Aw, you got a kitten. Or a puppy. Or, heaven forbid, both.
Their fuzzy little faces were so adorable in the store or at the pound or at the rescue fair, and you'd just watched 97 minutes of LOLCats on YouTube and they looked so danged cute that you wanted some of that for your home and your kids.
Which is fine. Kittens and puppies and even full-grown versions of them deserve and need homes because that's what companion animals do -- they become our companions. But did you think it through? Did you realize there are responsibilities that go along with pet ownership other than feeding and picking up their various messes?
"It's a lifelong commitment for the animal and maybe for you, depending on the type of animal," says Adam Goldfarb, director of the pets-at-risk program for the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C. "Even if you adopt an adult dog, it could be with you 10 years or more; a cat could be with you 15 or 20 years or more; some species of birds could be with 50, 60, 70 years or more."
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And forget about spontaneous vacations, impulsive weekend getaways and not going for walks when you have the flu or it's cold and/or raining outside. Even if you all you have is fish. Especially if you have fish.
Here are 10 things every potential pet owner needs to know before taking that creature home.
1. Rein in your expectations.
"It's the first mistake many people make when they come to a shelter or consider adopting a pet from a shelter," says Sandy Grambort, a program coordinator at the Humane Society of North Texas in Fort Worth. "Our perception has been people coming here to look for a dog expect the dogs to speak English, understand the rules of the house that the kids have known for years, expect the animal to be housebroken, to not beg at the table, to not get in the trash, to not bark at the fence or chase the mailman ... you can just go on. And those are just normal dog behaviors."
Not surprisingly, many of the adopters at the shelter are first-time pet owners.
To limit the number of returns, the staff is receiving additional specialized training in counseling potential adopters to help place animals with suitable families.
2. Know your animal.
You wouldn't buy a car without knowing its strengths and weaknesses; the same is more than true with animals. "What are the normal traits of the animal? What are the normal needs of that animal and his or her species?" asks Joan Hunter Mayer, a certified dog trainer and author of the blog InquisitiveCanine.com. "Will he or she need specific types of care? Physical, mental, social? If so, provide it! It'll make life much more enjoyable for everyone if these needs are met."
This is really research and a conversation with the family you should have before signing the papers.
"Behavior that's cute in a kitten isn't always cute in an adult cat," says Gwen Cooper, author of the bestselling Homer's Odyssey (new in paperback by Bantam, $15), an insightful and touching saga about living with a blind cat. (It's an amazing story about an amazing animal.)
"Encouraging a kitten to 'play rough' with teeth and claws, because it's adorable to see them so engaged, often means you end up with a full-grown cat who doesn't know to retract her claws when interacting with you."
Cooper's advice? "Spend some time encouraging appropriate play with your kitten -- 'rough' with toys and scratching posts, but gentle with humans."
Choose a pet that suits your lifestyle. "If you live in an apartment or work 90 hours a week, why do you have a high-energy dog as a companion?" asks Mayer. You're going to come home to a chewed-up couch and a confused animal. Change YOUR behavior and take responsibility for the dog.
Some other notes: Monkeys are messy. Goldfarb says they are not suitable as domestic pets anyway.
Chinchillas wake up before you do and go to sleep after you do. They are likely to make noise when you are trying to get some shut-eye. Know your animal before you invest.
3. Don't draw your animal into conflict.
"All pets engage in behaviors we don't want repeated," says Lynn D. Hoover, author of Dog Quirks and Behavior Solutions (Dog Quirks, $24.50). "Mistakes occur when families decide their misbehaving pets are trying to dominate them. When they are convinced their pets are just trying to rule the roost, their typical response is to try to meet perceived pet 'force' with human force. That is, the family purposefully draws their animals into conflict with them. This often results in the unwanted behavior becoming more entrenched, harder to change."
Hoover offers as an example the tale of a Yorkshire terrier that refused to eliminate outside. Obedience school trained the Yorkie to "sit, stay and lie down, but she peed in the training center," Hoover says. The family changed what they allowed the dog to do in the house -- including sleeping on their bed -- and "dragged her over to the spots where she'd eliminated, told her 'no!' firmly, and swatted her with a rolled up newspaper. It had zero impact on the problem.... Looking at the Yorkie's history and behavior patterns, it was easy for me to understand what had gone wrong with this otherwise lovely dog: Her previous owner had had serious health issues and did not take her outside to eliminate. She learned to eliminate in the house. That's all there was to it. No dominance.
