How to Be a Better Pet Owner: Finalist 2

This is the second finalist in our new college scholarship program. The theme this year is how to be a better pet owner.

Nearly everyone can remember being that bright-eyed child looking longingly in a pet store window, and begging their mom or dad to allow the animal to become the new family pet. However, Mom and Dad knew better, and knew that being a pet-owner is more than just petting a cute fuzzy animal. They knew that being a pet-owner comes with responsibilities! In this essay I will try to share some advice on how everyone can be a better pet owner, and how to go above and beyond for your furry family member.

Even a child who desperately wants a new puppy or kitty, probably realizes that the pet needs to be fed. However, there is more to just putting out food and water. Depending on your type of pet, it may be better to have food and water available all day everyday, a method called free-feeding, or in some cases it may be better to just provide water all day, and only provide food at intervals throughout the day. This leads me to my first piece of advice, which is always do some research on your pet before you bring him/her home! For example, a cat may be fairly low maintenance and free feed, whereas a horse may need to be fed several times per day depending on the climate you live in.
In terms of the type of food, it is also better to not just buy whatever is cheapest from the shelf. Just like humans, animals have specific nutritional requirements, and if you want your pet to live a long, happy, life, a little bit of care should be taken when choosing a food. It is always best to seek the advice of a veterinarian as to what to look for in a food. Also always seek the recommendations of a veterinarian in terms of human food “treats”. Some veterinarians will tell you to avoid human food altogether, however there are certain human food treats that if given in moderation, can be considered a healthy treat. An example is an apple, so long as it is cut into an appropriate size for your pet.

One thing I always recommend for pets too is a vitamin. This can come in the form of a water additive or a chewy treat. Again, depending on the type of pet you own, different nutrients may be more important. For example, you have probably heard of glucosamine/chondroitin for human joint problems. Well did you know that this may be available for your pet too? Some dogs with genetic predisposition to arthritis and joint problems may especially benefit from this. Just remember to check that the nutrient supplement is made for your species of pet, as some nutrients can’t be taken by all species. Also, never try to give a pet a human vitamin, as humans and animals have different nutritional needs.

My next piece of advice would be exercise. Yes, we all know that puppies love to run and play, while cats tend to be known as the more laid back members of the household. But all animals can benefit from exercise! If you have a dog, several walks per day, or in colder climates, a designated play time will help keep your dog physically fit, as well as mentally stimulated. How about Mr. Cat though, wouldn’t he prefer to just sit and relax? Well maybe and maybe not. There are actually numerous inventions that many cats love, one such example is a cat running wheel (think a hamster wheel made for cats). Pocket pets of course love running wheels and exercise too. If you can’t afford a bunch of equipment, keeping your pet active doesn’t have to be expensive. Many pets can be just as content with a homemade toy; such as a tennis ball to play fetch with a dog, a laser pointer that a cat can chase around the room for exercise, or even something fun for both you and your pet like dog agility.

My third piece of advice is preventative care. Many pet owners think they can save money by avoiding certain vaccines or other preventative care such as heartworm prevention, or routine dental cleanings. It is easy to fall into the “it won’t happen to my dog” mindset. If this is you don’t worry; it’s usually not too late, and typically a fairly inexpensive fix to get your pet up to date on any preventatives they may need. I always advise speaking to a local veterinarian, as recommendations may change depending on where you live. For example, did you know that there is a rattlesnake vaccine for dogs? This is highly recommended in areas with a large rattlesnake population, but probably unheard of in other states. When asking your vet if your pet “really” needs a certain preventative treatment, I would advise you to think about putting yourself into your pet’s situation. For example, would you never brush your teeth, never go to the dentist, and still feel like your teeth are healthy?! A great example of how easy preventative care can be is heartworm prevention. Heartworms are a serious, and potentially fatal disease that are transmitted by mosquito bites in certain areas. The prevention is a chewy treat that pets typically love and is given once a month. On top of preventing heartworms, it also typically contains another dewormer to treat for all those other nasty creepy crawlies that your pet may pick up in the yard and then bring into the house. This once a month chewy treat is typically a few hundred dollars or less per year. However, if your pet gets heartworms the treatment is a long involved process, which has many risks to your pet, and can end up costing thousands of dollars! I would rather take the prevention any day, and I’m sure your pet would too!

What if you already do all of the things already mentioned? You already researched your pet, and took all of your veterinarian’s advice on medical care and food, and your pet loves exercise. Well you are off to a great start, but let’s talk about training now. Training gets to be a much more involved topic, as there are many different methods to training your pet, and many of them work great. However, there are also many common mistakes that pet owners make that can cause a lot of headache and confusion for both the owner and the pet. Let’s say you have a new puppy in the house, and he had an accident on the carpet. You discover it probably hours after it happened. According to many sources, scolding your pet at this time will not help, because it has been too long since the incident for the pet to associate the scolding with the bad behavior (in this case wetting inside the house). A better way is to help your pet associate good behaviors with positive reward. For example, when housetraining a pet you should take them out at least every few hours to where you would like them to go to the bathroom. When they do what you want, they should be given a treat. After a few weeks you can start only giving a treat some of the time, until you can taper off to perhaps just a “good dog” statement.

Another way to use positive reinforcement is for socializing. Socializing should be done at a young age to avoid future headaches when you have to be in a public scenario around other people or pets. Exposing them to these circumstances as a baby will eliminate fear. Your pet may also be given positive reinforcement during these exposures to make it even more of a happy event. A good place to practice socializing is at the vet. Future veterinary visits will be much less of a problem for everyone if your pet has a happy experience the first few times. Of course your pet will still probably get some unpleasant vaccines, but giving lots of treats and positive voice reinforcement, and lots of petting, will help ease any anxiety. Many vets even advocate a visit without vaccines just to get them acclimated to the environment before any scary vaccinations occur. There are many variations of positive reinforcement training (for example clicker training), that can be read about in books or through classes. Similar training can be used for many scenarios, from teaching your pet tricks, to introducing them to a new area, or training them to use a hidden dog containment fence. The most important take away from this though is that you don’t want to give your pet inconsistent messages, and you don’t want to scold them unless you actually see the bad behavior happen, otherwise it may backfire and the pet may associate a totally different behavior as being bad. Taking some time and learning about proper training techniques will not only make you a better pet owner, but will make both you and your pet happier, as all those “bad” behaviors can be eliminated.

Along those same lines as training, another tip that will not only make your pet happier, but will make you happier as well is to “pet proof” your home. This is especially important during the training phase above. Some examples include furniture covers, to protect from unwanted scratches, keeping items that may be eaten out of reach, and providing your pet a separate area where they can go. This is especially important for cats, who often feel more comfortable having their litter box in a separate quiet area, although dogs often like to have a bed or crate that is their own space as well. This will make your pet more comfortable, but will also avoid unnecessary scolding that could potentially arise from your pet getting into unwanted things. It will also keep your pet safe, and save your pocketbook, as many things that are not toxic to humans, may be toxic to pets if ingested, and may require a fairly expensive treatment to save your pet.

Overall, owning a pet is definitely a responsibility, and requires some research to keep your pet happy and healthy. However, having a pet, whether it be a dog, cat, horse, pocket pet, or even something more exotic, can be one of the best experiences in the world, and will provide you with a loyal companion. With a little extra care, you can easily become a better pet owner, which will provide you and your new family member with years of fun and enjoyment!

J. Czerny

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