How to Be a Better Pet-Owner: Finalist 23

When in college, most students are not ready to take on the job of parenting. I mean, studying for all those classes is enough without the extra work of caring for a baby. However, most college students do seem to think they are ready to care for a small animal, like a dog or a cat. In my experience as a pre-vet student though, caring for a pet and caring for a baby are very similar. To truly care for a child, you must invest in its care not only financially but also emotionally and physically. What most new pet owners do not realize, is that caring for a pet should be approached the same way. Just as a young child cannot communicate its needs and look after itself, a dog or cat is the same. In my opinion, the best way to be a better pet-owner is to know ahead of time and to be prepared for all the needs that owning a pet will entail, just as a new mother and father would read child-care manuals.

The financial investment for a new pet is something that definitely needs to be considered when caring for a pet. One of the first negative aspects I noticed about Tuscaloosa, Alabama when I first moved here to attend the University of Alabama three years ago, was the remarkable amount of stray animals roaming around, especially cats. Upon visiting the local animal shelter, I learned that the main source of this problem was my peers, college kids who were unable to continually afford to care for their pets, had graduated and moved away, or moved into a new apartment complex that did not allow pets. Subsequently, they had released their pets into the streets. The thought of dumping one of my precious babies into the street makes me sick, but that’s just me. Clearly, those pet owners had not considered keeping their animals for the long haul. It is definitely something to consider when snuggling that adorable kitten or puppy up for sale, that these animals will not only grow larger but also possibly live ten to fifteen years, nearly the amount of time it takes to send a child through high school. Once again, adopting a puppy or kitten really is like having a baby. Before adopting, potential pet owners should consider all the money they will need to spend right off the bat on vaccinations and parasite tests and also a spay or neuter operation. Although not all pet owners spay and neuter their animals, I personally would recommend it. Aside from helping to curb the rate of animal overpopulation I previously mentioned in towns like Tuscaloosa, spaying and neutering provides many benefits to your pets. A spayed female will not go into heat and urinate all over your house and obviously will not have unwanted litters. Spaying also helps prevent breast cancer and uterine infections in female pets- what a bonus! For males, neutering prevents them from wanting to roam away from home in search of a mate, helps improve their rambunctious behavior, and can help prevent against testicular cancer if performed in the first six months of life. To me, the benefits far outweigh the cost of this operation. In addition to the standard fees for a new puppy or kitten, a pet owner should be able to provide basic necessities regularly for their pet such as food, a bed, and toys for enrichment. Not to mention, a cat or dog will incur fees for regular checkups and vaccinations that occur yearly if not more often. Thus, a good pet owner is financially prepared to provide for the needs of their pets not just when they are young but all the way through old age.

Too bad money is just green paper to a cat or dog! Although the financial investment is what keeps them healthy, it is the physical investment of a pet owner that a pet will be able to tangibly appreciate. Let’s go back to the child analogy for a bit. If you locked up your child in a stuffy room when you were tired of playing with him or her do you think you would win the parent of the year award? I don’t think so. It is all too common nowadays that pet owners set aside twenty to thirty minutes to walk or play with their animals. Don’t get me wrong, animals need the exercise to keep them healthy and fit so walk your dog and play fetch. The enrichment from playtime keeps their brains stimulated and puts them in a happy mood just like we as humans get endorphins from exercise. However, just because your animal has had its play time for the day does not mean you have to shut them away in the basement for the rest of the evening. Why not let them enjoy the down time after with you as well? Some of the best moments I have enjoyed with my cats and dogs have been when we have all been exhausted from a run or walk and take a long cat nap together- excuse the pun- snuggled up on the couch. In my opinion, animals do have real emotions, and this simple act of contact is enough to make them feel loved and appreciated. Have you ever noticed how sometimes dogs will go crazy when they first see you in morning? It is all because they just want that first touch, a little pat on the head or a quick scratch on the belly. So let them get close to you! On the flip side of this, love and nurture your pets but do not spoil them. Just like it is okay to give a child ice cream every now and then when their behavior merits it, it is also fine to occasionally hand out treats to your cat or dog. You should nevertheless be careful about treating your pets too often. Spoiling a dog or cat is just like spoiling a child; it creates bad habits. When I was shadowing at vet clinics, I remember seeing all too often overweight cats and dogs that had continually been fed table scraps. Their owners had offered them meat from their plates one too many times and now they just couldn’t say “no” to those adorable puppy eyes. However, saying “no” is the right thing to do when it means looking out for the overall health and well-being of your pet. Cat and dog kibbles are engineered the way they are for a reason; they contain the nutrients and vitamins your pet needs without the addition of random table scraps. Thus, treats should be offered to reinforce good behavior like when a puppy learns a new trick or uses a pee pad. In addition to these tips for at home care, be sure to follow the advice of your veterinarian and take your pet into see him or her regularly. The bills will be a lot less hefty if your veterinarian can take a preventative approach to a problem versus a treatment approach.

