How to Be a Better Pet Owner: Finalist 30

There are many ways to improve the lives of animals that live with us. Understanding that pet selection is a very important step for improving the overall health and happiness of the animal and its owners is essential. However once an animal becomes part of the family, there are many other things a pet owner can do to enhance the lives of their pets. Good pet owners should socialize pets well from the start, plan environmental enrichment activities, provide adequate exercise, pick an affordable high quality pet food, monitor their pet’s body condition score, and take a great interest in their pet’s health and regular maintenance activities. These steps will start pet owners on the way to becoming the best pet owner they can be.

Before selecting a pet, one should think carefully about their lifestyle and the effect of a pet on daily life. Considerations such as whether there is time in the schedule to be home in the mornings, evenings, or even afternoons to feed, water, walk, and interact with pet(s) are essential for building the human-pet bond. Research dog and cat breeds on the American Kennel Club (AKC) and American Cat Fanciers Association (ACFA) websites and take a pet selection quiz such as on the PetNet website to find breeds or species that will nicely suit one’s lifestyle. Other factors to consider when selecting a pet include place of residence, age of residents in the household, daily activity level, average pet lifespan, yard size, experience training pets, and purposes for owning the pet (e.g. lap pet, hunting, agility, etc.). One great consideration in selecting a pet is how much it costs to pay for pet food, accessories, veterinary care, training, etc. Potential pet owners should carefully research the breeding and genetics of cats and dogs from specific breeders and note how the breeder is working to prevent genetic disease and improve animal well-being and health. Although many potential pet owners first hope to purchase/adopt a cat or dog, do remember that these pets are not for everyone. First-time pet owners or those with limited time and money may be happier choosing a pet such as a rat, mouse, rabbit, fish, frog, turtle, snake, bird, or other exotic or “pocket” pet.

Once a pet is taken home, socialization should begin immediately and continue throughout the pet’s entire life. The most essential socialization period for kittens and puppies lies mostly before the first 12 weeks of life, however secondary and tertiary socialization periods can last up to six months or one year of age. Although this is a short period of time, the socialization process should continue throughout a pet’s life. To well-socialize a pet, pets should be exposed to as many animals, situations, and people as possible.

By introducing animals to the widest variety of situations as possible, animals are more likely to develop into friendly and adaptable adults. Pets should be introduced to animals of other species and ages so they can learn to play nicely with others and solve conflict. This will hopefully prevent aggression between animals when they meet. Your new companion should also be socialized with people of all types and ages. Pets must be friendly or at least neutral toward strangers, young children, and the elderly. If animals are not properly socialized with all sorts of people, aggression, biting, or other undesirable behaviors could occur. Dogs especially should be introduced to busy streets, cars, trains, public parks, veterinary clinics, training classes, or any kind of place or creature the animal could be exposed to in their life. This can help reduce fear- or aggression- related behaviors when introduced to situations outside of typical daily activities.

Although pets can adapt well to living with humans, there are many things a pet owner can do to help their animals live happier lives. One way is through encouraging pets to interact more with their environment; this is called environmental enrichment. Many zoos use environmental enrichment for captive animals to encourage animals to spend more time performing natural behaviors and decrease the occurrence of stereotypic behaviors. Stereotypic behaviors are repetitively performed or unnatural behaviors that develop mainly from lack of mental stimulation. Because many pets spend several hours each day at home alone with little to do, pets also have much to benefit from these activities. Environmental enrichment plans should be designed to either discourage negative or stereotypic behaviors, or encourage positive behaviors such as feeding, playing, or seeking activities. Some examples of environmental enrichment that could encourage these positive behaviors include presenting meals in a toy such as a Kong so the animal has to work harder to eat its meal, rotating the availability of toys to provide variety, and hiding treats around the house so the pet will search.

For highly active dogs, environmental enrichment activities could include training in agility, fly ball, hunting, retrieving, etc. While these competitions and lifestyles may be time-consuming, many dog owners find these experiences the most rewarding for them and their pet. Not only can these activities help keep pets active, busy, and focused, but they are a great way to enhance the bond between pets and their owners. Further ideas for environmental enrichment can be found on the internet through an online search engine or YouTube.

A pet fed a high-quality, well-balanced diet is a happier and healthier pet. There seems to be a dizzying array of commercial dog and cat foods to choose from, so trying to choose the best diet for pets can be stressful and confusing. Raw food diets are growing in popularity, but keep in mind that these diets can have a very high bacterial load and should not be fed to a pet that is accustomed to eating non-raw food commercial diets. Feeding a puppy or kitten a homemade raw food diet from the start can be a great way to give your pet the best nutrition possible, but these diets should not be used unless an animal nutritionist has approved the recipe. These diets can also be very expensive. Keep in mind that rodents, birds, rabbits, etc. will have very different dietary requirements than dogs and cats. Generally, diets designed for a specific species should not be fed to any other species. Otherwise, nutritional deficiencies or toxicities can occur.

