Five Habits of Highly Successful Pet Owners
by Sheila Webster Boneham
Pets enrich our lives in many ways. They exemplify traits like love, forgiveness, grace, and courage that we humans hold in high regard. They love us through thick and thin. They appeal to us as beautiful, handsome, or “so ugly they’re cute.” They play with us and make us laugh. Research shows that pets may even help us live longer, and in better physical and emotional health.
If having a pet is so great, then why do some people seem to live in complete harmony with the animals in their lives while others find the luster of idealized pet ownership dulled by reality? What do highly successful pet owners do differently?
The short answer is that people tend to be happier with their pets – and vice versa, no doubt! – when they practice five essential habits.
Habit #1: Highly Successful Pet Owners Choose the Right Pet
Life is all about choices, and when it comes to choosing a pet, the possibilities are mind-boggling. Dogs, cats, birds, bunnies....oh, my! Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to choose the wrong pet for the wrong reasons. But before you get that far, there’s an even more basic question: do you really want any pet right now?
All pets require care. Even a goldfish needs to be fed and have his home cleaned from time to time. Birds, mammals, and reptiles, too, place demand your time, energy, and pocketbook. At a minimum you have to feed them and clean up after them. Most pets also need grooming, training, exercise, and veterinary care, and some pets need a lot of all three.
Above all, companion animals need companionship. You may be scurrying around town all day and half the night, but your pet is home waiting for you. He may be frightened or anxious. At best, he’s lonely and bored, and he may look for ways to entertain himself. And, biological being that he is, he needs to potty every few hours. If you don’t see to his needs, he’ll probably do things you don’t like.
People often blame their pets for being “bad” or “vengeful” when they chew things or pee on the rug, but pets don’t live by such human impulses. They just do what comes naturally, and it’s up to us to anticipate and direct their natural behaviors. Highly successful pet owners know that whether they are home or not, their pets are still breathing, thinking, playing, and otherwise functioning as live animals with needs that must be met, and they pick pets whose needs fit into their own lives.
If you can provide for a pet, you have more big decisions to make. What species of pet will fit into your life? Dog, cat, rabbit, bird? What breed or mix of breeds? Do you want a cat who is playful, or one more likely to lie placidly on your lap? Can you handle a dog who needs to run a half-marathon every day, or would you rather toss a stuffed toy across the room a few times? Pets are not interchangeable, and one person’s ideal companion animal is another’s biological nightmare.
Age can be an important consideration in choosing a pet. Like all babies, young animals need special care and handling. In all honesty, for people who have limited time, young children, physical limitations, or just a disinclination to care for a toddler or tolerate an adolescent, an adult pet makes more sense.
Will an adult bond to me, you ask? In a word – yes. An individual animal’s history and personality may affect the bonding process, but most adults become attached to their new people with amazing speed. Check area shelters and rescue programs – they have a shocking number of wonderful adult animals waiting for homes. Or, if you want a purebred adult whose history you know, talk to responsible breeders. They may have or know of a nice adult available for adoption for reasons that have nothing to do with the animal’s suitability as a pet. (But please don’t buy from a puppy mill or irresponsible breeder – by doing so you are not “rescuing,” you are funding the exploitation of animals.)
Whatever you do, don’t get a pet on a whim. Impulse purchases are fine for inanimate objects. That chartreuse sweater doesn’t care if it languishes in the back of your closet. But getting a pet without planning ahead can be disastrous. For the unwanted pet, it can be deadly.
Habit #2: Highly Successful Pet Owners Are Savvy Consumers
Occasionally an animal shows up on someone’s doorstep and says, “Honey, I’m home!” For the most part, though, we have to go looking for new pets to adopt or purchase. Highly successful pet owners are careful where they get their pets.
To find the pet you want, you must know that the person who offers an animal for sale or adoption is honest and knowledgeable. Many common health and behavioral problems in pets are inherited or created by poor care during gestation or the first few weeks of life. Responsible breeders follow practices that increase the odds of producing healthy, mentally sound offspring, and they care about the animals they produce long after the buyer’s check clears. In fact, they see the breeding of beautiful, healthy animals as an art, not a business. They want to know about the people who want their animals, and they don’t entrust the fate of those animals to brokers or retailers.
Sadly for animals and uninformed buyers alike, many businesses and individuals see pet buyers as a ready source of money. They rely on the animals’ emotional appeal and people’s lack of information to sell their “product.” Buyers are the lifeblood of puppy and kitten mills who see their breeding animals as money makers and the babies they produce as commodities.
It isn’t always easy to tell the good, honest, knowledgeable breeders from the bad guys. Some sellers lie about where the animals come from or about their characteristics – after all, their goal is to make money. Other sellers just don’t know much about good breeding practices or about the animals whose futures are in their hands. And here’s the clincher: unethical pet producers often charge more money than do responsible breeders. Would you pay a luxury car price for an economy model with no warranty? Yet people do that every day when they buy pets.