It might sound a little corny but even more important than the money and time needed to care for a pet, is the emotional investment required. The emotional investment is the reason I simply cannot picture giving up a single one of my animals. When the proper love is invested in a pet-owner relationship, that cat or dog becomes a part of the family. There’s a reason dogs are called “man’s best friend.” When you invest your compassion and care into the life of an animal, the investment is returned tenfold. Now that my mom is almost an empty-nester, our four cats and one dog really are becoming her babies and she certainly treats them as such. It’s not that she spoils them in a ridiculous manner, but that she loves on them on a daily basis. She looks forward to seeing them when she comes home and truly misses them when she is away on vacation. She showers them in kisses and is not stingy with belly scratches and petting. The first time I realized how special the bond between a pet and owner is, was my first time returning home from college. My cat, Chloe, literally ignored me for the first week or two I was home. She was upset that I had been gone so long and felt neglected, ignored, and underappreciated by me. In this way, I came to realize that caring for a pet is the undertaking of a real relationship. After I had been home for a few weeks, our usual bond returned and her routine of prancing up to my car door every time I came home became the norm. Thus, a good pet owner must have love to give away. It’s not that you have to baby talk your puppy or kitty- although I wouldn’t judge you if you did-but that you need to incorporate them into the family. Most importantly, make sure that the type of pet you are adopting is right for the family you currently have. You obviously do not want any large or aggressive dog breeds around young children just like you do not want a brand new, hyper puppy if you are an elderly couple used to a laid-back lifestyle.

The other, somewhat harsher side to the emotional investment is knowing when and how to discipline your cat or dog. Cats are typically not trained like dogs are so they must be disciplined in a different way. When my cats misbehave by peeing outside their litter box or hissing for no apparent reason, we put them out in the basement for the night. If you have ever tried to spank a cat for misbehaving, you will quickly learn that this just makes them angrier and they rarely ever learn anything from it because they are so upset. Cats, stubborn animals that they are, learn much better by being ignored and not getting what they desire. Dogs, on the other hand, are much more emotionally fragile and sensitive when you spank them. Thus, I certainly am not suggesting beating or hurting your dog in any way, shape, or form, but a swift pop on the backside after bouts of misbehavior is, in my opinion, the most effective way to show a dog right from wrong. After a spanking, a dog’s emotions visibly change. Instead of getting angry like cats, most dogs lower their ears, hide their tails between their legs, and hunker down whimpering in a submissive posture. Hence, they recognize that they do not want to repeat their offense in the chance that it would warrant the same punishment again. One last note about training your dog: make sure you make your home puppy or kitten friendly before you adopt a new pet. It really is not fair to get mad at an animal for ruining your expensive new rug or blinds when you left them there to play with your belongings in the first place.

Next time you are gazing into the eyes of that adorable puppy or kitten at the animal shelter, make sure you have what it takes to be a good quasi-parent to that animal. It is just as bad for an animal to have to stay at the shelter for a few more weeks as it is for the animal to become emotionally attached to an owner that is not ready to commit to it long term. Being a good pet owner, from the perspective of this pre-veterinary student, is a financial, physical, and emotional investment. You really cannot be considered a good pet owner without all three. Trust me, it might sound like a lot at first, but this investment is a safe bet. A good pet owner reaps a reward that not even words can express. That soft, tender purring sound a cat makes as it rubs up against your legs or that look in a dog’s eyes as it runs up to greet you when you return home from work, makes every penny, second, and thought spent worth it at the end of the day.

L. Spivey

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