Responsible Pet Owners’ Month
By Patti Hermes
February is Responsible Pet Owners' Month. That's right, an entire month, albeit the shortest one of the year, devoted to educating the public about responsible pet ownership.
I'm not just talking about dogs and cats here, but any and all animals, fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians that you take into your home and under your care.
Many parents like to use a pet to teach responsibility to their children. When a child begs for a pet and promises to take care of it, often the parent will use that promise as the only means of keeping it. In other words, if the child fails, if something goes wrong, then it's time to “get rid of it”, as if you could just toss it into the trash. If that describes you, then please don't even get one in the first place. Children can learn responsibility from taking care of a pet, but the parent has to teach; you must lead the way. It's a process that gets better with practice.
Pets cannot be thrown away. Even a fish requires some type of commitment from its owner in order to live. Reptiles, amphibians and small rodents, while taking up less space than a large dog or even a cat, still require extensive knowledge of the proper care and handling, as well. While older children can research and learn about the pet that holds their interest, actually bringing one home takes a commitment from the parents to see it through. Also, know the typical life span of your new pet ahead of time, before committing to a parrot that just might outlive you.
We often hear about dogs and cats being euthanized by the thousands, for lack of a proper home. Many other types of pets are also available for adoption, because their owners have become unable or unwilling to care for them. Look around carefully before deciding to get a new pet. Talk to other owners, or experts if you can, to get an idea what it's actually like to live with your chosen pet as a member of the family.
In the case of dogs or cats, you only need to go directly to a breeder if you are planning to show your pet. Otherwise, there are breed-specific rescues for just about any dog or cat you're looking for, including puppies and kittens. And don't forget about your local shelters, as they are overflowing with dogs and cats, and sometimes other kinds of animals, all in need of a forever home.
Aside from allergies, behavior problems are the biggest reason dogs and cats can lose their home. The simple answer for dogs is obedience training, from the beginning, before problems arise. Even experienced dog owners can benefit from refresher training, as every dog is unique, and there are new developments in techniques that you may not have tried before. If you have had your dog for awhile and problems have begun to creep up on you, ask your vet for a recommendation for an appropriate trainer near you. Cats, too, can be trained so that you can live together more harmoniously, without nasty biting and aggression. The investment is worth it, and your children learn about responsibility and commitment when you make the effort to solve problems, rather than dump them at a shelter.
Years ago it used to be common practice to leave our pets outside, free to roam, coming home only to be fed, and maybe coming inside at night, or when it's bad weather outside. But times and attitudes have certainly changed. Most suburban communities, like urban areas, simply don't allow it, and roaming animals are picked up by animal control officials who levy fines against the owners. Even in rural areas where neighbors are too far apart to be bothered by strays, it's just not safe. There are too many hazards that can cause injuries far from home, not to mention possible wildlife confrontations.
Not too long ago I was watching a popular television program in which a young mother was showing off a new kitten to her toddler. She explained that they would keep the kitten indoors for the next six months, but after that “it will become an outdoor cat”. As if by magic, once it's no longer a cute kitten, out the door it goes, to become someone else's problem in her suburban neighborhood. And without spaying or neutering, that problem just multiplies. Add to that, a postscript on the show mentions that her last “outdoor” cat stopped coming around after about a year. It's that “oh well, someone else's problem” attitude that we have to change, not teach our children.
Just like the humans in the family need regular medical check-ups, so do your pets need to be kept up to date on vaccinations and vet visits. Unless you're a licensed breeder, your cat or doge should also be spayed or neutered. Not only does it prevent unwanted puppies and kittens, but it can also prevent certain health problems down the road, and even some behavioral problems. Again, it's the responsible thing to do.
Having a family pet can be joyful and rewarding. Or, it can also be a drag. Do your homework before bringing a pet into the home, and be flexible about your expectations, and you will have the former. Involve the entire family in the process, learning and living together with a new member of the family, one who will bring years of love and joy.