THE PET TEST
Back in No. 52, THE 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 many more ... yet very few
issues of MOTHER since then haven't carried a
feature by Dr. Kidd on some facet of livestock care.
Well, "MOM's medicine man" has decided to concentrate
(for the next six issues, at least) on pets, the very
special creatures that we humans — for
centuries — have 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
by Randy Kidd
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
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?
Most critters—except for humans—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. All of
this gives him—I figure—a perday 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 thickfleeced pooch
will probably be happiest in cool (or even airconditioned)
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 windtight, 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 ... and 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 secondbest 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 ... and 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 your animal's 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
... and that's in addition, of course, 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
5. Will I eat properlly?
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, and it is 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 ... and 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 glimmet 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 lit ter? 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
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
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
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 .