"To turn this around, the couple had to go back to the basics of house training 101. They had to first prevent her from eliminating inside again. They used crates, tethers and baby gates and supervised her closely so she couldn't sneak away. Their second priority was to reward her amply for eliminating outside, in the yard and on walks. Within a month she was house trained, eliminating only outside, though for the rest of her life, her family would have to keep and eye on her so she wouldn't fall back to old habits, as happens when a dog has practiced the wrong behavior for a full three years."
4. Know how much a pet costs, beyond the adoption price.
Goldfarb says adopting "a healthy cat or dog and you'll probably be spending around $2,000 a year. If you have a huge dog you're feeding quality food to, it can be more."
Grambort adds: "Anticipate the cost of veterinary care. It's really gone up, and rather than bash veterinarians, their cost has gone up because the pet-owning population demands that they provide quality care comparable to a pediatrician. Which means they have to purchase expensive diagnostic equipment and tools, better training of their staff, top-of-the-line waiting rooms and exam rooms, surgery suites, on and on. They've had to raise their prices to take care of the demands of their customers."
When it comes to horses, know the expense ahead of time. "People don't realize horses eat a couple hundred dollars of food every month," Grambort says. "The standard vet bill is $150 to $200 just for basic stuff. Sometimes they don't plan for space. Not all, but some, view horses as large pets, a novelty. Well, they're livestock animals with a whole different set of needs."
5. Don't assume a bird or a bunny is easy.
"They're perceived as easy-to-care for starter pets," says the Humane Society's Goldfarb. "The reality is a lot of these little critters are complex, not only physically but psychologically as well and require socialization and stimulation and a lot of daily interaction to be really happy."
Birds, in fact, require near-constant companionship, as they would in a flock, even parrots. People who acquire birds and then feel guilty when they don't spend time with them create problems when trying to "re-home" the bird, something that takes a bird a long time to get over.
6. Don't let your dog be a loner.
"It's important -- and the law in many communities -- but mistakes people make are 1) not socializing the pet, that is, leaving it in the yard all the time; and 2) with dogs, not letting them know who is in charge," says Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals-Los Angeles.
Socialization is a big one, agrees Jonathan Klein, dog trainer and behaviorist to the stars in L.A. "The biggest mistake new dog owners make with their puppies is not properly socializing them. Socialization includes such things as exposing your puppy to new environments, other people and other dogs that you know to be safe and vaccinated.
"The owner's goal is to create pleasant experiences for their puppy in a variety of different situations that it will encounter throughout its life. There is no question that effective socialization leads to much less stress for the dog later in life and helps to create well-balanced personality," says Klein, whose service is called I Said Sit.
7. Don't get a pet because it's trendy.
Don't take the pet of the moment, Grambort says. "If the popular pet of the moment is a schnorkie and someone is not prepared to care for a little dog like that -- he or she just wants it because it's something everybody else has -- that would be a mistake. Choose something that's a good fit for your family."
8. Don't act like you're the alpha dog and punish your pet.
They said so on TV: Dogs need to follow the "alpha" member of their "pack," which should be you. Well, no. "We've all seen shows and read books about 'pack mentality' and 'alpha dog' training," says Klein. "And that's fine -- if you want your dog to cower and be afraid of you. But how many of us want that? Isn't the point of having a dog to try and create the best and happiest situation for both you and your buddy?
"Dogs want to please us. A well-timed reward or other positive enforcement when the dog does 'right' creates a win-win situation. A negative action when the dog does 'bad,' like harsh scolding, yanking on a collar or even worse, hitting, does nothing more than make the dog confused and afraid. Punishment addresses the symptoms of the problem behavior but not the cause."
9. Don't assume turtles are easy.
Wrong. Turtles and tortoises in the wild roam widely and that instinct isn't going to be sated by a box with holes in the top. And they need surf as well as turf, and a steady climate, so you can't just let them wander your house and property.
10. And don't assume fish are easy, either.
A mistake every first-grader makes is thinking "you can plop a fish in a bowl and leave him there," says Goldfarb. "There are issues like water temperature and oxygen content, some really complex care needs that some species need."
Or Bubbles will start to "swim" upside down.