pet, evaluate the terms of the relationship and the practical realities – especially for low income families or apartment dwellers. You might be a fan of Australian cattle dogs, but your new job and 10 sq ft yard may be better suited to a low energy breed (or fish!). Talk to people with the type of pet you’re considering and discuss both the behavioral and health proclivities that crop up in that animal. Choose an animal you will love, without having it then break your heart due to behavioral or genetic health issues.

Have you chosen a pet, or are you reading this article already owning one? The best medicine is that which predates a problem. Joint heath supplements are great for dogs with early signs of hip dysplasia but do little to alleviate an existing arthritis. Ferrets make great pets, but once they’ve decided that every corner of the house is a socially acceptable litter box there’s no stopping them. These and most problems that animals are brought to the vet for can be prevented or, at the very least, mitigated from an early stage. We all get lazy or busy, but the need to notice and correct problems before they’re problematic is efficient for both the owner and better for the pet. We’ve all waited to the last possible moment to service the car at least once… and no mechanic has ever said, “You should have brought her in next summer!”

The first step in care is taking your new pet to the veterinarian for an initial physical exam, vaccinations, and any other preventatives the clinician recommends. This has several immediate benefits and at minimal cost to the owner. Common preventatives – relevant to the region you live in and the pet you have – are put in place that will keep your animal from tick burdens, gingivitis, kennel cough, etc. Some of these measures are solely for the health and happiness of the animal. Others will have a physical or emotional impact on you (nobody likes a flea infestation), and still others – such as rabies – are downright illegal to avoid. Veterinarians tend to see a high quantity of animals every day, so preventive solutions they suggest are truly in the long-term interest of pets and their owners, not for the short-term increase in hospital revenue.

Taking your healthy pet to the veterinarian for a prophylactic visit has the added effect of acclimating him or her to the medical environment. There are those dogs that love the attention of vet and staff and couldn’t care less about a few fear pheromones wafting down the hall. Many more animals, however, learn the deep terror of those scary fluorescent lights, slippery floors, and nosy strangers at the V-E-T. This includes most cats. Your cat will probably hate us, no matter how vet-socialized they are! In general, however, an animal who learns that the veterinary office is associated with attention, pats, and treats more than needles and cold tables will not only have a better experience but give veterinary professionals a better indication of their condition. You, the owner, will also enjoy not hunting under the bed for Roscoe, who is pretty sure he knows where he’s going.

Some tips on acclimating your non-feline pet to the veterinary office are to bring a familiar, comfortable item such as a towel for him or her to stand on and to reassure your pet that the situation is not fearful. Pets pick up on body language very well; your nervousness over your pet’s health may rub off, or the opposite may be true! Most clinics have treats for happy pets. Make good use of them, if they’re food-motivated animals. Dr. Temple Grandin describes the core emotions beneath pet behavior as primarily seeking (friendly, at ease, play behavior), fear, separation anxiety, and rage. The two primarily at play in the veterinary clinic, where an animal is present for typically short periods of time and is not in a state of territorial dominance or rage (we hope) are seeking and fear. Dr. Grandin describes these states as a switch-like modality between curiosity and worry. If your pet is becoming fearful, often the best means of control is to leave the animal solidly alone until it calms down. If the animal has nothing further to wind it up, it will often relax over time and, in many cases, respond less frightfully to an identical stimulus in the future.

That takes care of your routine exam. Now you’re home with your new little guy, who looks like he’ll totter into one behavioral problem or another within the hour. Young cats and dogs need to know their boundaries immediately and without confusion – and pets coming into the home in a rescue or adoption scenario may already have a clear (potentially incorrect) set of rules in their own heads. This can be tricky, when your own family and friends differ with you in what you find acceptable. It isn’t rude to explain to someone that your pets do not eat table scraps or sit on the sofa, as long as you find an appropriate way to tell them. Everyone is on the same page, and the house doesn’t feel like a totalitarian régime, either.

Pets are pets, however, and they do make mistakes. Take the scenario of an older puppy who defecates indoors. His behavior may be due to you the owner’s negligence, if you went out or did not interpret his restlessness in time. Perhaps he’s eaten something out of the ordinary. These sort of scenarios do not require punishment. Most dogs will pick up on your disappointment and understand the “wrongness” of poop on the floor – whether they connect the causality that brought that poop to the floor is questionable. The other alternative is that the pet either did not care to follow a rule or intentionally acted out (which may be appropriate or inappropriate, what did you do first?). Understanding the motive behind a misbehavior is crucial to preventing it in the future.

