Pet care will be the second most important thing we do---second only to choosing our pet, that is! In fact, knowing how much – or how little – care is involved could be one of the key factors in choosing our pet in the first place. But once we’ve made that decision, we want our pet to live as long and happily as possible, not only for our benefit but for theirs as well.
After all, as good as pets are for our own health, we need to be just as good for theirs!
If we’re an empty-nester and we want to re-stock the nest with a pet, there is some good news – pet care is a whole lot cheaper than child care. Still, we’ll have every opportunity to spoil our newest family member!
If we’re experienced pet owners, we already know what to antici- pate for pet care. But if we're a first-timer, it’s best if we at least know some basics. Following are some pet care guidelines for dogs, cats, birds, ferrets and fish.
Pet Care - Dogs & Cats
Dogs have aged their population in much the same we that we boomers have aged ours. An estimated 44% of all dogs in the US today are more than 6 years old – mid-40s in dog years – up from 32% in the late 80s. And much like health care for us, pet care costs for dogs can rise sharply after middle-age, particularly in view of recent advance- ments in preventative care, nutrition, medicine and vitamins.
For dogs, the most important pre-step to pet care is to get it trained, and if we can do that while the dog is still a puppy, so much the better. Dogs are indeed pack animals, and it’s essential that our dog recognizes us as its leader and not a follower. Proper training will channel its natural enthusiasm/energy into loyalty and obedience.
House Training for Dogs
Needless to say, house training is priority one for any new dog that you bring into your household, irrespective of whether it’s a puppy or an older dog. Start by getting a pet carrier or crate from your pet store, just large enough to accommodate the dog comfort- ably with a cushion or bedding to lay on (dogs do not want to soil the space in which they sit and sleep).
- Take the dog out from the carrier and accompany it outside first thing in the morning, the last thing each night, and immediately after each meal and nap.
- Wait for as long as 10 minutes for the dog to do it’s duty, and heap on the praise when it does. If it doesn’t perform, take it back inside to the cage (no scolding) for about 15 minutes and petting it there, then back outside once more for its job.
- Repeat daily, using the very same route to go outside every time and including a dog door if you have one. At such time as your dog becomes familiar with the routine and you start gaining confidence, you can start leaving the carrier door open.
- Don’t worry about the confinement issue. A dog’s instinct is to inhabit a den where it has shelter, security and comfort, and it will habitually return there for its safe haven.
- When accidents happen inside the house, it’s OK to scold but never punish the dog.
- Pick up the yard daily; your dog will not return to make new deposits in a filthy area, and instead will find new locations perhaps inside the house.
- Most healthy dogs can be successfully house-trained in this manner within 4-6 months.
Starting out, the goal is training the dog to sit, come on command, and to mesh well with other animals. The “sit drill” is simply to hold a favorite treat or toy just above the dog’s nose for it to see the reward, then move it towards the back of its head which causes it to lean backward a bit to keep it in view. That leaning backward causes it to sit at the same time you’re saying that command, at which time you present the reward along with your congratulations! With some practice, the dog starts to associate the command with the sitting motion.
We use a similar technique for getting the dog to come on command. Make sure its reward is plainly visible, call it by name and give the reward immediately when it does come. Be patient when it doesn’t – just go over to it, show the reward that it missed out on, and then just walk away with it. Scolding or smacking it would only cause confusion and fear, so just walk away and try it again. It’s best to do this training routine in a fenced yard or other enclosed area.
Socializing can be done by taking your dog to a park where it will encounter one or two others, and when you’re both comfortable and experienced, to a bark park where it will encounter many others.
Intermediate and Advanced Stages
Subsequent training involves walking on a leash, heel- ing, staying on command, and if desired, following or- ders given by other people and ultimately, walking be- side the master and walking without a leash. Advanced stages are a function of how much time, patience and desire we have, and so an outside source of training – and obedience course – can also be an option.
