Pet Smarts

    by -


    "The love for all living creatures is the most notable attribute of man."— Charles Darwin


    With the holiday season is upon us, you may be thinking about wowing that special someone with an unexpected, "surprise" gift. And nothing wows like a cute, fluffy, pouty fur ball.

    Unfortunately, pets shouldn't be on anyone's lists — whether you are the gifter or the giftee— especially around the holidays, since it tends to be a chaotic time for most people who typically don't have a lot of time and commitment to spare on everything going on in their lives to raise this new member of the family. (WiseGeek offers other great reasons why not to buy a pet as a gift, especially around Christmas time.) It is also unfair, to both the animal and the giftee, to assume that particular animal will make a good companion for the person and that the person's lifestyle.

    But if, even after the holidays have come and gone, you still have the desire to welcome a new pet into your life, or that someone special still insists on getting a new pet, here are some pointers for you!

    Guardianship vs. Ownership

    Instead of thinking of the new animal you are about to get as a thing you will "own," view it as a new "companion" that you will become the "guardian" of.

    This attitude of "guardianship" vs. "ownership" is a belief that I stumbled across from the mission statement of the international animal protection organization, In Defense of Animals (IDA), and have applied to my own two cats, Fiona and Kitty. The IDA believes that we should consider ourselves our animals' "guardians," and that we love, care and protect and view our animals as our companions, rather than objects or property that we "own."

    This renewed sense of semantics and mentality, will ensure that you have a happy and loving relationship with your new pet.

    Answering the Tough Questions

    As with any serious relationship to which one is about to commit, there are several variables to consider before getting a pet. Welcoming a pet can be – depending on the type of animal – a 10 year or more commitment on the guardian's behalf. If you can answer "yes" to the following questions, then you are ready for a new animal friend.

    Are you…

    …Willing to make a commitment for the rest of your new animal companion's life?
    …Able to afford your new companion?
    …Willing to adopt animals only through responsible rescues and ethical breeders?
    …Going to spay or neuter your animal companion for their health and to prevent pet overpopulation?
    …Able to provide nutritious food, fresh water and daily exercise for your animal companion?
    …Ready to care for the emotional needs of your animal companion?
    …Capable of understanding and working through your animal companion’s behavioral issues?
    …Going to treat your animal companion with compassion and gentleness?
    …Willing to call myself and others "guardians" rather than “owners” of animal companions?

    Here's an expanded version of the questions to consider before you get a new pet:

    1. Motivation: Why do you want a pet? It's amazing how many people fail to ask themselves this simple question before they get a pet. Adopting a pet just because it's "the thing to do" or because the kids have been pining for a puppy usually ends up being a big mistake. Your motivating factor for getting a new pet should always be rooted in responsibility and love.
    2. Time Commitment: As with human children, animal companions cannot be ignored just because you're tired or busy. They require food, water, exercise, care and companionship every day. Many animals in the shelter are there because their owners didn't realize how much time it took to care for them. If you lead a busy lifestyle, working long hours, travel most of the year or are just never home, getting a new pet is not a good idea. Animals need companionship and if you buy a new pet and don't even spend time with them, what's the point?
    3. Affordability: Make sure that you are financially able to support, ultimately, another member of your family. Licenses, training classes, spaying and neutering, veterinary care, grooming, toys, food, litter and other expenses add up quickly. On average, taking care of a dog can cost between $300 to $500 a year. If you are struggling to make ends meet with your current living situation, getting a new pet is not in the best interest of you or your pet. Companion animals, like human children, require a lot of basic needs, and you have to be able to meet both the expected and unexpected parts of your pet's life.
    4. Logistics: Can you have a pet where you live? Many rental communities don't allow pets, and most of the rest have restrictions. Make sure you know what they are before you bring a companion animal home. Also, do you have room for a new pet? Large dogs such as the Great Dane can grow between 100 to 120lbs. So make sure that your living arrangements can accommodate a large animal. Do you know who will care for your pet while you're away on vacation? You'll need either reliable friends and neighbors or money to pay for a boarding kennel or pet-sitting service.
    5. Timing: Is it a good time for you to adopt a pet? If you have kids under six years old, for instance, you might consider waiting a few years before you adopt a companion. Pet guardianship requires children who are mature enough to be responsible.
    6. Health and Behavior: Another important aspect to remember before getting a new pet is to make sure that the humans in your household aren't allergic to the particular animal you are thinking about getting. Also be prepared to deal with special health and behavioral problems that a pet can cause. Flea infestations, scratched-up furniture, accidents from animals who aren't yet housetrained and unexpected medical emergencies are unfortunate but common aspects of pet guardianship.
    7. Responsibility: Will you be a responsible pet owner? Having your pet spayed or neutered, obeying community leash and licensing laws and keeping identification tags on your pets are all part of being a responsible owner. Of course, giving your pet love, companionship, exercise, a healthy diet and regular veterinary care are other essentials.
    8. Legalities: Certain states have different laws restricting the types of animals that can become pets. Michigan State University College of Law has maintained an extensive database of all the laws pertaining to animals by state, topic and species. It's a great resource to check out if you have concerns about the animal you are about to acquire.
    9. Lifestyle: Make sure that you choose a pet that meets your lifestyle requirements. If you lead an active lifestyle and enjoy outdoor activities and are always out and about, then you should choose a pet that has those similar qualities (this really applies to dogs). Conversely, if you are more of a homebody and don't enjoy physical activity, cats may be more suited to your lifestyle and personality. Sometimes, people look for animals that bring out different aspects of their personality. Introverted people may get a rambunctious, active dog that needs to be walked daily so that they are forced to go out of their normal homebody routine, in an opportunity to interact with others.
    10. Research: Make sure you research the different breeds and species of the particular animal you are interested in getting. Purdue University has a great database on the different breeds of animals that includes everything from cats and dogs to livestock. Researching about the different breeds gives you more information about the traits and personalities unique to specific breeds, thus ensuring a better match.

    Adoption vs. Purchasing

    The most important tip that I can give you regarding welcoming a new pet into your life, is to make sure you adopt and not buy.


    According to the Human Society of the United States (HSUS), here are the top five reasons why you should choose adoption when thinking about getting a new pet:

    You'll Save a Life
    Sadly, between three and four million dogs and cats are euthanized each year in the United States simply because too many people give up their pets and too few people adopt from shelters. Because there is limited space at shelters, staff members often make very hard decisions to euthanize animals who haven't been adopted. But the number of euthanized animals could be reduced dramatically if more people adopted pets instead of buying them. By adopting from a private humane society or animal shelter, breed rescue group or the local pound, you'll help save the lives of two animals — the pet you adopt and a homeless animal somewhere who can be rescued because of space you helped free up.

    You'll Get a Healthy Pet
    Animal shelters are brimming with happy, healthy animals just waiting for someone to take them home. Most shelters examine and give vaccinations to animals when they arrive, and many spay or neuter them before being adopted. In addition to medical care, more and more shelters also screen animals for specific temperaments and behaviors to make sure each family finds the right pet for its lifestyle. Most people assume that all shelter animals are abused and neglected, and in poor condition. While some of the animals may have come from such homes, once at the shelter, they have been taken care of in order to be eligible for adoption.

    It is a common misconception that animals end up in shelters because they've been abused or done something "wrong." In fact, most animals are given to shelters because of "people reasons," not because of anything they've done. Things like a divorce, a move, financial constraints or lack of time are among the most common reasons why pets lose their homes.

    You'll Save Money
    Adopting a pet from an animal shelter is much less expensive than buying a pet at a pet store or through other sources. In addition, animals from many shelters are already spayed or neutered and vaccinated, which makes the shelter's fee a real bargain.

