A few nights ago I was working my shift at the emergency veterinary clinic when we had a patient come in for treatment. She was a five-month-old chow puppy who had been missing since Friday, and it was now Sunday—late afternoon. She was screaming with pain and very frightened. I assumed she had ran away from the house accidentally until we received a history that revealed the dog was allowed outside off leash, without a fenced in back yard. To me it seems like second nature to put a puppy on a leash but apparently this was not common knowledge to everyone. This experience lead me to think, would a parent ever consider leaving their five month old child out in the backyard, free with no supervision? Perhaps a responsible way to approach being a pet-owner would be to think of your pet as your own child.
A puppy is a huge responsibility and many people do not realize this when they see that cute face behind the glass at the pet store. Puppies require time and diligence in order to raise a companion that fits in with your lifestyle and makes you happy. In the first few months of puppy ownership many things are to be taught and learned. Things such as where the appropriate place to use the bathroom is, the fact that biting is not permitted unless it is a toy, and jumping up on people when they walk through the door is often unacceptable. With this training, there is some room for variation. Some owners like having their pets up on the couch with them, while others prefer them to stay off the furniture. I have even seen some households where the dog or cat has a designated seat they are allowed to be on, but they know this is the only spot that they are allowed on the furniture. Establishing goals and guidelines for your puppy or kitten at an early age can set them up for success later in life. Just like a child, we cannot expect them to know what they should do unless we take the time and patience to show them what our expectations are.
Continuing with the analogy between a pet and a child, many parents would not leave their baby unsupervised in another room or part of the house. This goes the same for puppies and kittens. Puppies especially need to be watched every second they are awake and roaming because they explore with their mouths (which could lead to some costly foreign body surgeries if not careful) and they usually urinate often. A rule of thumb for a young puppy, especially in the first few weeks of having them home, is to take them outside at least once every hour. Going as far as setting an hourly timer can help to train your puppy on where they should be relieving themselves and also sets your puppy up for success. Kittens are a little lower maintenance because they often understand the concept of using the littler pan once they are introduced to it. However, it is important to make sure the litter box is kept in a good area (not a damp moldy basement), the litter box is scooped often, and it is large enough for the kitten. Relate the litter box to your own toilet: you wouldn’t want to have to crawl down to a damp basement to use the bathroom or use a disgusting unclean toilet; well neither would they.
Although not often used for kittens, a good way to manage puppies is to crate train them. The crate provides a safe enclosure for your puppy at nighttime when you are asleep, or during the day when you are at work or out of the house. Making the crate a positive experience can make training a pleasant practice for you and your pet. You can think of this as putting your baby in the crib so that they are protected from rolling off a bed that has no sidebars. Puppies should be put in a crate that is just big enough for them to turn around and laydown, but not too big. This limited space encourages your puppy to wait to go to the bathroom until they are let out of their crate. Puppies should not be left alone for long periods of time, and they should be immediately carried outside once let out of the crate to prevent accidents from happening. Kittens are usually given free roam of the house, but it may be a smart idea to designate a safe area in your house and keep your kitten there when you are not home. It is also very important to puppy proof or kitten proof your home. This again can coincide with “baby proofing” your home and involves making sure no free wires are hanging around anywhere and all hazardous objects are picked up off the floor and out of the reach of the puppy or kitten.
Along with keeping our pets safe, it is also important to keep them healthy and feed them properly to assure they grow up nice and strong. Most wouldn’t feed their children McDonalds, candy, or soda on a daily basis and we should be aware of what we are feeding our pets as well. Looking at the ingredients is key, and you should pick a food that has meat products listed as the first ingredient, as well as read the full list of ingredients in the food. Dogs and cats are carnivores and need protein to grow properly. Some dog foods are packed with fillers that do not promote our pet’s health. Reading labels is very helpful when making the decision of what to feed your pet and your veterinarian can be a great resource when making this decision.
As we continue to discuss feeding our dogs a healthy diet, feeding them the correct amount is just as important. Following guidelines on the bag with respect to the weight of your pet is important and if you are not sure, make certain you ask your vet. Obesity is not only a growing issue among the human population. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention found 52.5 percent of dogs and 58.3 percent of cats to be overweight or obese by their veterinarian in 2012. This is more than half of the population that is at risk for obesity related diseases such as diabetes, osteoarthritis, hypertension and many cancers. Many owners feel that they love their pets too much to deprive them of treats and table scraps. Unfortunately, this extra love in the form of food is causing serious problems in pets across the nation. A better way to show your pets love is to feed them a healthy balanced diet and offer them treats such as carrots and apples. Some owners find carrots and apples as a treat very odd; however, many pets love these options and this is a much healthier alternative to table scraps or other treats.
Up to this point, we have discussed training, safety, and health. These are all key components to being a better pet owner; nevertheless, I’d like to take this one step further. How would you like sitting home all day with nothing to do but sleep, eat, go to the bathroom, and maybe play if you had someone to play with? Of course there are people that would say they would love this life, but in reality most people would rather have a responsibility or purpose. This goes for our pets as well. Pets that have a job are often happier and this can foster a stronger bond between you and your pet. Having a job does not mean you have to have the next bomb sniffing police dog, but simple things like teaching them tricks or how to get the newspaper can be just as meaningful. For those with a little more time, using their animals as therapy pets or teaching them an agility course can be very rewarding for both the pet and the owner. Creating something you can share with your pet can help focus their energy and can lead to better behavior at home.
The main focus of this essay has been about dogs and cats, but responsible pet ownership applies to exotic and pocket pets as well. It can actually be more difficult to take care of these pets because their nutritional requirements can be very different and more detailed than a dog or cat. Some exotics require mice, crickets, fresh produce and more. It is extremely important to understand the nutritional needs of your exotic or pocket pet and meet these needs because they can become very ill if they do not get the correct nutrition. Another issue with these pets is that many people use pocket or exotic pets as “starter” pets for their children. Teaching children the proper way to care for these animals is very important. Clean bedding, fresh water and food are essential. Many times caged animals can be kept in very unsanitary environments because people are not willing to change their litter or clean their enclosure. Although a caged pet may not be as big of a commitment as a cat or dog, it is still extremely important to understand there is a commitment and responsibility with these pets. They often require a veterinarian who specializes in this type of pet and it is a good idea to get a book to see what they require before getting them.
Pet ownership takes a lot of work and many people do not understand this. According to the ASPCA Approximately 5 million to 7 million companion animals enter animal shelters nationwide every year, and approximately 3 million to 4 million are euthanized. Owners do not realize the work that goes into raising an animal and this results in them giving their pets up because they do not have the time for them or their pet’s behavior is not acceptable. Many behavioral issues could be avoided during training at a young age as discussed, which is an important part of being a good pet owner. We need to train our pets to be the pets we want them to be and take care of them as if they were our own children. Pet ownership is a commitment, but it is a very rewarding commitment. Understanding what goes into being a pet owner before becoming one is important and there are many resources available to help recognize this commitment. The more time you put into your pet the happier they will be and the happier you will be as well!