Pet Care – Common Signs of Aging
We relate to our pets in a number of ways, and as they age they may experience some of the same aging conditions we do – weight gain, arthritic joints and stiffness, declining eyesight, loss of hearing, changes in coat and skin, tooth and gum diseases and behavior issues:
- Aging - In general, most pets age seven times faster than we do, and so our seven year old dog or cat is well into middle age, i.e., the equivalent of a 49-50 year old human. Categorizing dogs and cats by weight, most vets predict the “retirement/golden years" as follows:
- Weight Gain - Can we pinch an inch (or more)? Your vet will tell you the healthy range at “weigh-in” during your scheduled visits, or you can periodically check your furrier by feeling it – how easy or difficult is it to feel the ribs or hip bones through the fat layer?
Healthy feeding calls for moderate portions once or twice daily, depending upon its size. Resist the urge to hand out treats and table scraps too often, but monitor its nutrition and provide plenty of fresh water each day. Give it enough exercise to control weight gain, but not so much that it becomes too strenuous for older dogs.
- Arthritic Joints - Arthritis in pets is most often caused by advanced age, past injury to a joint, or degenerative disease that attacks bone, cartilage or soft tissue. Symptoms include reluctance to get up and run, noticeable limp or stiffness when walking, or excessively licking a particular extremity.
Such conditions are painful for your pet, but can be remedied medically or surgically by your vet. X-rays can identify the problem and your vet may prescribe and anti-inflammatory or other medicine, and in some cases even surgery for joint fusion or replacement.
- Eyesight - Just as we do, some pets can expe- rience such eye problems as cataracts and glau- coma. Cataracts cloud the lens, impeding the light that focuses an image on the retina in the back of the eye, causing blurred vision. Most cataracts can be corrected though surgery.
Glaucoma is an increased pressure build-up within the eye, causing pain and potential damage to the retina, and ultimately loss of vision. Symptoms are so subtle that we probably wouldn’t notice them early on. Glaucoma is more common in some breeds of dogs than in others, and your vet can measure eye pressure to identify and diagnose such problems. Treatment is usually a combination of medicine, surgery and follow-up management.
- Coat - We know that the coat of our pet is its largest organ, and as such can be vulnerable to parasites and disease. The most common parasites are fleas and ticks, to which many pets are also allergic. Most can be treated very effectively by our vet.
While flea and tick infestations are easily detected, skin tumors – growths of cells just below the skin surface of the coat that form lumps, bumps or fur-less patches of a different color – are much more difficult to diagnose. Your vet can perform a biopsy to determine the type and extent of the cancer and its best remedy.
- Teeth and Gums - An estimated 70% or more of all dogs and cats will develop some sort of dental issue after four calendar years (28 years in their lives). The most common problem for dogs is gum disease, caused by plaque build- up along their gum lines, and ultimately can re- sult in tooth loss for older dogs. Symptoms to watch for include swollen or bleeding gums, bad breath, poor appetite or any obvious discomfort when chewing.
Cats can be vulnerable to lesions affecting the crown and roots of their teeth, causing a loss of tooth enamel which then exposes their tooth structure. Signs to watch for include bright red gums, difficulty or reluctance in chewing, poor appetite and drooling.
Best to consult your vet for remedies to any of these conditions.
- Behavior Issues - A type of dementia can develop in older dogs (after 10 calendar years) and cats (after 15 calendar years). Symptoms to watch for include accidental waste disposal in random places, failure to recognize familiar faces, lack of enthusiasm, barking or meowing overnight instead of sleeping, and inability to find their way through otherwise familiar settings. Needless to say, we can’t turn back the hands of time for our pets any more than we can for ourselves, but some of these behavior effects can be slowed through hormone medicines and diet, as advised by our vet.
Beyond litter box training which seems to come naturally, cats take a very dim view of learning anything else! However, that’s not to say that cats are unintelligent; just the opposite is often true, as your cat is quite capable of training you as its servant!
Despite their illusions of being world class hunters, cats are perfectly content living indoors and looking out the window. In fact, they will lead a longer and healthier life if kept inside. Regarding their natural inclination for scratching and sharpening their claws, your options include well-placed scratching post(s); drapes and furniture you don’t care about; regularly spraying the drapes and furniture that you do care about; or getting your cat de-clawed.
There are different schools of thought regarding de-clawing, including concern for the pain initially experienced by the cat or kitten. However, de-clawing is a very routine item best performed by your vet, and if you choose this option, you must then commit to keeping your cat indoors for its lifetime. Cats that are de-clawed seem none the wiser for years afterward; they will still sharpen their imaginary claws happily, but your home furnishings will be none the worse for wear.