However, there are a few simple tips that can help in choosing a higher quality diet for cats and dogs. First, take a look at the ingredients list on the pet food bag and read the first few ingredients. The first ingredient in the list is the primary ingredient in the diet’s composition. Each subsequent ingredient is ordered from highest to lowest by composition in the diet. Since dogs, and especially cats, have a high protein requirement, the first three ingredients should be from animal-derived protein sources. Animal-derived protein such as meat and egg are higher quality than plant-derived proteins such as soy. A high-quality cat or dog food will not have a carbohydrate such as corn, wheat, or rice in the first three ingredients. For the highest quality cat or dog food (or treats), the first ingredient should be a fresh meat (i.e. chicken or salmon). The second ingredient should be a protein meal or by-product meal (i.e. chicken meal or chicken by-product meal). The best animal protein sources are those from an identified species. For example if an ingredient is simply listed as “poultry by-product meal” or “meat meal”, the ingredients could be coming from an unidentified source such as road kill. Carbohydrates should be found elsewhere in the ingredient list, but ingredients such as vegetables and fruits are also great.

Lastly, be sure to look out for a misleading trick called “splitting.” Splitting occurs when the same ingredient is listed multiple times on an ingredient list under a different name, making it appear the ingredient is present in a much lesser proportion in the diet than it truly is. For example, the ingredients wheat and corn are commonly split in cat and dog foods. Corn could be listed under “corn gluten meal”, “corn protein”, and “corn meal” on the same ingredients list. When these corn ingredients are all added together, corn could end up being one of the primary ingredients.

Knowing how much to feed a pet can be just as difficult as deciding what to feed. Pet obesity is one of the greatest issues facing pets today, so good pet owners should know how to assess whether their pet is at a healthy weight. Try looking up the “Nestle Purina Body Condition System” online to see pictures and descriptions of what an underweight, ideal, and overweight cat and dog will look like. also has tips on how to identify an obese cat or dog under “Tips & Tools” on their website. Once an owner has identified their pet’s body condition score, the amount of food fed to the pet should be gradually adjusted accordingly until the pet is maintaining an ideal body condition score. Generally, a pet’s ribs and spine should be easily visible and felt through skin and fat layers on the body. This will help prevent the development of many common diseases associated with obesity such as diabetes and heart problems.

Exercise is just as important for animal health as nutrition. Providing pets with the opportunity to exercise adequately on a daily basis is essential to the health and happiness of pets and their owners. Some common complaints about dogs in particular are that they are too excitable, energetic, or destructive. For the typical dog however, adequate exercise can greatly reduce the extensity of behavioral problems and energy levels inside the house. When a dog has had sufficient exercise, it is more likely to be calm, less destructive, and more enjoyable to live with. While a small lap dog or senior dog may only require a short daily walk around the block, a very large or highly energetic dog may require two or more hours of exercise such as walking, running, or playing per day. If a pet owner has a large enough (private) yard, installing a durable fence around the yard and letting the animals play outside while the owners are home is an easy way to give pets exercise. Do not let pets run around outside unsupervised off leash or outside of a fenced-in yard. For the safety of pets, their owners, and other community members, walk pets outside only if the animal is on a leash. This can help prevent injury and death due to car accidents, dog fights or attacks, and allow owners to control where their pets go and how close they get to other people and animals. When healthy dogs are well-socialized and trained, some off-leash exercise at a local dog park lets pets burn off excess energy. Regardless of an animal’s size, age, species, breed, or size of their living space or yard, all animals require adequate exercise to lead a happy and healthy life. For example, other companion animals can be exercised by playing games with their owners or by being provided things to climb around on.

There are many others ways to ensure the health of pets. Be sure to take pets to a veterinarian for annual check-ups, or more often as needed. Cats, dogs, rabbits, and rodents require regular dental check-ups and cleanings to ensure teeth are not overgrown, ground down, and to check for dental disease. Pets with long or high-maintenance fur coats need regular grooming including brushing, trimming, etc. to prevent uncomfortable fur matting and skin disease. Although cats do not generally need baths, dogs may occasionally need bathing, but bathing a dog more than once every few weeks can lead to skin irritation. Ask a trusted veterinarian about how to trim a pet’s claws or nails, clean their ears, brush their teeth, and learn to perform these maintenance activities regularly. Monitor pets for any changes in sizes or feel of lumps on the body or sudden changes in attitude, appetite, or activity level. Call a veterinarian if these changes occur.

If pet owners can thoroughly educate themselves on the pet selection process, environmental enrichment, nutrition, exercise, weight control, and health care for their pets, they are well on their way to becoming A+ pet owners. Part of what makes pets so admirable and dear to our hearts is that no matter how much time, money, love and affection are given to them, they will always have endless love and loyalty for us. It may not be possible to return all our pets give us, but educating oneself on being a better pet owner is certainly a good start and will only make the relationship more rewarding.

A. Birkeland

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