SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

June 14, 2013

How we can be better pet owners

Vet Connection
Dr. Elizabeth Bradt

---- — Pets are an important and cherished part of our family lives. After all, where else can a person find such unconditional love and affection as well as the scientifically proven emotional connection we call the human-animal bond? Yet, despite this powerful relationship, animal shelters and rescues are still inundated annually with millions of dogs, cats and other pets that are relinquished for a wide variety of reasons. So, how can we help make sure pets find a “forever home”?

Most people can understand that our animal friends need an appropriate diet, fresh water and necessary veterinary care. But many fail to see that there are other, less tangible needs that should be addressed if our pets are going to remain in our homes.

In other words, are we first making good decisions when bringing a new pet into our family and then, are we providing the emotional, physical and behavior training support for our pets to have a rich life?

The National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP) spent one year in 12 selected animal shelters across the United States to find out why pet owners give up their pets. Of the 2,000 canines sent to shelters, more than 45 percent of owners cited some sort of behavior issue as one of the reasons for relinquishing their dogs. For the almost 1,400 felines, human and personal issues (allergies, no time for the pet, new baby, etc.) were the most common reasons for surrender.

“The biggest problem we see with dogs is the unruly, untrained adolescent animal who has become too much of a handful for the family,” says Dr. Martha Smith, vice president of Animal Welfare at the Animal Rescue League of Boston. “We spend significant time and energy giving these dogs some basic obedience training and that helps with their adoptability, getting them into a loving home more quickly.”

The NCPPSP study confirmed Dr. Smith’s comments. Almost 50 percent of the dogs relinquished were between 5 months and 3 years of age, and 96 percent of them had not received any obedience training. In addition, 33 percent of the dogs and more than 46 percent of the cats surrendered had not been to a veterinarian.

What can we learn from this in order to be better pet owners and make a real difference in the numbers of pets in shelters?

The first step is to completely understand all of the needs of the pet you want to adopt and then make a proper selection. Highly active dog breeds, like Australian shepherds, border collies, Labrador retrievers or Irish setters may not be suited for a life in a city apartment. Similarly, an older cat could be less tolerant of very young children and be likely to nip or scratch. To research dogs, check out the All Breed Rescue of New England at http://www.crdtc.org/ne-rescu.html. Through the website, you can look up the breed of dog you are researching and talk to people who know and have fostered the breed.

Next, be careful if you decide to adopt a “free” dog or cat advertised locally or one from a friend. While the pet may be free, there will still be a variety of ongoing expenses. These include good food, veterinary care, parasite prevention, chew toys, behavior training and even grooming. Some may have more involved issues, and it is the responsibility of the adopting family to provide proper care. Cost of care including food, grooming, veterinary care, chew toys and boarding over the lifetime of a dog can range from $12,000 to $25,000 depending on the size of the dog. Petfinder.com has a breakdown of costs, compiled from pet owners.

Good behavior/training and mental stimulation (or environmental enrichment) is often ignored. There’s an old adage that a tired dog is a good dog, and owners should always find time for interaction and play with their canine friends. One of the saddest things to see is the family dog tied in the back for years on end with no walks ever. The average dog should have two 10- to 20-minute walks per day. An athletic Labrador, Irish setter or any herding or field dog may need to walk or run 5-10 miles per day, which will involve at least an hour per day.

Dogs are pack animals, and they are not meant to be sitting alone all day. They do better if they socialize with other dogs on a daily basis. You can organize group dog walks or get your pup to the dog park. Some hire a dog-walking service so the dogs have a social group.

Finally, pet owners should always be prepared for some sort of animal emergency. Traumatic injuries and serious illnesses are common occurrences and, sadly, many owners will either surrender the pet to a shelter or euthanize this beloved family member simply because of the cost. Plan for these emergencies and major illnesses in advance with a pet health savings plan or a well-researched pet insurance policy. People who use their pet health insurance policy say they could not live without it. Such policies will often times save the life of your best friend. Investigate insurance companies carefully — there are many out there and they are all very different.

Our practice recommends that our clients consider veterinarypetinsurance.com and trupanion.com. These companies have been in the business long term and are very committed to serving the pet and the family.

Your veterinarian is a perfect source of advice on any of these topics. The whole veterinary team wants to see your family stay together, including all of the furry, four-legged members. Working with your veterinarian and making good decisions can help you become a truly dedicated and responsible pet owner — and that’s best for everyone!

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Dr. Elizabeth Bradt is a 1986 graduate of Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and owner of All Creatures Veterinary Hospital in Salem (www.creaturehealth.com). She is a member of the American Society of Veterinary Journalists. Email your pet questions or experiences you’ve had with your pet to docliz@creaturehealth.com. Please title your email “Vet Connection.”