Another wonderful option is, of course, to adopt a pet from a shelter or rescue group. Shelters overflow with wonderful animals who were put there by people who didn’t practice the habits of successful pet owners. Rescue groups for all types of domestic animals also take in homeless pets. They often focus on a particular breed or group of breeds and are usually staffed by volunteers who foster the animals and try to match each one to the right adopter.
Whether you buy or adopt, you should be able to answer YES to the following questions:
• Have I done my homework, choosing a type of pet whose physical and behavioral traits will fit into my life?
• If I am buying a baby animal, am I dealing directly with the breeder?
• Has the breeder had the parents screened for inherited problems as appropriate for the breed? (You should learn what tests are recommended for the breed prior to breeding, and the breeder should show you all the paperwork.)
• If I'm buying, have I met the parents of my future pet? Do I like them? If you don’t, walk away. (The mother should be present. The father may or may not be; if he’s not, you should see pictures and paperwork.)
• Does the breeder or adoption counselor know each animal as an individual? Will she help me choose the one with the personality that best suits my needs?
• Will the puppy or kitten remain with his or her mother and littermates long enough to promote healthy emotional development? (Puppies should stay their littermates until at least 7 weeks old – many breeders, especially of toy breeds, keep them for 12 to 16 weeks. Kittens become better adjusted cats if they stay with their mothers and siblings at least 12 weeks.)
• Has the breeder or adoption counselor asked me about my previous or current pets, how my new pet will fit into my life, and how I will care for him or her? (No responsible breeder, shelter, or rescue group will let you have a pet without checking you out first.)
Habit #3: Highly Successful Pet Owners Are Proactive About Safety
We think of our homes and yards as safe refuges, but for curious or playful pets, they harbor many potential hazards. Successful pet owners reduce the risk by “pet-proofing” their homes, yards, and vehicles, confining their pets to safe places when they can’t supervise them, and training their pets (more on that later).
Think of pet-proofing as you would child-proofing for a toddler, except that most pets are smaller, faster, and better climbers, and they have sharper claws, teeth, and beaks.
How can you make your home more pet-safe? Here are some tips:
• Move breakables out of reach, and put table cloths and other dangling decor away until you’re sure your pet won’t grab and pull.
• Some people foods can poison pets, including chocolate, coffee, tea, onions, raisins and grapes.
• Keep packaged foods where pets can’t get them, and dispose of empty wrappings and containers in a safe place. Foil, plastic wraps, and strings can block intestines, and plastic bags and box liners can suffocate your pet.
• Close toilet lids. Bowl cleaners leave toxic residue, and a curious kitten or puppy could fall in and drown.
• Keep small objects (rubber bands, coins, pins and needles, thread, yarn, string, dental floss, razors, tiny toys, fish hooks and lines, and so on) safely out of reach.
• Remove loops from blind or drapery cords to prevent strangulation and tie the cords up short.
• Make sure window screens and door latches are secure to prevent accidental escapes or falls.
• Keep pets away from open flames (candles, fireplaces, open wood stoves).
• Keep washers, dryers, and dishwashers closed, and check inside before using them.
• Keep potential traps like cupboards, closets, refrigerators, and freezers closed; seal or remove doors from those that are not in use.
• Know where your pet is before using reclining chairs, sofa beds, and similar folding furniture that could catch a pet in the mechanism.
• Keep tinsel, breakable or “swallowable” decorations, electrical cords, candles, toxic foods, and alcoholic beverages out of reach.
• Remove toxic plants from your home and pet yard – ask your vet or county agent for a list, or search on-line.
• Potpourri oils, lawn chemicals, pest-control poisons, petroleum products, paints and solvents, antifreeze, household cleansers, and many other common substances are toxic. Keep them where pets can’t cat them.
• Nicotine and filters from tobacco products, or nicotine gum or patches, can kill your pet.
• Keep all medications out of your pet’s reach, and check with your vet before giving her any medicine.
• Shield electrical and telephone wires in protective sheaths (available in hardware and home stores), or with PVC pipe cut to appropriate lengths.
Go though your home and look at things from your pet’s perspective. Check under and behind furniture, and in other cozy little hidey holes. Train your pets, but protect them as well.
Habit #4 Highly Successful Pet Owners Exercise Their Pets’ Bodies and Minds
Exercise is as good for our pets as it is for us. Daily exercise helps prevent obesity, tones muscles, helps build strong bones, keep joints in working order, promotes cardiovascular health, and boosts the immune system. Exercise also helps prevent two of the leading causes of unwanted behavior in pets, especially dogs: pent-up energy and boredom. The good news is that, unlike too many of us humans, most pets like to exercise, especially when they’re young. Some small pets can get enough exercise just racing around inside the house, especially if someone will toss a toy.
The bad news applies mostly to dog owners (although other pets also need exercise). Many dogs need quite a bit of exercise, especially when they are young. Far too many people don’t exercise their dogs enough and then complain that they are “hyper” and destructive and otherwise hard to live with. If the dog is lucky, he’ll find a new home where he’ll live happily ever after. If he’s not so lucky...well, our shelters are full of the not-so-lucky ones.
