How to Be a Better Pet Owner: Finalist 29

A ‘pet-owner’ is indeed a vague and all-encompassing title. You may find those that fit the description in all walks of life and on every corner of the globe. The bearers of the ‘pet-owner’ title may perhaps be bested in their variance only by said ‘pets’ that they own. Therefore now comes the challenge of giving sound and efficient advice which could be as pertinent to a Chihuahua owner on Malibu beach as it would to an avid falconer in the UAE. Luckily the answers, I believe, lie comfortably in one simple word… ‘welfare’.

As a child, I believed that satisfying your pets basic needs was sufficient; food and water, exercise, affection, health and shelter. To a certain extent, I maintain that those five points are critical to a pet’s welfare. However, during my study of veterinary medicine I have become increasingly aware of higher welfare standards and more established husbandry specifications.

I suspect that many pet owners treat the aforementioned five points with slight inequalities. As an example, some may be concerned with having a very ‘healthy’ dog. This concern could perhaps predispose the owner to over-exercising the animal or even partaking in excessive veterinary visits. Just as with humans, all aspects need to be kept in balance. Over exercising can lead to early-onset arthritis and joint problems. Similarly overfeeding can cause many metabolic disorders including obesity.

A welfare issue which is easily overlooked is providing adequate housing. Reptiles are particular prone to problems when kept in ill-suited habitats, and a little research is all it takes to learn (for example) that most turtles need full-spectrum lighting and a good, warm rock on which to bask. Obviously housing is animal-dependent so it is crucial to do a little background research and be sure you know how best to meet your animal’s particular needs.

Affection also comes in many different forms depending on the animal you have and even the person you are but no doubt it is vital. It could be a loving relationship or a working relationship, it could even be a necessary relationship, such as those who’s lives are so dependent on the help of their pets that their livelihood is completely intertwined. A sleigh-dog rider would be no rider without his dogs. A cattle herder would be no herder without his herd. Then again, old Beryl from the house next door would be completely destitute without her trusty old sidekick a slow old poodle who’s going blind in his left eye. Dependence certainly comes in many forms, and it is undeniably not just from side of the pet to the owner!

Pets also, ideally, would always be in optimum heath. I truly believe that the best way to guarantee good health is through proper veterinary treatment and preventative care. Of course, if a human is sick, they visit a doctor. One must not neglect their animals needs just as one would not neglect their own.

Some great welfare guidelines to follow are the five freedoms developed by the UK government for livestock husbandry. I first learned about these upon starting my veterinary schooling. Even though originally developed for livestock, I think that they can easily be transferred to pets as well, albeit with a little tinkering. The five freedoms state that the animal must have freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury or disease, freedom to express normal behavior and finally freedom from fear and distress.

Freedom from hunger and thirst refers to providing the animal with adequate amount of fresh, clean water and providing the proper type and amount of food that animal need to maintain a healthy life. As stated above this can be very important when dealing with obese or malnourished animals. Pets normally do not have personal control over how much or what type of food they eat. It is therefore the owner’s obligation to make sure that the animal is receiving a suitable and balanced diet. You would not feed a cat a dog’s diet, cats are obligate carnivores whereas dogs are omnivores. A dog’s diet would lack vital amino acids, minerals, and vitamins required for a cat’s growth, development and everyday life. This same rule applies for treats. Treats can be an effective tool during training but if overfed they can lead to obesity and disorders such as laminitis in horses. Laminitis is the separation of the dermis and the epidermis in the hoof, a painful condition caused by too many non-fibre carbohydrates. Some animals have absolute requirements in their diets. ‘Essentials’. For example guinea pigs cannot synthesis vitamin C unlike many other animals, therefore it is absolutely necessary that owner provides a good supplement or a fresh source of fruit and vegetables.

Freedom from discomfort means making sure that animal lives in the right type of environment and is provided with an adequate shelter ‘cover’ said animal’s needs. The owner must provide adequate space for the animal. A rabbit needs an enclosure large enough for it to stand up, turn around, lie down, and be able to take at least three hops from one side of the cage to the other. It would also be important to make sure that the rabbit is not completely confined to the cage and is able to get exterior exercise in another environment, which also suits the rabbit. As such, it’s important to be considerate not only of where the animal rests but also where the animal plays, works, or exercises. Living environments should always be kept clean as unclean environments can lead to health problems and further discomforts.

