Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge that this essay was inspired from the book titled “Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals ”, written by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson. This book provides a lot of information on the behaviour and needs of animals, and is definitely a good read for anyone who wants to be a better pet owner.
It is not difficult to be a pet-owner at all. These days, with the emergence of animal films as well as a certain social status associated with owning pets, more and more people are keeping pets. Sadly to say, many of these ‘cute’ animals are abandoned in the end. There are no criteria imposed on owning pets; anyone can just pop by a pet store and walk away with a new puppy or kitten in less than 15 minutes. Indeed, anyone can be a pet owner, but what defines a good one? In my opinion, there are two crucial questions any potential or present pet owner should ask themselves before they make the big decision of ownership. First, are they ready to commit and make sacrifices for this pet? And if they already own a pet, what is the extent of commitment to their pets? Second, how much do they know about their pet?
One very critical problem about many irresponsible pet owners is the fact that they are so blinded by what they see in the short term, that they forget to look at things in the long run. They just see the joy of having a new playmate; they just see how adorable the animal is; and how the animal will be able to entertain them in their daily lives. What they fail to consider is the amount of effort they have to put in, in order to care for the animal in an appropriate manner. As such, anyone who is going to be a new pet owner should definitely ask himself if he is ready to commit to the long-term responsibilities of caring for another living creature. Furthermore, every animal is unique, requiring their owners to provide varying levels of care and commitment. Owners certainly have to observe the needs of their pets closely and provide them with the attention and care they require to be healthy and happy animals. After all, we are talking about a life that a pet owner will be responsible for. Owning a pet will be exasperating and frustrating at times when dealing with errant behaviours, but owners have to remember that their pets are not toys, they are lives that deserve to be cherished and cared for. Potential pet owners certainly need to fully understand the responsibilities and financial costs that come with owning a pet, in order for them to be truly committed to providing the best care for their pets in the future. For present pet owners, commitment, tolerance and compassion are key traits that they should cultivate to be good pet owners.
Next, it is definitely important to know your pet inside out. This point, I simply cannot emphasize enough. Every animal is a unique individual. This may be your second or third dog in the family, but pet owners should not assume that their new dog is going to be the same as their previous ones. What does an animal need to have a good life? Like humans, animals need to have good physical and mental health to have a healthy and happy life. Brambell’s five freedoms serve as very useful guidelines for pet owners, and they should apply them to maximise the welfare of the animal.
Freedom from hunger and thirst
Freedom from discomfort
Freedom from pain, injury, or disease
Freedom to express normal behaviour
Freedom from fear and distress
The first three freedoms are based on physical welfare and state of animals, and the last two are about mental welfare.
Let’s first begin with good physical welfare. From books, to television programs, to the Internet, there is much information out there on the kind of food, water, physical enrichments, shelter and veterinary care different types of animals require to grow well healthily. In fact, one can even say that there is simply way too much information out there. This makes many pet owners confused about the type of information they should trust and adopt for their pets. As such, many of these responsible and committed owners may be feeding the wrong type of diet, or providing the wrong care to their pets, thinking that what they do is in the best interests of their pets. This demonstrates why it is so important for owners to have a correct in-depth knowledge of their pets. Food given has to be of the right type. An old dog eats a different diet from a puppy; while a cat will require a high-protein diet and should not be fed dog feed. On the other hand, a rabbit will require a diet high in fibre, and a horse should have small, frequent meals throughout the day. It is always important for pet owners to follow this mantra, “Don’t assume, always check’, and ask various questions ranging from their pets’ species and breeds, to any genetically predisposed conditions that may require special attention.
How do we go about maximising our pets’ mental welfare? Animals have emotions, just like humans. Based on the last two freedoms of Brambell’s five freedoms, we know that we need to allow the animal to express normal behaviour and be free from fear and distress. To make good use of these guidelines, we need to first interpret them in the right way. It is crucial of a pet owner to know what is their pet’s normal behaviour to allow it to act normally, the basis of mental welfare. In reality, it is extremely difficult or impossible to give a domestic pet animal the freedom to express a normal behaviour. Take the horse for example; in the wild they cover many miles, in search of new feeding grounds and water. This ensures the horses get lots of exercise and mental enrichment. There is no way an owner could give its pet horse such a vast area of pasture to roam about. It is simply too expensive and not feasible to care for the horse properly. But that doesn’t mean we should give up on providing what the pet horse need. As good pet owners, they should think about how to satisfy the animal’s need for such behaviour by giving the animal other things to do, such as allowing it to graze at night instead of being confined to a box stall with little opportunity for exercise.
