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Ways to be a Responsible Pet Parent

May is Responsible Animal Guardian Month and National Pet Month. So I thought it would be a good idea to share some ways to give our pets the best life.


Sissy is a grey and white cat with green eyes. Here is a close up of me as a child holding her. I have reddish hair and freckles.
Sissy and a young me

It is best for the pets if we can commit to them for their lifetime. Life happens and things may be out of our control, but we can prepare for the worst and do all we can to keep our promises to them.




How to pick a pet that is right for you


If you are still deciding which pet to get, there is a lot to consider. Dogs and cats can be a handful, especially if you choose a puppy or kitten. Some reptiles are pretty laid back but need specialized care, birds can make lots of noise, rabbits need more space than you think, and the supplies and veterinary care needed cost money.


Energy and Activity Level


I recommend choosing a pet that best fits your schedule and activity level. Instead of choosing a pet for their looks only, particularly for dogs, it is better to find out how much exercise and activity they need and if that is something you can realistically fit into your schedule over the next 10 or more years. Most dogs and cats slow down when they get older but if you are getting a puppy you will have many years ahead of walks and playtime and that is something you need to be ready for. If you choose an active or working breed you need to consider if you can provide the amount of exercise and stimulation they need long term. If you do not have the time to take them on long walks or try out different dog sports then choose a breed and personality that is more laid back. If you have the budget for it you can look at hiring a dog walker or taking them to a daycare that provides a lot of enrichment activities. That can be a good way to keep them busy instead of chewing your furniture (as much)!


Kittens need a lot more playtime than older adult cats (though they need some of that too). A parrot needs a lot more interaction and training than a finch or budgie. Personality plays a part too. So I think you need to look into what the individual pet you are considering needs to have a happy and healthy life and if you can manage all that.


Schedule and Free Time


Dogs do need a lot of free time, particularly for exercise and training. But if you are active normally or travel mostly by car you may be able to bring your dog out with you for a lot of different activities. I am thinking of hikes, going to the beach, car rides, camping and events that are dog-friendly. But if you work long hours or are physically drained after work it may be best to find a pet that does not need or want as much outside time. Other animals don't need daily walks but may need lots of care, training, attention, cleaning, and maintenance so that can still take up a lot of your spare time. I recommend realistically thinking about your schedule and what pet may fit best. And, if you have your heart set on a pet that requires more work than you have time for, prepare a plan beforehand so you have a pet sitter, daycare, or dog walker lined up to help fill in the gaps.


The Space They Need


Cats don't require walks but they do need playtime and a comfortable space to do normal cat behaviours like scratch, hide, nap and do zoomies. Other species may require special equipment and housing. Birds need enough space to spread out their wings and room for their normal activities as well as proper lighting and heat. Rabbits need a safe exercise area on top of their sleeping quarters. Other pets need additional research to find out the basic setup required for their species. Consider the space you currently have available, what you can reasonably fit in there, and your budget for the equipment and supplies needed.


Life Expectancy


It is also important to consider the life expectancy of the pet. A dog's life span varies by their size and breed. Larger dogs typically live 8 to 10 years, smaller dogs typically live up to 15 or 16 years (though they can live longer). Indoor cats typically live 17 or 18 years but can live well into their 20s. Leopard geckos typically live 10 to 20 years. The life span of birds varies by their species but for common pet birds it ranges from 4 to 30 years and some parrots can live 100 years. This should be taken into account when deciding whether the pet is right for you, and if you are right for them. And, if you do get a pet that will live a long time you will need to prepare for that financially and even look at creating a pet trust with your will that provides for your pet after you pass away.


Fostering as an Alternative


If you are unable to commit long term but still love animals you could look into fostering for a local rescue. That is a great way to help out and get all the benefits of pet ownership without the extended commitment and financial pressures of pet ownership.


Many rescues are in desperate need of fosters so just reach out to them and see how you can help. Sometimes you can offer short-term spots until a pet recovers from surgery for example, or you can take on a pet for a longer time until they find their forever family. You can foster cats, dogs, bunnies, birds, and any other creature that ends up at the rescue.


Senior Pets


There are also many senior pets in need of a home, so if you can afford some of the extra care needed for a senior I highly recommend looking into adopting one. They deserve the love and comfort you can provide and it is a great way to help our local rescues. Kittens and puppies tend to be in higher demand and the seniors are often overlooked. You will have a shorter time with them, but maybe that works out best if you cannot commit to a younger animal's full life span, training, and energy.