Although all healthy dogs need some exercise, some breeds and mixtures need more than others, and it’s not all that difficult to predict, in general terms, whether a particular dog will need a walk around the block or a five-mile run to be happy. (Remember Habit #1?) If you haven’t yet chosen your dog, do your homework. Find out how much energy a dog of that breed – or breeds if you’re looking at a mix – typically needs, and be honest about your ability to provide it.
If you already have a dog, think about his heritage and his individual personality and behavior. Are you giving him enough exercise. Some signs that he may need more include uncontrollable energy, lack of focus in training, and unwanted behaviors such as destructive chewing, excessive barking, digging, chasing, running away, and so on. He may also get fat.
Successful pet owners have a saying: “Train, don’t complain.” Training can make a tremendous difference in the quality of life you and your pet enjoy. Training helps you learn to understand one another, and gives your pet some “rules to live by.” If you have the time and inclination, you might try a formal dog sport such as obedience, agility, or tracking (the Fort Wayne Obedience Training Club provides classes). All healthy dogs can participate in these sports, and you don’t have to compete to have fun. Aside from expending canine energy, you’ll strengthen the bond between you and your dog, and enjoy the company of other people who love dogs. And although we tend to think of dogs when we talk about training, cats and rabbits and birds and other critters can also be trained to do more than potty in the right place – see “Training and Behavior Resources.”
Successful pet owners are also safety conscious. A dog who is older, overweight, or a long-time couch potato should start slowly and build up. The same goes for puppies and adolescents. Immature bones and joints are prone to injury, so your dog should be fully grown before you encourage her to do things that require jumping or twisting. Ask your vet to help you decide when that will be for your dog – usually between 12 and 18 months. Until then, there are plenty of safe activities.
Habit #5: Highly Successful Pet Owners Take a Holistic Approach to Health and Behavior
It’s ironic that in a nation where people spend millions of dollars annually on their pets, many pets suffer long-term problems related to the food they eat. Although most of us know that what we ingests affects our own health and behavior, food is often overlooked as a source of health and behavior problems in pets.
Physical problems often linked to food include itching, raw “hot spots,” dry coats, excessive shedding, cracked foot pads, chronic yeast infections, and chronic urinary or digestive problems, including excessive gas. Behavioral problems sometimes linked to food include lack of energy or out-of-control, unfocused hyperactivity (not to be confused with the normal high energy of young dogs and many breeds). If symptoms respond to drugs or other therapies, the source of the problem may never be addressed. As a result the pet suffers long-term, and the owner has a less satisfying and more expensive companion animal.
Heart-tugging pet-food commercials do not guarantee a high quality product, or one that suits a particular animal. Some of the most widely advertised pet foods contain fillers, food dyes, and other ingredients that have been linked to health and behavior problems in some pets. Corn and wheat, the most common allergens in pets, are common ingredients in many commercial pet foods.
Even the best food is bad for a pet who eats too much. Obesity, which is common in pets, contributes to heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and other health issues that ultimately shorten a pet’s life. The odd thing is that most people with fat pets blame everything except the probable cause. The fact is that pets get fat for the same reason we do: they eat more calories than they burn. Guess whose fault that is?
Successful pet owners keep their pets neither too fat nor too thin. They learn the basics of sound nutrition for the specific type of pet, and use that information to select a healthful diet. They know that advertising adds to a manufacturer’s costs, and that some of the best foods available in pet supply stores are not widely promoted on TV and in magazines. They also know that the portions recommended on pet-food packages are too much for most pets, and adjust servings according to their pets’ individual needs.
Successful owners are proactive about veterinary care, too. They rely on their veterinarians’ expertise but stay informed and involved. For instance, some long-accepted practices, such as annual vaccinations or the routine use of flea and worm treatments, have been linked to health and behavioral problems and are no longer considered necessary or advisable. On the other hand, proactive owners are alert to early signs of problems that need veterinary intervention – parasites, ear infections, lameness, and so forth. They make sure their pets get regular examinations, and they work with their vets to keep their pets as healthy as possible.
Regular grooming is another facet of responsible pet care. Different pets need different types of grooming to look and feel their best and, in turn, to be pleasant company for people. Grooming prevents matted hair that can lead to skin lesions, and keeps nails and feet in good shape. Regular grooming also saves on housework, catching loose hair before it hits the carpet, keeping nails from scratching floors or furniture, and reducing pet odors.
Grooming also promotes better health and behavior by preventing problems or bringing them to light before they become serious. Dogs and cats, for instance, should have regular dental care as part of their grooming and veterinary care. Gum disease, broken or decayed teeth, and other oral problems are common in pets. They cause pain, affect behavior, and may damage the animal’s general health. Oral problems also create bad breath, which pet’s shouldn’t have. Ear infections are also common, and again damage the quality of life for both pet and owner.
So there you have five basic habits that help make life with a pet or a menagerie the pleasure it should be. With information so easily available these days, there’s really no reason not to be a highly successful owner of a highly successful pet.
©2009 Sheila Boneham. A slightly different version of this article ran in Fort Wayne Magazine, January 2008.