By Wendy Toth
Nothing inspires a pet owner to action like looking into the big, soft eyes of their dog or cat. For many, that action is handing out a treat or giving a scratch behind the ears. And while our pets surely appreciate those wonderful gestures, despite our best intentions, there are lots of other actions — big and small — that may get overlooked.
We’ll make sure you’re on the right track with our list of 7 ways to be the best pet owner you can be.
If you’ve gone to one obedience class with your dog, or your cat has mastered the litter box, you may thing you’re finished with the training portion of your relationship, but continued practice is key.
In the same way a human relationship requires frequent communication to stay healthy, behavior training keeps you and your pet’s bond strong, making your pet more responsive overall and your daily interactions more positive.
For dogs, try practicing simple things like sit, stay, heel, come, and down for about five minutes every day, and reward him or her after each success.
For cats, you may want to set aside five to 10 minutes to play, and gently interrupt and redirect your cat if she presents an unwanted behavior, like scratching the couch, during that time. Or even work to teach her a trick, just pay close attention to what motivates her, such as a special food or toy.
“While [first] training a dog, he should be lavished with praise when he does the right thing,” says Darlene Arden, animal behaviorist and author of “Rover, Get Off Her Leg! Pet Etiquette for the Dog Who Pees on Your Rug, Steals the Pot Roast and Poops in Improper Places.”
But even for something he’s had down for a while, “it helps to reinforce the praise every so often when he is doing this routinely.”
Even if your litter promises multiple days of freshness or your yard is a good size, don’t wait until the weekend for that dreaded chore.
Having a full litter box might cause your cat to look for other places to relieve herself, and you and your dog will be more comfortable and better able to play in a yard that’s consistently free of “land mines.”
Plus, leaving feces in your yard can infect your pet (and others) with a laundry list of bacteria or diseases that they can transfer to other animals and pick up repeatedly themselves.
Fresh feces aren’t the only culprit, either. Many of these parasites become more infectious as poop ages. The parasite toxoplasmosis, which is more common in cats than dogs, takes more than 24 hours to become infectious, while roundworm can take up to three weeks. Roundworm may also remain infectious for years in contaminated soil or water.
A complete and balanced diet is vital. But our pets' dietary needs change over time due to their age, health conditions, and activity levels. "Because of these different requirements, be sure to talk to your vet about using a food that’s specifically balanced for the life stage of your pet,” says Kerri Marshall, DVM.
Just like you do with your pet’s everyday food, you may want to consider providing treats with a combination of nutrients and vitamins that will help your pet maintain a balanced diet.
You should see wording like “complete and balanced” on the label of a particular treat, says Louise Murray, DVM, DACVIM, a licensed veterinarian and vice president of the ASPCA Bergh Memorial Animals Hospital, and you can look at the ingredient list to determine how healthy the treat is.
You should also be on the lookout for treats with high amounts of salt and sodium, as they may cause trouble for your pet.
“We see dogs and cats come in because they’re urinating in the home or drinking way too much water because they’re being given very salty treats,” Dr. Murray says.
Lots of pet parents dread winter weather but look forward to being flea and tick free for a few months. This can be a dangerous assumption.
“Prevention is always easier, safer, and less expensive than treating a disease once it's become established in your pet,” says Jennifer Kvamme, DVM.
Fleas can survive temperatures as low as the upper 30s. As long as an adult flea has a host to feed from, it can stay warm and healthy through the cold season. Meanwhile, the flea pupae may remain dormant in cocoons for over a year, until the surroundings have reached ideal temperatures.
In much the same way, ticks can withstand winter temperatures when they are able to find a host to feed from or a warm location to hide. Generally, adult ticks are a threat as long as temps don’t dip below 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
Your best bet is to talk to your vet about using flea and tick preventatives like a pill or spot-on year-round.
Your dog probably has his favorite toys, but like people, dogs can grow tired of the same old thing, especially if a toy is worn out. This can be problematic for dogs that need a lot to do, and especially so if you use toys as training rewards.
“If your dog isn’t listening, they may have learned that there is a greater reward in ignoring you— more squirrels to chase, more time to smell the grass, you name it,” says Mary Majchrowski, a certified dog trainer. “The only way to get your dog’s attention is to become more interesting than whatever they are currently doing.”
Cats love to play too — and scratch! So keep a close eye on your cat’s toys and scratching posts to make sure they aren’t falling apart or forgotten.
Even if you did a great job covering cords and keeping medications out of reach when your pet first came home, you have likely relaxed a bit as your pet settled in.
That doesn’t mean your dog or cat can’t get into trouble anymore. It’s up to you to lower those chances. “The primary goal in [pet] proofing, at least to me, is to make the place as safe as possible to avoid injuries, hospital visits, or death,” says Lisa Radosta, DVM, DACVB.
Pools are a big risk, says Dr. Radosta, and pets should never be left unattended in a yard with a pool.
Next up is anything and everything a pet can eat. “That means anything that can shock, poison, obstruct, strangle, or otherwise inflict damage should be removed from your home,” she says. Pay special attention to securing medications in cabinets and keeping electrical cords hidden.
After that, it’s all about containment. Use gates, crates, and whatever it takes to keep your pets in the safe zones of the house, and reevaluate every month or so.