You’ve been gathering supplies and stalking your local shelter’s page of adoptable animals. You’ve researched local vets and trainers and your roommates/family members seem to be on board with a furry addition to the household. But how do you know if you’re really ready to adopt a pet?
We spoke with two local pet experts to find out what questions you should ask yourself before you commit to a pet. Ali Rellinger, president of the Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF), and Caitlin Youngstrom, the trainer and pet sitter behind PUPS (Pretty Unique Pet Services), helped us examine some common aspects of pet ownership that many new or prospective pet parents don’t consider until they after they adopt a pet. Keep reading to make sure you’re looking at pet ownership from all angles!
1) Do you truly have the time in your life to care for this pet?
Before you adopt a pet, Rellinger recommends taking an honest assessment of the time you have to devote to this pet. All animals, and in particular young animals, take a lot of time and energy to care for and to train. “Some people want a pet to grow up with their family, but they aren’t prepared for the time commitment of having a puppy or a kitten.” Sit down with everyone who will be involved in this pet’s life (your roommates, significant other, and/or family members) and have an honest discussion. Can everyone handle potty breaks, daily walks, playtime, enrichment activities, trips to the vet? What about litter box duty and hairball cleanup? Is everyone prepared to attend training classes and work with the pet one-on-one? If you’re finding it hard to make time to take good care of yourself or your family, it may not be the best time to add another living creature to your responsibilities.
2) Who is going to be the primary caregiver of this pet?
The primary caregiver is the person to whom ultimate responsibility for the pet will fall when/if situations change; if roommates move away, a relationship comes to an end, or a child moves into a college dorm that doesn’t allow pets, the primary caregiver will make sure the pet is cared for properly. Rellinger sees these situations pop up in her work at ARF, where she sees pets surrendered by owners who didn’t have a plan in place for changing circumstances. It’s crucial to decide who will be the primary caregiver of any pet and to have a plan in place for life changes you may experience. Knowing who will care for a pet in a variety of worst-case situations can be the difference between a minor shift in your pet’s day-to-day life or having to surrender your pet to a shelter.
3) Will a child or children be involved in the care of this pet?
Many parents adopt a pet to help teach their child about responsibility and caring for others. While these are valuable lessons for a child to learn, Rellinger cautions that expecting a child to assume all responsibility for a pet can lead to a sticky family situation whenever that child drops the ball. “No child is ever old enough to be the primary caregiver of a pet,” she points out. “When a pet is adopted for a child, there will likely come a time in that pet’s normal lifetime when the responsibility falls back on the parents. What happens when the child moves away and can’t take the pet with them?” Even if children are eager to be involved in the care of a pet, parents still need to be fully committed to the pet and ready to assume the role of primary caregiver in the event that the child’s life changes.
Children can learn a lot from having a pet in their life, but parents need to make sure they have a plan in place for life changes, like moving away for college.
4) What kind of pet will best fit into your life?
Think about the ins and outs of your day-to-day life and then consider what kind of pet might fit best into your routine. Just like people, different pets have different personalities, and a pet’s age can play a big factor in how they behave. A tiny puppy might be adorable, but she will also need to be potty-trained, taught to walk on a leash, and socialized with other dogs. A long-haired cat may be beautiful to admire, but he will require regular brushing and/or grooming appointments to keep his coat healthy.
“Describing the personality of your ideal pet is far more helpful than describing their looks,” says Rellinger, who works with prospective pet parents every week to find the best pet for their lifestyle. “You can really tell a lot about a one- or two-year-old dog or cat. Their personality is already formed but they’re still young enough to spend most of their lives with your family. Senior animals are often more laid back and just want a place to chill.” Finding the right pet for your lifestyle goes well beyond their breeding or their appearance, so Rellinger suggests focusing on the qualities and personality traits you want your future pet.
5) What behaviors can you tolerate from this pet and what behaviors will you need to train for?
Dogs and cats aren’t born knowing how to live with humans in a house. Just like human children, pets need to be taught about where to go potty, what can/cannot go into their mouths, how to ask for help, acceptable sounds to make, and how to interact with other members of the household. Puppies will chew, cats will scratch, and both will have accidents on the floor. Older animals who have house-training under control may bark at people or bully their siblings. Separation anxiety can cause noisy and destructive behaviors. Are you willing to train through these issues? Rellinger and Youngstrom both advise outlining behaviors from your future pet that you can tolerate and behaviors that are a dealbreaker. Knowing this information in advance can help adoption counselors pair you with the right pet for your family and home.
A cat’s natural hunting instincts tell it to climb, scratch, and hide. Part of being a cat parent is teaching your cat the acceptable place to act on these instincts (in this case, a cat tower).
6) Do you have the time, patience, and knowledge to train this pet? Or will you need to seek the help of a professional?
Knowing your capabilities and your limits (as well as your willingness and ability to invest time into education) is key to being able to answer this question. Youngstrom points out that not everyone has the knowledge or desire to tackle basic training by themselves - and that’s ok! It’s in the better interested of the family and the pet to seek training help before behavioral issues spiral out of control. Just know that even if you hire a professional to help train your pet, you still need to be part of the process. A good trainer will work with you AND your pet to make sure you can communicate and interact on a level that works for both. Make sure you consider the time commitment and budget resources for training a pet before you add one to your family.