Health problems and discomforts leads me perfectly on to ‘Freedom from pain, injury, or disease’. Preventing an animal from getting ill or injured and ensuring the animal gets any necessary treatment. Many problems are preventable especially with over-fed animals. Over-fed animals tend to be susceptible to disorders such as orthopedic diseases, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and many more. All of those problems can be treated or prevented if the owner is knowledgeable about a suitable and controlled diet. Unfortunately, feeding is commonly out of control of the animal, as some have an insatiable appetite therefore it really is up to the owner to stop over-consumption. Another means of preventing pain, injury and disease is through preventative medicine or care. Making sure your animal is properly vaccinated is easy. This way common diseases, parasites and other illnesses associated with its species can be prevented. Also be conscious of where and what you expose your animals to such as other animals or new environments. This not only potentially prevents your animal from getting sick but can also control the spread of diseases in a population.

Freedom to express normal behavior involves making sure the animal has enough space, proper facilities and if necessary the company of other animals of their own kind. In my opinion this one goes hand in hand with freedom from discomfort. Over the thousands of years of domestication of animals, pets have been selected for certain traits, behaviours, appearances and much more, this may create confusion about ‘what is normal behavior?’ for domestic animals. At the same time there are certain things that, for example, all types of dogs need. Proper facilities to accommodate whatever life style they have. The important issue here is that it accommodates the pet’s lifestyle not just the owner’s and that owners should be aware of this when getting a pet. If the owner lives in a small apartment with no garden and is away from home all day it may mean that a large active dog breed may not suit them because that dog needs a very active lifestyle to remain healthy. Exercise is very important and how much exercise is needed per day for that animal should be known. It may be that the pet is not a solitary animal but an animal which prefers company. In this case the owner must know if it can be housed with only its own species, or only with males or females. These are all considerations that must be taken into account when getting a pet. Another factor is the addition of enrichment. Giving your pet toys can help to both simulate natural behavior as well as help maintain the health of the animal. Pets can get bored just as people do so it is important to stimulate their environment with enrichment activities and occasionally change the types of enrichment so they are experiencing new things.

Freedom from fear and distress means to make sure that any conditions or treatments that an animal is in does not lead to any mental suffering for that animal. This guideline clearly needs to be ‘tweaked’ to make it more suitable for pets than for livestock. However whatever type of ‘pet’ it may be, it is necessary to make sure that animal living a happy and good life. Training, and social interactions with people and other animals should be established. Training can be very important, not only does it benefit the owner but also the development of the animal. The type of training is significant, one should always use negative and positive reinforcement when training rather than positive and negative punishment. Positive reinforcement would be giving a food reward when the dog does something desirable and negative reinforcement would be removing tension on the collar and lead when the dog heals. These skills should be taught at certain ages of development for the best results. For instance if you have a young animal it is important to socialize them to minimize fear later in life. Also, do not ever knowingly put a pet into a stressful or fearful situation unless absolutely necessary.

In all I believe these are five very important points to live by when owning a pet. Following the guidelines above it will be beneficial not only for the animal but for the owner as well. By minimizing disease and injury vet bills and other health related costs will be reduced! As I mentioned at the beginning, every owner and their particular situation are different. Living in a small flat on a meager budget does not mean you cannot own a pet but you do have to be smart about the pet that you own. Certain animals will fit the lifestyles of particular people better than others. Forgetting this can impinge on the animals five freedoms. All too often animals are taken to the vet with problems that have arisen from the pet’s environment rather than from a disease or illness. A pet urinating in the house can be associated with illnesses but it can also be because the owner does not take the animal out enough or does not take the time to train it as they are ‘too busy’. Owners often do not want to look at it as their fault but of course on some occasions unfortunately it is and to avoid these issues owners must do research before getting a pet.

Pets come in all shapes and sizes, and different pets have different needs. Happily, no matter what those needs are you can still associate the five freedoms to each creature just the same. A dog’s environment may be a back garden or park but a fish’s is its pond or tank. In either case both environments must be suitable and meet all the needs of that animal, not just its basic needs.

Many of the five freedoms overlap with each other creating areas of grey. These areas of grey can make assessing some areas difficult but they can also be helpful because sometimes one change will satisfy more than one freedom. In conclusion, I think that by adhering to the animal’s individual welfare needs and maintaining them at the highest possible level you will satisfy all the pet’s needs. The owner needs to remember not everything will be easy. Sometimes what the literature says does not fit your particular situation, but a bit of tweaking can meet your’s and your pet’s needs. Keep in mind the five freedoms and you should do just fine!

G. Brihn

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