How to Be a Better Pet Owner: Finalist 13

Little Grace was down to her last ping pong ball. Every year she played this game at the county fair, but for some reason she never succeeded. No matter which way she threw them, the balls would bounce right back out of the little cups and into the water. It was so frustrating, but she always played because she was determined to get that prize: Her very own goldfish.

She threw the last ball and somehow, by an amazing twist of fate, it landed in a cup and stayed there. Hooray! She was going to get her very first pet! At the end of the day her parents took her to a store where they got a fish bowl, a can of fish food, some pretty blue gravel, a fake plant, and a little net for scooping the fish out of its old container. How exciting!

When the family got home they covered the bottom of the fishbowl with the gravel, poured in some tap water, and added in the decorative plant. Now it was time to move the fish (who by this time had been named “Goldie”) into his new home. Grace’s mom took the net and scooped Goldie straight out of his container and quickly put him into the fishbowl. The transition seemed to stress the poor fish out at first, but soon he was happily swimming around and exploring his new surroundings.

Things went fine for the next few of days. Grace fed Goldie a small pinch of fish food each day, and her mom would regularly change out his water. On seventh day, however, something went horribly wrong. Without warning, Goldie was suddenly floating upside down, struggling to swim, and just minutes after Grace found him like this, he was dead.

Goldie’s story is a true one, and not unlike that of many pet fish. It’s common to hear stories of fish that lasted only a few days or weeks, but it actually doesn’t have to be that way. The natural lifespan of the common goldfish is up to TWENTY years. This means that the vast majority of pet goldfish do not die a natural death. They are killed by lack of proper care.

Now as it turns out, the true source of the problem with goldfish care is the same common source for difficulties in caring for almost all types of companion animals: Simple ignorance. Grace had no idea how to take care of a goldfish and neither did her parents. No one had really told them how, so they just kind of did what seemed right. Often this mistake is even easier to make with really common pets like cats and dogs. We see so many people with cats and dogs all the time, that after a while we start to think we know how to take care of these animals. If our parents or our neighbors did things a certain way with their dog, we will likely assume that they knew what they were doing and mimic them. Kibble, water, a walk every day … easy! Everyone knows how to take care of a dog … or so we think.

Did you know that a poor diet can cause diabetes and heart disease in animals, much like it would in people? What’s more, a “poor diet” for an animal can be defined by completely different guidelines than we would use for analyzing any human diet. Cats, for example, desperately need an amino acid called taurine. If they don’t get it in their food, they get a heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), which stretches the walls of the heart and makes it too weak to properly pump blood. Some dogs can get the same disease if they don’t get another nutrient called L-carnitine, so people who “know” how to take care of a dog might actually be causing disease in their beloved pet just because they use a dog food that doesn’t contain everything that the animal needs.

Examples of these kinds of errors exist with all kinds of pets and pet owners everywhere. I know that I have been guilty of it myself because I thought I “knew” something about my pets, when it was really just a popular myth or a guess. The only way that I was able to learn the truth about what my animals really needed was to sit down and read. If an animal can be kept as a pet, then someone somewhere is an expert on how to take care of that animal. I don’t need to know everything about the anatomy and physiology of a dog before I can give it all the care that it needs, because someone else has already done the research and figured it out for me. Now I just have to find this expert.

The easiest thing to do is to look on the internet, but this is a dangerous move. Sure, there are lots of experts on the internet, but there are also many more people who only act like they know what they’re talking about. The easiest place for these imposters to assert their falsehoods is in online forums and chat rooms, since there is no way to tell what their credentials are in this format, so I recommend avoiding these places if you have a serious question about animal care. The best places to look are what we call peer-reviewed publications. These are books and articles that had to be examined by multiple experts before the rest of the world could view them, which means that they are a lot less likely to contain errors. Unfortunately, there is no universal stamp to tell us which publications are peer-reviewed and which ones aren’t, so instead here are some hints to help you figure out which sources are more reliable:

1. A physical published book about animal care is usually reliable because it took an immense about of time, effort, and passion for someone to make a book like that. Even if the book manages to get published without being examined by other experts, the person who wrote it clearly has a lot of experience with the animal, so they probably know something about how to take care of it.

