For years, the domestic canine has been referred to as "man's best friend," a phrase that sums up how the millions of dog owners in this country feel about their chosen animal companions. There are, however, other folks who'd take exception to this accolade and argue that the family cat, or horse, or even snake or rat is more entitled to be called the king (or queen) of pets.
Actually, it doesn't really matter which critter you think is Numero Uno in the animal kingdom, because the fact is that a pet — any pet — can have a very positive impact on you and upon your personal health. Recent studies have shown that stroking a dog or a cat, or even simply watching fish cruise about an aquarium, can lower a person's blood pressure. (Of course, pet petting is merely a transitory way of reducing blood pressure. It's by no means a substitute for such healthful practices as a good diet and exercise!)
In addition to providing this sort of soothing effect, pets have been used in programs of therapy for schizophrenics, handicapped folks, and the elderly. In essence, however, such "new" medical announcements are only documenting what humankind has instinctively known all along: Pets are more than a luxury. To many people, they're downright necessary for happiness and wellbeing.
Because of all the benefits that animals have to offer, I believe every family should have a pet of some kind. Unfortunately, though, not every household deserves one. In order to avoid people/pet mismatches — and to give the unwary some idea of the financial, emotional, and time commitments required by a four-footed (more or less) friend — I've devised a "pet ownership test." Imagine a prospective new resident in your home asking these questions. If your household flunks the test, perhaps you should wait awhile before getting an animal, or consider one of the less demanding beasts.
Questions and Answers
1. Will I have a comfortable bed?
Except for humans, most critters spend much of their time sleeping. For example, my Australian shepherd Dufus spends a good 80% of his supposedly awake time either thinking about sleep or stretching after a snooze. I figure all of this gives him a per-day average of less than three hours of (fairly) wide-awake time. And compared with some animals, Dufus is a live wire.
Given such heavy sleep demands, then, a comfortable bed for your pet is a must. In choosing its location, however, be aware that what may be an ideal spot for your Siberian husky's siesta may not be the coziest perch for a cat nap. Aside from the obvious consideration of the size of the bed, you should also be aware that a thick-fleeced pooch will probably be happiest in cool (or even air conditioned) sleeping quarters, while a kitty or a thin-coated toy Manchester terrier will likely want to snuggle in the warmest place in the house.
A dog, unless it's a particularly sparse-coated breed, will probably fare quite well sleeping in an outdoor shelter. Do be sure, though, that the doghouse is up and off the chill ground, is water- and wind-tight, and offers some insulation from both winter's extreme weather and summer's heat. Also, bear in mind that although a canine cottage ought to be big enough to turn around and flop down in, it should be small enough to help keep Fido warm by retaining some of the animal's body heat.
When your dog or cat comes into your house, make certain that the critter knows where "its" place is. It doesn't hurt a bit to train your pet to stay in one area, preferably a draft-free, cozy, padded spot where the animal will be out of the main household traffic pattern yet can still observe the goings-on of its family.
2. Will I have enough "turf"?
All animals are territorial; that is, each one blocks out the space that it "owns" and will instinctively defend this parcel of real estate (often viciously) to the bitter end. In the wild, animals mark and defend their territory. In "civilization," it's up to the owner to help the pet establish its claim.
For an in-house pet, turf is easily defined: it's confined within the building's walls. However, when the inside critter goes out, it'll need human protection to make sure it doesn't become embroiled in a turf spat with a neighboring animal. Because of the unnaturally crowded conditions under which most of us live, our pets are often forced to deal with overlapping territories. That's where trouble sometimes begins.
It's the owner's responsibility, then, to see that his or her animal doesn't get into such face-saving entanglements. The best tiff-preventer is a leash. Don't leave home without it. The second best peace enforcer is a fence. If you decide that a barrier is the answer to your dog's sparring, though, I hope you'll have better luck in keeping your pooch in, and your neighbors' beasts out, than my family has had. I've known dogs to jump eight-foot cyclone fences, tunnel under two feet of buried concrete, and chew through steel gates! Some canines simply can't be adequately contained by fences when their amorous blood starts to flow.
3. Will I get the correct schooling?
Not all pets are meant to be Ph.D. (Pleasing all Human Demands) candidates, but every critter-companion does deserve to receive at least the basic training it'll need to survive. Admittedly, a caged bird doesn't require much information from its humans, but a canine must soon learn that it's no match for a ton of steel barreling along at 55 MPH. A dog, forced to exist in a people-oriented environment, has to acquire some social graces as well, such as knowing its toilet is not the new cream-colored rug or your child's sandbox; that it's not supposed to jump up on Aunt Mabel (and her silk dress) with muddy paws; and that chickens — or the neighbors' cats — are not play objects to be chased (or consumed).
