How to Be a Better Pet Owner: Finalist 3

This is the third finalist essay in our veterinary scholarship series:

“A dog has no use for fancy cars, big homes, or designer clothes. A water logged stick will do just fine. A dog doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, clever or dull, smart or dumb. Give him your heart and he’ll give you his. How many people can you say that about? How many people can make you feel rare and pure and special? How many people can make you feel extraordinary?”
― John Grogan, Marley & Me

It has been a lifelong dream of mine to become a veterinarian. Now, a third year veterinary student at the University of Illinois, I have had time to reflect on many experiences within the veterinary field. I have had many ups and many downs in the field; the success stories that would bring a tear to your eye, and the wretched stories that would make you go home and cherish every second you have with your pet. I have been fortunate to literally have experiences with lions, tigers and bears. Although I have had the opportunities to be face-to-face with the kinds of animals that you would only see at a zoo or on the Discovery Channel, some of my most memorable and rewarding experiences in the veterinary field have been watching interactions and appreciating the relationships between owners and their pets.

The best way to approach pet ownership is to appreciate what I like to call the “3 L’s of ownership”:

1. Learn. Animals can get sick, just like you and me. It is important to recognize the certain diseases and disorders that could cause health issues in your pet. Know there could be risk factors – pets can be prone to specific complications and could require medical intervention. Even in a breed not prone to many risk factors, know they can arise and they can be costly. Did you know that the Boxer breed is overrepresented to developing mast cell tumors? Or that Pugs and English Bulldogs are known as brachycephalic breeds, which can pre-dispose these animals to respiratory problems? Identify and study information on certain breeds; understanding their characteristics and traits before adopting or purchasing your next pet will assist you in becoming a well-rounded and prepared owner.

2. Listen. Although some of us wish they could talk, it is important to recognize the subtle clues that our furry friends offer to let us know something could potentially be wrong. Typically, we can see changes in our pet’s energy level, food and water intake and their frequency of urination and defecation. As owners and as veterinarians, we must piece together some of these signs that could indicate that our pets are trying to tell us that something isn’t right. Great owners can typically pinpoint the delicate changes in their pet’s attitude and personality, which in turn aid veterinarians to successfully diagnose and treat their patients.

3. Love. Unconditionally. Our pets give us their love and warmth; they teach us patience and make us realize that happiness comes not from materialism, but companionship and affection.

“Owners of dogs will have noticed that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they will think you are god. Whereas owners of cats are compelled to realize that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they draw the conclusion that they are gods.”
― Christopher Hitchens, The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever

These “3 L’s of ownership,” along with the following care suggestions, will help to ensure you and your pet will share many wonderful, healthy moments together:

From the first-time owner to the experienced one, many individuals hesitatingly venture into veterinary hospitals. I recently overheard a conversation comparing a small animal hospital to a “stereotypical” auto mechanic, suggesting that the hospital is trying to “fix things that don’t need fixed”. However, the reality is that most veterinarians have gone to school for more than 8 years studying animal physiology, medicine and surgery. It is important for an owner to understand why veterinarians do what they do – from spaying and neutering your pet, to giving vaccines every year at your pet’s annual check-up. Trust that veterinarians have chosen this line of work to promote a world of healthier pets, and that a critical part of our job is not just caring for your pets while they’re in our hands, but helping you to more fully understand how to promote your pet’s health at home. When searching for a veterinarian, it is just as important to find a professional who will take the time to educate you about proper pet care.

Did you know that dogs that have not been spayed have a much higher incidence of developing mammary tumors? Or how about dogs that are not neutered have an increased risk of developing prostate cancer and behavioral problems? These are just a few of the complications that arise when owners neglect to have their pets spayed or neutered. The benefits undoubtedly outweigh the risks when it comes to pet sterilization. These sterilization procedures are considered routine surgeries in the veterinary field and are suggested to be done at an appropriate age (roughly 6-8 months).

“Dogs have given us their absolute all. We are the center of their universe. We are the focus of their love and faith and trust. They serve us in return for scraps. It is without a doubt the best deal man has ever made. ”
― Roger Caras

It’s that time again! You received your reminder in the mail that Fluffy is due for her annual vaccinations. Some of you might wonder, “Why do I need to get vaccinations every year?” The purpose of annual vaccinations is to re-prime your pet’s immune system for the numerous viruses and bacteria they encounter each day. When your pet was a puppy or a kitten, they received antibodies from their mother when they were born. However, these antibodies are only temporary. As veterinarians, it is our job to continue to remind your pet’s immune system of what viruses and bacteria to guard against so that when the immune system does in fact encounter that pathogen, it unleashes a response that will help your pet from getting clinically sick. The understanding and development of vaccines has significantly decreased mortality rates from viral and bacterial infections in both animals and humans alike.