2. An internet article with a list of references at the bottom is usually a good source because it shows that the author of the article actually did some research before they started writing.

3. An internet article created by an organization of veterinarians or animal breeders, or a university represents the consensus of numerous people, all of whom have some knowledge and experience with animal husbandry.

Using these three types of resources, I recommend that every pet owner try to learn something new and become more educated about their animals. Challenge your assumptions and find out whether you know as much as you think. This is especially important when you are about to get a new pet, but even old pets can experience a richer and healthier life when their owners learn something new and start making changes for the better.

I’m sure that there are many things that every pet owner could learn more about and improve upon, but if you are unsure where to start I have a few recommendations for important things to find out about your pet. The first thing to look up is housing. How much space does this animal need? What kind of air temperature is safe for these animals to live in? A pet lizard might need parts of its cage to be close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas a chinchilla could die of heatstroke at such high temperatures. Some animals may need a high humidity environment, whereas others prefer a desert-dry habitat. Find out what category your pets fall into and see if you can do anything to closer match your animals’ needs.

A second important thing to look up is the natural social structure of your animals’ species. Some species, such as dogs, normally live in large social groups and need some kind of companionship in order to be happy. For a dog either people or other dogs can fulfill this need, but if a dog is left alone too long it can develop destructive behaviors. Another species, on the other hand, might have completely opposite needs. A Syrian hamster, for example, is normally a solitary animal and may actually try to kill another hamster if they are kept together in the same cage. Each individual species of hamster is different though, so you have to be specific when you look these things up.

It is also a good idea to find out what kinds of behaviors your animal’s species normally engages in. Do they like to chew on things? Do they burrow underground? Do they swim, climb, or need lots of space for running around? Each type of animal has its own list of normal behaviors, and if their surroundings prevent them from engaging in normal behaviors they may become ill or start engaging in what is called “stereotypical behavior”. A stereotypical behavior is something that an animal does over and over again in an unhealthy way as a replacement for a normal behavior that it can’t do. Some common stereotypical behaviors are pacing back and forth, obsessive licking or scratching, or self-mutilation. Make sure you know that your animal is able to behave normally so that this doesn’t happen to it.

One last thing that you could learn in order to become a better pet owner is the genetic predispositions of your pet. A genetic predisposition is when a particular animal has a high chance of developing certain diseases because of the genes it inherited. This is particularly important for purebred cats and dogs. German Shepherds, for instance, have genes that make them more likely to get exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (a disease that prevents them from digesting fat from their food), while a Shih Tzu is more likely to get kidney stones. Every breed of dog or cat has its own predispositions and knowing what they are can help you take the necessary steps toward preventing these diseases from occurring in your animal. If you have a purebred animal or are thinking about getting one, I strongly recommend finding out what predispositions are true for that particular breed. For mixed-breed animals the predispositions usually aren’t as strong, but it may still be helpful to know what breeds your pet is mixed from and what all of their predispositions are.

This list of recommendations is by no means complete, but hopefully it will help you get started in learning more so that you can find your own questions to research and keep improving, becoming more of an expert yourself. Who knows? Maybe one day you will be the one writing the books on animal care. There is no surer way to become a better pet owner than to work toward becoming a true expert, a master at what you do. Doesn’t that sound awesome? Even if you don’t think so, I’m sure your pet won’t mind receiving expert care, so why not start learning today? With just a computer or a library card you can seek out one of the reliable resources that I mentioned earlier and just take a little time, perhaps five minutes a day, to read something new about your pet. If you find out that you’re doing something right already, pat yourself on the back. You’ve just confirmed that you’re a great pet owner already. If, on the other hand, you find out that your pet is missing something important in its life, see what your options are and try to resolve the problem. Even if you can’t completely fix it, you can probably at least make some small changes to give your pet a better quality of life. Whatever you do, don’t give up. Keep trying and keep learning to be the best pet owner that you can be. I believe in you.

H. Green

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