Training does, of course, take some time. If someone in your household can't devote the hours needed, your family will be better off with the kind of pet — such as a goldfish or guinea pig — that can exist quite well without becoming socialized.
4. Will I have proper health care?
Obviously, pets aren't automatically covered by health insurance plans like Medicare or Blue Cross, so the owner's pocketbook will bear the brunt of keeping the family's four-legged friend hale and hearty. And although there are ways to keep pet health care costs to a minimum (prevention, as always, is the least expensive "cure"), it's not unreasonable to figure on a $75 to $100 bill per year to cover routine visits to the veterinarian —that's in addition to the costs of feed, collars, leashes, litter boxes, shampoos, grooming, and what have you. So if this figure would create a deficit rivaling the national debt in your family's budget, you'd better think twice (or thrice) before you bring a pet home.
5. Will I eat properly?
A good diet is absolutely essential to your pet's health. These days, there's a prepared kibble or chow available for just about any sort of animal. It’s possible to meet the nutritional needs of your particular beast with ready-made meals, or you can prepare the pet rations yourself. There are advantages and disadvantages to either feeding method. The entire subject of animal nutrition is so important that I'll devote a future column to discussing the topic more thoroughly.
6. Will I be a mother/father?
Neither a puppy nor a kitten realizes what it means to be a parent, yet when it becomes necessary, the mature animal — prompted by nature — will usually be able to take care of its youngsters.
However, there are some questions that the pet's human "parents" should ask themselves before the blessed event is even a glimmer in Fido's or Puss's eyes: How many pets does this household want and how many animals can it afford? Will we be able to find good homes for any "extra" offspring, no matter how large the litter? Are the family members willing to take the time and effort that's needed to care for a gaggle of babies? In other words, the owner must do some hard thinking about pet parenting before it's time to boil the water. (I'll be covering this topic in more depth in at upcoming column, too.)
7. Will I get enough love and attention?
This is the last but certainly not the least important question prospective pet should ask its prospective owner. In return for all the unquestioning love, for all the enjoyment a family can receive, and for all the tangible benefits (such as improved personal health, property security, predator control, and others) that a pet can provide, the animal has a right to expect a good measure of respect and affection. Again, this will take some time on your part, but the value of every minute spent will be returned to you hundredfold!
Different Strokes for Different Folks
Most people probably think of a dog as the ideal pet, but a pooch doesn't necessarily fit into every household. In fact, the qualities that endear our canine cousins to one person — such as their total devotion and loyalty, their tail-wagging enthusiasm, and their almost insatiable need for attention — may be the very traits that make a dog an inappropriate choice for another. Perhaps this second individual prefers a pet that is quiet, doesn't fawn, and generally stays out of the way. If so, he or she obviously should consider a cat, not a dog.
Personal situations can also enter into the decision. For example, someone who lives in a small apartment couldn't manage a team of sled dogs, nor would a family whose members are away from the house all day and go on frequent vacations want a pet that needs a lot of attention. Instead, an animal that requires minimal care and limited quarters — say, a bird, a fish, a rodent, or a reptile — might be the answer.
I'll never forget one of my clients who owned a very friendly white rat named Elmo. Elmo's mistress was a hardworking woman whose job kept her away from the house for long hours nearly every day. She and her husband were divorced, and the last of the children had left for college, so Elmo was the only living thing she had at home.
And Elmo, she claimed, knew exactly when she arrived home from work, told her when he was hungry, and was far more capable of affection than her former husband had been! Therefore, despite my careful explanation that Elmo's normal life span could be only another year or two at best, the woman had me remove several large tumors that afflicted her little friend three times in one year.
Now with all the money she spent on that surgery, my client could probably have bought 100 new white rats, but she wouldn't hear of that. Elmo had simply been too good a companion for her — a fact which serves to demonstrate that any pet, no matter what kind it is, can be a beneficial member of a loving and caring household.
Back in 1978, MOTHER EARTH NEWS published an article by Kansas veterinarian Randy Kidd on how to restrain a farm animal. Little did we (or Randy) know that the one piece would lead to so many more. Very few issues since then haven't carried a feature by Dr. Kidd on some facet of livestock care.
Well, our animal medicine man has decided to concentrate some of his attention on pets, the very special creatures that we humans have for centuries welcomed into our homes and hearts. We hope that our readers will find Dr. Kidd's columns on this subject to be as informative and enlightening as have been his commonsense articles on livestock.