Many vets recommend behavior training via the model of positive reinforcement. While punishment seeks to limit a behavior from repeating, positive reinforcement is an encouraging feedback to the pet who does something preferable. In this example, the dog who poops inside will receive no feedback: simply not granting positive or negative attention to your pet is plenty of punishment, as many pets live and breathe to please their masters. The dog who scratches or whimpers when the urge arises will receive the positive stimulus of going outside into the yard or on a walk followed by attention, praise, and food rewards.

On the subjects of walks and misbehavior, dogs are naturally high energy animals who need substantial exercise on a daily basis. One of the top causes of problem behaviors in canines is under-stimulation. The extreme case of the leashed pit bull terrier in someone’s front yard is the cause of not only countless territorial behavior problems but a stigma surrounding an entire set of breeds. Likewise, the habitually indoor dog may develop anxiety problems – including separation anxiety – as a manifestation of boredom and under-exercise.

Exercise maintains a healthy weight in terms of limiting fat as well as building muscle. Depending on breed, either (or more likely both) of these measures is critical to limit health problems the pet may be prone to. In addition to physical health, there are few better ways of bonding with your pet then by playing with him or her. It may sound like a detail to some, but healthy exercise is possibly the #1 differential between the genetically fit animal in peak health and the one in poor. The nature of the exercise you perform with your pets depends on breed and species, of course, but it’s often wise to get an animal into fun and stimulating habits – like morning walks or runs.

The above discussion is really focused on our canine friends, but cats and pocket pets deserve exercise and play in their own ways. If your cat likes playing with laser lights or dangle toys, make sure you keep their interest up! Middle aged or older cats often enjoy playtime if it’s been a normal part of their lives, but an old and frighteningly obese kitty is not going to take up the ball track to lose a few pounds. Most rodents are hard-wired to both run and chew in a way that, should these means be deprived of them, they will simply go insane. Under-socialized or exercised birds are prone to stress barbering and inappropriate (from the landlord’s perspective) screeching.

Just because you’re exercising your pets, however, does not forgive buying generic dog chow every week at the store. Though it is tempting, the difference in quality between a low and high end diet is worth more than the price tag. Not only do premium foods make your pets feel better, they prevent health problems that inevitably cost more in the long run. If you’ve made the commitment to take care of a pet, do so with healthy food that suits their breed and lifestyle. As a previous technician with a great deal of dentistry experience, I can also testify to the value of a hard chow with abrasive, scrubbing ability. Soft foods have two functions: they tend to be more delicious, but more importantly they tend to be perceived by owners as such. Gravy in cat food, for example, looks quite delicious to a human but is not what the feline prefers most in the can.

The owner will have to make the call on which foods are acceptable for their pet, be it a strict all dry-food diet (which is probably the healthiest) or one where the occasional table scrap or leftover is acceptable to a level that does not incite thieving behaviors. The best person to ask regarding brands of high quality pet food is the veterinarian – not the store clerk, the neighbor, or answer forums on the Internet.

Many of my suggestions are aimed towards the dog or cat owner, but all apply to any species. Many pet owners in the US and abroad enjoy pocket pets or birds for companionship. Others have pets that cross over into the large animal and food animal worlds, such as horses or pet pigs and goats. The same basic rules for success apply: learn about the species, the breed, and the animal you’ve taken responsibility of. Treat him as you would yourself or a new child – take him to the doctor for his shots and physical exams on a regular basis. Keep him healthy in both body and mind with exercise and diet, and have a plan to teach him proper behaviors and attitude.

You’ve given your pet everything it needs to be happy, and wild species will thrive on this formula (pet reptiles, for example). The one element still necessary for our domestic pets is the most important, and the one that brings it all together: time and love. Even those animals here for a job – service dogs for the handicapped or working dogs on the farm – still need to take off the backpack and be a pet. Give your animal attention, and he or she will pay it back in spades. The fun and stress release associated with a strong human-animal bond is worth all the time it requires a hundredfold and will make both you and your animals happier and more productive. That’s why you’ve chosen to take home a pet and why we’re here to help you.

G. Ehrensing

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