Did you know that dental disease has become one of the most common health problems in veterinary hospitals? Dental health is extremely important in our pets and without oral maintenance, dental disease can lead to very serious problems. It is beneficial to learn the proper way of brushing your pet’s teeth and also providing a diet that is appropriate for your pet’s nutritional needs. Owners should understand some signs associated with poor dental hygiene in their pet, such as: weight loss, excessive drooling, rubbing or pawing at their face, foul breath, and not wanting to chew on toys. Proper dental care can improve the quality of life of our furry friends and should be practiced by every owner.

“No matter how close we are to another person, few human relationships are as free from strife, disagreement, and frustration as is the relationship you have with a good dog. Few human beings give of themselves to another as a dog gives of itself. I also suspect that we cherish dogs because their unblemished souls make us wish – consciously or unconsciously – that we were as innocent as they are, and make us yearn for a place where innocence is universal and where the meanness, the betrayals, and the cruelties of this world are unknown.”
― Dean Koontz, A Big Little Life: A Memoir of a Joyful Dog

Obesity is the most common nutritional disorder in dogs and cats in the United States. It is calculated that approximately 25-45% of cats are overweight and 4.5% of cats are considered obese. Owners should properly select diets focused on their pet’s behavior and lifestyle. Obesity can lead to numerous health problems, including but not limited to: arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, pancreatitis, and skin problems. A common reason why our furry friends are overweight is that owners are simply are over-feeding their pets. An easy formula to remember is that ‘Energy Intake (food) = Energy Output (exercise and metabolism)’. If your pet is taking in more calories than they are burning each day, they will gain weight. So go ahead, take your pet on an extra walk this week, feed the recommended amount of food based on the diet companies or your veterinarian’s suggestions, and substitute that milk bone treat with healthy vegetables like carrots or green beans.

Veterinary medicine has embraced the fact that ‘age is not a disease’. With slight variations depending on your pet’s size and breed, the veterinary world generally categorizes a pet as a senior if they are older than 7 years of age. It is at this age where pet’s become more susceptible to conditions such as heart disease, kidney disease, thyroid disease and arthritis. Generally, people tend to get their blood drawn at their annual exams with their physicians and we strive to follow this concept as well in the veterinary world. Routine blood work can help us as veterinarians detect diseases earlier and treat them more proactively. Owners should expect to see common signs that are associated with an aging pet, including: slowing down, developing gray hair around the face and muzzle, reduced hearing, cloudy eyes due to normal aging changes, and a decreased muscle mass. Prevention and early detection of problems in our senior pets through blood work and urinalysis are ideal to helping the pet live a longer, healthier life.

“Such short little lives our pets have to spend with us, and they spend most of it waiting for us to come home each day.  It is amazing how much love and laughter they bring into our lives and even how much closer we become with each other because of them.”
― John Grogan, Marley and Me

Behavioral and socialization issues are some of the most common reasons why people give up their pets. Proper behavior training and socialization should begin immediately upon obtaining your pet. Veterinary hospitals embrace young puppies and kittens visiting their hospital for socialization and treats before their first visits. One should also consider their own lifestyle and personality before purchasing or adopting their next pet. For example, if you currently live in a small apartment in the city, it may not be ideal to have a high energy breed that requires daily exercise in a confined space. Individuals should also consider understanding certain breed behaviors if they have young children in their house as some breeds can be more stubborn and less patient than others. Expose your new puppy to the world at a young age with proper training techniques are ideal to have a well-rounded adult pet. Most importantly, remember that substrate preferences for elimination (bowel movements) develops around 7-8 weeks in puppies, so the more they are outside in the grass, the less likely they will have accidents in the house!

Pet ownership can lead to a roller coaster of emotions. There will be some days where you will come home to find your favorite shoes shredded into a million pieces. You will appreciate how much your cat enjoys using your couch as a personal scratching post. You may even find a nice stinky present hidden in the guest bedroom. But hey, it happens! A great owner knows what to expect when owning a pet. Create a relationship with your veterinarian and understand that you will embark in a partnership with them to give your pet the longest and healthiest life possible.

Learn about the breed you are planning on adopting or purchasing. Listen to your pet and understand what signs to look for to treat and to prevent illness. Love your animal unconditionally and I can guarantee that they will love you back.

I have a friend. I have a family. I am a pet owner.

A. Buck

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