Many people including farmers and zoos have interpreted the freedom from fear and distress wrongly. Using the example of a hen, many pet owners of a chicken thinks that they are protecting the animal from fear and distress by keeping them in a barn or a fenced enclosure which keep the foxes out. However, a hen is a prey species animal, and they feel afraid when they are out in the open and exposed to potential predators. A hen has evolved to hide when laying eggs. Hence the enclosure should include a hiding place for the hen, because hiding is what gives the hen freedom from fear, rather than a fenced enclosure.
It is important for a pet owner to know about the usual instincts and behaviours of these animals, and how are they like in the wild. Every once in a while, we hear about pet owners complaining about the things their pet does that annoys them. There are stories about dogs and cats destroying everything in the house while the owners are away, rabbits chewing away electrical wires at home, pet rodents digging away the corner of the cage and many more. A pet owner with a lack of understanding of his pets will be easily frustrated at such ‘errant behaviours’ displayed, leading to unnecessary punishments of the animals and subsequently, in the worst case scenarios, the abandonment of these pets, when these pets have essentially done nothing wrong. I would like to illustrate how these could be avoided with the use of several common household pets as examples.
Most pet gerbils are kept in cages and a lot of them develop a corner-digging stereotypy when they are around a month old. Many owners see this as a destructive behaviour and try to remedy it by blocking these corners with food or water bowl. In actual fact, a wild gerbil does a lot of digging and tunnelling. However, the primary reason why gerbils dig is not because they have an innate desire for the action, but more because they have a need to hide inside a sheltered space like a tunnel. This satisfies their emotion of feeling safe. By having this knowledge about gerbils, pet owners could stop the stereotypic behaviour right from the start by providing cages with plastic tunnels. Thick beddings of suitable materials could also be placed in the cage for the gerbils to dig and tunnel about.
Dogs are very different from other animals. They are genetically wolves that have evolved and been domesticated. Research has shown that wolves, hence dogs, live in families rather than in packs, contrary to popular belief. By knowing this fact, we now know that dogs kept as pets see their owners as their ‘dad’ and ‘mum’, and the children of their owners as their ‘brother’ and ‘sister’. Therefore, pet owners need to be devoted to their pets, like a parent to a child, teaching and training them the right manners and discipline. Because of a dog’s hyper-social nature, they need a lot of interaction, whether it’s with people or other dogs. Furniture chewing often happens because of a dog’s separation anxiety. Pet owners therefore need to try to satisfy this emotion of the dog to curb the destructive behaviours, for example by spending more time with the dog, training it from young, or if they do not have time, they could consider getting two dogs (that preferably know each other), or to choose a dog that has lower attachment needs. A King Charles Spaniel will not be a good choice for a pet owner who spends most of the day at work.
Horses are a prey species herbivorous grazing animal. They use flight for survival in the wild, and are therefore more easily startled and traumatised. As a prey animal, it relies heavily on its vision for survival in the wild, as compared to its other senses, and horses see novel, rapid movements as a signal for imminent danger. Therefore when handling horses, it is important to avoid any sudden or jerky fast movements. In addition, horses are herd animals in nature with strong social needs. They need companions and therefore should not be housed alone inside a stall if possible.
As such, the ideal pet owner must have sufficient knowledge and understanding of their pets in order to care for his pets adequately and appropriately.
Respect for animals comes at many different levels, and it is definitely a pre-requisite of a pet owner. Mutual respect between an owner and his pet establishes the infrastructure of a good animal-human relationship. Animals like humans, have their own boundaries, their likes and dislikes, and have the right to express themselves in times when they are happy, sad or angry. Treat your pet like you would treat a sibling or a friend. Shower your pet with trust and love, and you will receive the same from your pet. Taking care of your pet should never be dependant on your mood. This is a commitment you make to your pet from the day you first had him, and you should honour this friendship.
Being a pet owner means sometimes you have to make difficult decisions, especially end of life choices. It is often difficult to make the right decisions about care for pets who are nearing the end of life. There is no fixed guideline on how you determine that euthanasia is the right thing to do, or when should painful treatments that compromise a pet’s quality of life be used. A pet could mean a lot to a devoted pet owner, and because of this special bond, one can only imagine the dilemma a pet owner have to go through to come to a decision. As good pet owners, it is important not to let your emotions overrun you. Decide what is best for your pet, not what is best for you.
As a pet owner myself, I know a lot of these information are easier said than done and I admit that even I fall short of these standards sometimes. But I know I always strive to be better, and I never give up in trying to give my pet the very best. It is this special bond that I share with my pet that keeps me going. We may not be perfect but at least we try our very best as pet owners. Here’s to all devoted pet owners! Cheers.