Living With Animal Companions

Sharing life with an animal companion can be extremely rewarding, but it’s also a huge responsibility and a major commitment. Before you fall head over heels in puppy (or kitty) love, make sure you’re prepared to care for and love an animal, for better or for worse, for his or her lifetime – which could be 15 years or more.

There are many questions to consider before adopting. Will you have the time and patience to exercise and give attention to the animal daily? Are you prepared to pay for food, accessories (such as grooming supplies, leashes, harnesses, bedding, etc) and veterinary care (including spaying or neutering, vaccinations, flea treatment, deworming, annual examinations and emergency care)? Will you keep your animal indoors and treat him or her as a family member?

If you have the time, money, ability and commitment to give an animal a lifelong home, there’s no better place to find your new best friend than at your local animal shelter. Shelters everywhere are overflowing with loving, friendly animals of all shapes, sizes, personalities and ages who desperately need homes. Shelter workers or volunteers will likely be able to help match you with an animal who is a good fit for your activity level, experience, personality and lifestyle. For a nominal adoption fee, your new friend will likely go home spayed or neutered, de-wormed and vaccinated.

With so many wonderful animals waiting for homes in shelters, there is no reason to buy a dog or cat from a breeder or a pet store. Every new puppy or kitten who is bred and sold by a pet shop or breeder takes a home away from an animal waiting in a shelter. So always adopt, and be sure to have your new friend spayed or neutered to avoid contributing to the animal-overpopulation crisis.

Caring for Cats

Tabby catCats depend on humans for everything – food, fresh water, a clean litterbox, veterinary care, love and attention.

Left to roam outdoors, cats are in danger of being attacked by dogs, stolen by dogfighters to use as “bait”, hit by a car, exposed to deadly diseases such as feline AIDS and feline leukaemia, and shot or poisoned by cruel neighbours who won’t tolerate them digging or defecating in their flowerbeds or climbing on their cars. Don’t risk it.

Protect cats by keeping them indoors and allowing them to go outdoors only on a leash and harness, into a securely screened-in enclosure, or into a yard with secure cat fencing. Cats can adapt well to living indoors if they get plenty of daily playtime to exercise both their bodies and their agile minds. Paper bags (without handles), rolled-up balls of paper, motorised “mice”, laser pointers and other interactive toys will get your cat’s heart and mind racing.

Nobody likes to use a dirty bathroom, so scoop your cat’s litterbox at least twice a day. Any cat who is urinating outside the litterbox should be taken to a veterinarian right away to rule out a urinary tract infection, which is very common and painful and can even be fatal. If nothing is medically wrong with your cat, he or she may be unhappy with the cleanliness of the box (or lack thereof), the type of litter used, the location of the litterbox or the litterbox itself. (Some cats prefer covered boxes, whereas others prefer open-air boxes.)

Scratching is natural, healthy and important for cats, so provide multiple scratching stations, including sisal cat “trees” and posts and cardboard scratching boxes. Sprinkle catnip on them weekly to keep cats interested, and replace cardboard inserts when they wear out. Trim your cat’s claws every two weeks – just clip off the sharp “hook” at the end – and put double-sided tape on places that you don’t want your cat to scratch.

Make sure your cat always has access to fresh, clean water. Cats need to drink plenty of water to prevent painful urinary tract infections (especially if they eat dry food), and they often won’t drink from a dirty water bowl. Scrub out water and food dishes daily, and feed cats twice a day. One of the most important things you can do for your cat is to have him or her neutered or spayed as soon as possible. Sterilisation doesn’t just prevent the births of unwanted kittens, it also prevents cancer of the reproductive organs and, if performed before the cat reaches sexual maturity (at about 5 to 6 months old), can also prevent other types of cancer, such as breast and prostate cancer.

Any cat who is lethargic or acting “grouchy”, has diarrhoea or frequent vomiting, isn’t eating or is having “accidents” outside the litterbox should be taken to the veterinarian right away. Even “minor” illnesses can turn fatal if not treated, and regular checkups can prevent or catch diseases before they become serious.

Caring for Dogs

Dog on grassDogs are highly social animals – they thrive when they live indoors with their human “packs”, get daily walks and playtime and are treated as members of the family.

Take your adult dog out at least four times a day using a leash and comfortable harness, and allow him or her time to linger and “smell the roses”. If you work and can’t go home at lunchtime, enlist the help of a neighbour or professional dog-walker. Puppies should be taken out at least every two hours (or within half an hour after eating or drinking) and guided to the same spot where they have relieved themselves before. Be sure to praise them immediately when they “go” in the right spot!

Crate training is cruel and does not speed up the housetraining process. Puppies do not develop full bladder control before 6 months of age and are physically incapable of “holding it” for long. Locking dogs inside a crate deprives them of basic necessities, including the freedom to walk around, the opportunity to relieve themselves and the comfort of stretching out. While inside a crate, dogs are not learning how to make good decisions and interact better with their surroundings; instead, they are simply vegetating and killing time. It can also cause serious health and behaviour problems, including aggression, withdrawal, hyperactivity, depression, separation anxiety and muscle atrophy.

Being chained or penned outdoors, far from their families, is the cruellest punishment possible for dogs. Left outdoors, dogs suffer from intense loneliness, lack of exercise, exposure to the elements and possible abuse from cruel passersby. They get none of the things that make their lives worth living, and many become withdrawn or even aggressive and dangerous.

Humane, interactive training gives dogs greater freedom and a better understanding of our world. Compassion, clarity and consistency are the most important elements of dog training. Training should never include any activity or device that endangers animals (e.g., electric shock, prong or choke collars) or puts undue stress on them. Train your dog yourself, since you’re the one who will need to know how to communicate with him or her, but get help from a humane dog trainer if needed.

Sterilising dogs helps stem the tide of companion-animal overpopulation. Spaying female dogs reduces the stress and discomfort they endure during heat periods, eliminates the risk of uterine cancer and greatly reduces the risk of mammary cancer. Neutering makes male dogs much less likely to roam or fight and prevents testicular cancer. Always take your dog to a veterinarian if there’s any sign of illness or injury.

Dogs are especially vulnerable to heatstroke if left in a parked car during warm temperatures. On a warm day, even with the windows slightly open, the temperature inside a parked car can reach more than 70 degrees Celsius in minutes. Parking in the shade won’t keep a vehicle cool enough to be safe, and leaving water inside the vehicle won’t be sufficient to keep the dog cool, so when it’s even a little warm outside, never leave an animal in a parked car for any period of time. Temperatures inside the cargo holds of airplanes can also become extremely hot or cold, and countless animals are killed, injured or lost on commercial flights each year. Dogs who are too large to fly in the cabin are safest left at home with a trusted caretaker.

Caring for Other Animal Companions

Every species has unique and complex needs. If you have already adopted or are considering adopting an animal other than a cat or a dog, please research the species to make sure you can provide a suitable home. Pay special attention to the animal’s requirements for space, companionship, stimulation, exercise, nutrition, hygiene and opportunities to engage in natural behaviour. Exotic animals and wildlife tend to languish in captivity and should never be kept as “pets”.