    You'll Feel Better
    Pets have a way of putting a smile on your face and a spring in your step. Not only do animals give you unconditional love, but they have been shown to be psychologically, emotionally and physically beneficial. Caring for a companion animal can provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment and lessen feelings of loneliness and isolation in all age groups.

    Pets can help your physical health, as well. Just spending time with an animal can help lower a person's blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Dog walking, pet grooming and even petting provide increased physical activity that can help strengthen your heart, improve blood circulation and slow the loss of bone tissue. Put simply, pets aren't just good friends, they're also good medicine and can improve a person's well-being in many ways.

    You Won't Be Supporting Puppy Mills and Pet Stores
    Puppy mills are "factory style" dog-breeding facilities that put profit above the welfare of dogs. Most dogs raised in puppy mills are housed in shockingly poor conditions with improper medical care, and the parents of the puppies are kept in cages to be bred over and over for years, without human companionship and with little hope of ever joining a family. And after they're no longer profitable, breeding dogs are simply discarded — either killed, abandoned or sold at auction.

    Puppy mill puppies are sold to unsuspecting consumers in pet stores, over the Internet and through newspaper classified advertisements to whomever is willing to pay for them. Marketed as coming from great breeders, well-rehearsed sales tactics keep money flowing to the puppy mills by ensuring that buyers never get to see where the pups actually come from (a vital step in puppy buying). Many of the puppies have serious behavioral and health problems that might not be apparent for months, including medical problems that can cost thousands of dollars to treat, if they are treatable at all. Unfortunately, a lot of people are not even aware that puppy mills exist, so when they buy a pet from a pet store, online or other retail outlet, they are unknowingly supporting this cruel industry.

    People usually turn to breeders or pet stores because they are looking for a specific breed of animal, and buy into the myth (which is perpetuated by the breeders themselves) that all shelter animals are "mutts" or "mixes" and that they can't get a pure-bred animal from a shelter. This is not true. About 25 percent of the animals in shelters are pure-bred, and if you don't believe me, take my darling Fiona for example. My family and I adopted her from the Boone County Animal Shelter in Burlington, Ky. Fiona is a pure-bred seal-point Siamese cat, who was picked up as a stray. And there are countless other pure-breds like Fiona in shelters across the state waiting to be adopted.

    Also, there are breed specific shelters and animal rescues for those interested in a certain animal. For instance, the North Shore Animal League America has a pure-bred dog rescue, while sites like this offer many options for cat lovers.

    By adopting instead of buying a pet, you can be certain you aren't supporting cruel puppy mills with your money. Puppy mills will continue to operate until people stop purchasing their dogs. Instead of buying a dog, visit your local shelter where you will likely to find dozens of healthy, well-socialized puppies and adult dogs — including purebreds — just waiting for a special home like yours.

    Going Exotic

    I love all animals, and as a devote animal lover and defender, (Editor's note: Maureen is a vegan who is involved with the local animal rights advocacy group Mercy For Animals) I realize that to have certain animals as companions, is ethically wrong. Therefore, I don't condone keeping wild and exotic animals such as tigers, birds, snakes, fish or lions as pets, because in order for these animals to be "domesticated" as pets, they had to be removed from their natural habitat in the wild, and be captive-bred. So, if an animal has to be raised in any sort of confinement, whether it be a cage or aquarium, I don't get them as pets and try to discourage others from doing so.


    If you have any other questions regarding welcoming a new animal companion into your life and heart, here are a few resources to help you along the way:

    • The HSUS's one-stop guide for all adoption-related questions, from finding a local shelter near you, to what to expect during an adoption process.
    • Be proud for adopting! Order the HSUS' Free Adoption Kit and you even get a coupon for pet food!
    • Learn more about why getting a bird as a pet is a bad idea.
    • Thinking exotic isn't hot. Why you should never consider getting a lion, lizard, or snake as a pet.
    • Think that puppy in the pet store's window is too cute too resist? Read to learn more about the horrors of puppy mills.

    Photo: Neysa Ruhl Photography
    Models: Tammy Schulte and Cole