7) Are you willing to accommodate this pet as age and experiences change its behaviors?
As pets grow, age, and experience life, their learned behaviors will likely change. A young adult dog who loves his daily 3-mile jog with you may not be able to handle the strenuous exercise as his body and joints get older. Will you be ok to take him on slower, shorter walks? Senior pets may lose some bladder control and potty accidents may become more frequent. Are you willing to do diaper your pet or do more potty breaks? Traumatic experiences (such as car accidents or being attacked while on leash) can turn once-loved activities like car rides and walks into anxiety-inducing ones that take your pet’s training back to the beginning. Are you willing to work your pet through these unexpected periods of training?
Whether due to aging or trauma, Youngstrom has worked with many pet parents who had unexpected issues arise in their companion. While some issues required additional training, other issues just required an adjustment of the owner’s lifestyle. Youngstrom points out that, just like with people, the needs of a pet will change over its lifetime and so will your responsibilities as a pet parent.
8) Are you prepared for breed-specific health conditions or behaviors?
Some dog and cat breeds have common health problems that will affect both purebred pets and mixes with those breeds. You’ll need to be prepared to deal with these conditions or the lifestyle changes necessary when caring for one of these breeds. For example, brachycephalic (flat-faced) dogs breeds, like pugs, Frenchies, bulldogs, and shih tzus, have a lot of breathing problems that may require monitoring exertion, cooling devices in hot weather, and even surgery. Scottish fold cats get their cute folded ears due a dominant genetic mutation that causes defects in cartilage formation - all Scottish fold cats with cute ears suffer varying degrees of bone and joint malformation that require lifelong care.
Additionally, many breeds of dogs were developed by humans to serve a very specific purpose; when these breeds are kept as pets without proper training, such dogs may develop undesirable behaviors. Youngstrom gives us an example of Australian cattle dogs, who are bred to be high-energy working dogs with strong natural herding instincts; are you prepared to give them a “job” to replace their desire to herd your children or other pets? Rellinger points out that while Beagles may be cute and the perfect size for an apartment, their breeding as pack hunting dogs means they express excitement through boisterous “baying”; is that a trait that will sit well with you and your neighbors?
(Top) Pugs and Scottish Folds have health issues associated with the traits they were bred for; you’ll need to be prepared to deal with sucb issues for the life of these pets. (Bottom) Australian Cattle Dogs and Beagles were bred to do a very specific job; if you don’t keep them busy, they’ll find their own ways to “go to work.”
9) Are you willing to invest in preventive care for this pet?
Just like with people, preventive health care plays a major role in a pet’s quality of life. Besides basic vet care (vaccinations, parasite preventives, dental cleanings) what you feed your pet can have big impacts on their skin and coat, digestive health, muscle tone, immune health, and day-to-day wellbeing. The old adage “you are what you eat” is just as important for our pets as it is for us. Youngstrom advises her clients that they have two choices: “You can budget for high quality food or you can budget for large vet bills.” In Youngstrom’s experience, feeding a high-quality diet to all of her pets has not only prolonged their lives, it’s also been far less expensive than paying for treatment of chronic conditions.
Youngstrom advises that pet parents feed the highest-quality pet food that their budget allows. She loves using Dog Food Advisor to keep up with quality issues on any commercial pet food she feeds, stating that the “best” food within a given price range can change quickly with a manufacturer’s recall, a change in ingredient source, or even a change in warehouse location. “Why feed your pet a 2.5-star food if another company is producing a 4-star food in the same price range?”
10) Is your home ready for this pet?
“Baby-proofing your home is a good place to start. A level up from that is dog-proofing. A level up from that is pig proofing!” jokes Youngstrom. But pet-proofing your home is serious business. While some pets could care less about your furniture, curtains, or the food left on your counter, others may view your home as an interactive (and edible) playground. Have a plan in place for how you will set boundaries around the physical elements in your home. Providing ample chew toys or interactive toys can prevent your dog from turning to that table leg out of boredom. Likewise, providing accessible scratching and climbing posts can keep your cat from using your couch or curtains to exercise her claws.
Pet-proofing is also about teaching your pet more desirable behaviors. When Youngstrom adopted a pet pig, she did a lot of research and learned that a pig’s natural instincts to root and dig would likely make him seek out the food in her refrigerator. In anticipation of this, one of Youngstrom’s first pig parent tasks was teaching him to close the refrigerator door. By teaching and rewarding this behavior, her pet pig now views a closed fridge as a great thing and has never tried to open the fridge the seek out his food. “Make the desired behavior a positive experience instead of fussing at them for an undesired behavior after the fact.” We really love this example of being a proactive pet parent, instead of a reactive one. By doing some research and coming up with a plan for the needs of her new pet, Youngstrom was able to avoid a potentially major behavioral issue.
🐾 Being a pet parent is so rewarding, but it can also be frustrating, expensive, and time-consuming if you go into it unprepared. By helping prospective pet parents ask the right questions before they adopt a pet, we hope to decrease the number of pets that are returned or surrendered to shelters and rescue groups because of misplaced expectations.
If you know someone who is considering adding a fur baby to their family, please share this article with them using the social share buttons below!