Despite their natural independence, cats will also show you their particular personality. Some like to be held, petted and nuzzled; others don’t – hence it’s a really pertinent question to ask of the shelter staff before you choosing your particular kitty. Pet care for your cat is otherwise relatively basic – daily food and wa- ter, clean litter box, regular vet care and some toys – anything that bounces, rolls or jingles will catch their fancy. With respect to bedding, an old pillow or blan- ket to lay on is fine, but your cat will decide wherever – and whenever – to do what it does the most often - sleep!
Pet Care – Birds
Pet care for feathered friends will vary depending upon the particular species. While canaries and finches are less sociable, cockatiels and budgies crave time and attention from their owners (cockatiels can have an intelligence level equivalent to a 3 year old child). Some basic pet care provisions:
- A cage at least four or more wingspans wide (ena- bles “flight” from one side to the other), and fea- turing a removable bottom tray that accommodates liners for daily change out.
- Fresh water, pellet food and veggies as recommen- ded for the particular species.
- Perches, ladders, swings, bells and toys.
- Locate the cage to provide light and warmth, but away from any air vents, windows and the kitchen (avoid drafts, direct sunlight and fumes).
- Consider a room without fans or large wall mirrors in which the bird can be let out for an hour, being certain to secure all doors and windows.
- Thoroughly clean the cage each week (washing trays and perches); disinfect the entire cage monthly.
- Take your bird to the vet for periodic evaluations as recommended; symptoms of health problems include fluffed out feathers, lack of energy (sitting at the bottom of the cage with eyes closed), difficulty breathing, visible changes in droppings, crusty beak or eyes.
Pet Care – Ferrets
Ferrets are engaging, mischievous, high energy – and high maintenance. They bond well with their owner, but in doing so require daily attention and supervised playtime outside their cages. Some basic pet care provisions:
- A wire cage at least 18” high and deep, and 30” wide with carpet or firm bedding for the bottom, and a secure latch (ferrets are great escape artists). Bi-level cages or cages with ramps and perches are best.
- Locate the cage in a cool area of a room (55 – 70 degrees) away from direct sunlight and heat sources.
- Secure a litter tray to one end of the cage and fill it with pellet litter recommended for ferrets.
- Feed your ferret a high quality kibble featuring high protein (30-40%) and fat (15-20%); avoid any fruits or vegetables. As a natural carnivore, your ferret will also appreciate real meat such as beef or chicken necks.
- Allow the ferret to roam about with supervision, and use both hands to cradle and support their bodies when picking them up (their bone structure is relatively fragile). Poking or pointing your finger will likely get a nip in re- sponse.
- Clean their ears as often as recommended by your vet (ferrets are prone to ear mites).
- Periodic visits to the vet are recommended, especially since ferrets incur a high incidence of cancer at most any age.
Pet Care – Fish
Albeit the least interactive, pet care for fish still carries some responsibi- lities. Cold water fish such as goldfish (over a hundred different species) are recommended for first time fish-owners, and experienced staff at the pet store can advise which species are most compatible with each other. Some pet care basics:
- A minimum 20-gallon tank with filters, air pump, cover, light fixture and gravel (about a pound per gallon of water) will maintain water quality much more effectively than a smaller tank. Be sure to include plants and rock formations for hiding places and camouflage.
- Locate the tank on a stable solid platform convenient to a water source, and away from direct sunlight and air vents to maintain stable water temps.
- Commercially available fish food together with dried flakes provide proper nourishment; do not overfeed, as food waste will spoil and hurt the water quality (use only the amount that can be caught and eaten by your fish before it falls to the bottom of the tank).
- Monitor water temps daily – 50-78 degrees is optimum.
- Replace several gallons with fresh water on a weekly to twice-monthly basis; use a test kit to monitor water quality (especially important for goldfish).
- Scrape algae build-up from the inside walls of the tank (it’s OK if your fish nibble on a few of the scrapings).
- Clean/ replace filter pads monthly.
Pet Care – Conclusion
We know that owning and loving a pet can be very rewarding, and even the various responsibilities for pet care can be to our benefit. As seen from the above, it’s essential that we’ve chosen our pet together with its care requirements to best match our own needs, capabilities and lifestyle.
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