Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher
OFF THE LEASH
So, it will not come as a shock to you that my pets are just about my favorite things in the world. They keep me entertained, keep me active, keep me smiling and keep me company. I can’t even imagine my life without them. If I am home there is a 99 percent chance that all three of my indoor pets are within ten feet of me. What may surprise you is that I sometimes advocate that people not get pets. Why would a veterinarian who makes her living off of seeing pets and also spends all of her free time with them not want someone to get a pet? Because there is a lot to consider, and jumping into pet ownership before you are ready makes it a bad experience for you and the pet. I will talk about some things to consider before getting a/another pet.
This is the first thing I talk about, because this is the thing that keeps me up at night. Pets cost money. Certain pets cost more, certain pets cost less. The trouble is that when they cost the most it is an emergency, with them being sick or injured, and no pet is immune to this. These things come up at the worst possible times, right after you have had to replace something important like a car engine or water heater. The last pet emergency that I had required me driving my cat to a specialty hospital the night before I left the country for a funeral. These are the types of things pets like to do to keep us on our toes.
All pets need food, and the bigger your pet is the more food they need. Dogs need heartworm, flea and tick prevention (the bigger they are, the more it will cost.) A lot of things can be done at home so that you don’t need to pay for it. If you clip their nails and brush their teeth, the number of dental procedures they will need can be greatly reduced. Treating diseases is much more expensive than preventing them, so doing preventative care like vaccines will save money in the long run. Pets that are in better shape are less prone to injuries, so exercising them regularly and keeping them fit will cut down on those costs.
Some emergencies can be prevented, while others are just a fact of life. For instance, if your dog is leashed or your cat lives inside, they will not encounter cars, wild animal bites or porcupines. However, heart disease or eating a piece of ribbon can happen anywhere. Your pet will be the one to need a special food for itching or a special medication for allergies. These things come up regardless of whether we can afford them at the moment.
The bottom line is that in most cases, pets will cost more than you think. I always recommend a savings plan (that you don’t touch) so that you can use that for bills, or keep it if needed. Making a decision about which thing to choose or how much you can do for your beloved pet is heartbreaking for owners and veterinarians alike. Before you enter into a life contract with an animal, make sure that you can provide for them. Circumstances change, but if you start off well-informed, things are more likely to work out.
Animals take time! Again, more time than you think. Dogs take the most time, since they can only be inside for so long without going to the bathroom. For optimal health, they also need exercise. Ideally at least 30 minutes a day. Cats need litter box changing and play time. With many cats, you can get away with sitting on the couch and twirling a feather or throwing a catnip mouse, so the physical input from you is less.
Some dogs also don’t need tons of exercise, but in order to keep their muscles in good shape, all dogs who don’t have orthopedic issues should still be at least exercised. Any dog can have behavioral problems, but the dogs that we see with the most destructive behavior generally need more exercise and less time home alone. Not everyone is able to walk their pet, and games in the yard, fetch or a treadmill can make great alternatives. Mind games and interactive games are important to keep them stimulated. Your pet loves you, and they want to interact with you. When you are gone at work they are home alone — that means that when you are home you need to make time for them. This isn’t always easy. There are many nights that I put spending time with my pets or walking my dog above other things. Sometimes that is easy (vacuuming) and sometimes it is difficult (when I just want to sit and watch TV) but I know that is the commitment I made to them.
We all have breed preferences, but a very important component of what breed is best for you revolves around lifestyle. If you can only commit to short walks or live in a tiny apartment, getting a high-energy breed will not be in everyone’s best interest. If you want to run six miles every day with a running partner, then likely a teacup poodle will not be best for you. Just because you like the looks or personality of a breed doesn’t mean it is the right fit for you right now.
Now, I know that a lot of that was naysaying. The truth is that I would trade all of my free time and not so freed-up money to do what I need to for my animals. Not everyone feels that way. If you are in this camp, it’s OK. Borrow an animal or volunteer at the humane society. Or set limits on your finances and time, but be prepared for what that might mean for you and your pet. I can’t think of anything better than walking my dogs after work, even when I’m tired. But the best pet relationships are those that are entered with eyes wide open. A big part of my job is the pet/owner bond, and these are strongest when pets fit into people’s lives the best. So get a pet, but do your research first. Some situations or budgets are best for dogs, cats, snakes, gerbils or fish; and whichever fits your life the best will also make its way into your heart.