How to care for your pet responsibly


I think of myself as a pet parent, responsible for their well-being and committed to their lifetime care. Some people do not like that term but it feels right to me. In legal terms, we are pet owners and have certain rights and responsibilities regarding our pets. Whatever term you think of yourself as here are the basics to keep in mind that most animal advocates agree on:


  • Regular Vet check-ups, weigh-ins, and health monitoring

  • Learn about your breed or species, what their ideal setup is, and how to provide enrichment activities to mimic what they would enjoy doing in the wild

  • Access to fresh clean water and a proper diet for their size, breed, or species

  • Proper housing: shelter from the cold and rain, enough space to stretch out and move around, light, and heating to maintain their ideal temperature

  • Have emergency funds saved and/or invest in pet insurance so you can afford to treat any unexpected injuries and illnesses

  • Have an ID tag, tattoo, and/or microchip with up-to-date contact info on file so that if your pet is lost you have a way of being reunited once they are found

  • Maintain a clean space or enclosure and be safety conscious avoiding common household hazards and dangerous situations (like toxic substances, cleaning chemicals, chewing wires, and so on)

  • Prepare an emergency kit and be ready to take your pet to safety if you have to leave the area due to a natural disaster


And just as important please give them your time, attention, and love! For some animals love may be in the form of respecting their space and admiring them from a safe distance. But we can show our affection by giving them a comfortable and fun environment to do their own thing.


Enrichment Activities

This is the fun stuff and one of my personal interests. How can we entertain and keep our animals happy? Find fun activities that they love and create an environment to play in. And even if you cannot play with them directly, provide ways for them to mimic the behaviours they would naturally do if they were not a pet.


Enrichment is a big deal for Zoos so I was first introduced to this practice when I volunteered at the Greater Vancouver Zoo. Keepers and volunteers would create different treats or activities for the animals. A favourite was the pinata which would be filled with the animal's food or favourite snack and then they could tear it apart or carry it around. Food will often be spread out throughout the enclosures so the animal can 'hunt' their food as they would in the wild. I remember the muskox got a big tire for their enclosure so the male could charge it for fun. There will often be boomer balls, branches, boxes, barrels, and other items around for the animals to interact with. I used to dig up clods of dirt and grass and put them in the Guineafowl enclosure for the birds to pick at. They loved it. Scent enrichment is also commonly used, either with spices or perfumes, and that may be added to the pinata or used in different spots of the enclosure. The big cats in particular loved different scents.


The same principles will apply in your home. You do not need to make pinatas, though you could try it if you enjoy making crafts! There are many specialty items you can buy for your pets at the local pet store. Here are just a few examples of things you can buy to entertain your pet:

  • treat dispensers, lick mats, snuffle mats, and puzzle feeders

  • interactive toys, either for you and the pet to play with together or that you can set up for the pet to play with on their own

    • wand or lure toys

    • a dog ball launcher

    • a battery-operated toy that moves around and they can chase or swat at (my dog nephew loved the talking Elmo toy for example, though Elmo did get a bit hurt in the process...)

  • Chew toys and treats (Kongs or other toys you can stuff treats in, antlers, squeaky toys, bully sticks, wood blocks, etc.)

  • catnip or silvervine, and even 'doggijuana'

  • balls and Jolly Eggs

  • stuffies (long-lasting or for immediate destruction and fun - this was Clyde's M.O.)

  • cat trees and tunnels

  • bubbles (you can even find catnip flavoured bubbles!)

  • ball pits or a small dog-sized wading pool


There are things around your house like cardboard boxes or even paper that can be fun for some animals. I know a certain Macaw that LOVES tearing old phone books apart. He could get a job at a paper shredding factory with his mad shredding skills. And you can even use some packaging that you would normally just chuck in the recycling bin for your pet to tear apart first.

Little Crab is a Hermit Crab and is in her favourite cream coloured shell with reddish spots. She is perching on top of another light coloured shell.
Little Crab likes leaves and extra shells

Found objects like a stick on the walk can be a fun chew toy that dogs enjoy carrying back with them. I often collect fallen feathers for my cats when I am out and about. And, I collect leaves for Little Crab (she likes oak and maple leaves). So, whether you buy something, find something, or make something experiment with what they like and observe their reactions.




Use their sense of smell


The easiest way to provide enrichment without going on a shopping spree is to simply put their food in different spots around the house or in their enclosure. This ties into what is called 'Nosework'. Instead of feeding ALL the food in the same old boring bowl take their food and spread it around. One trainer I heard a talk from would fling their dog's kibble in their yard in the morning and sit out there with them drinking coffee as the dogs 'hunted' their kibble. For dogs that eat too fast I will spread their kibble on the kitchen floor so they have to move around more and cannot gobble up everything in one go. Ziggy gets his kibble from several treat dispensing toys or I spread them around the top of the dresser, window sill, table, floor and bed so he has to hunt them. I also toss them down the hall and he will chase them.


Not all pets will enjoy that, Bean for example is a finicky eater so I have to bring the food to her and since Moxie became ill he will no longer hunt for his food and will only use the bowls he likes. But, if your pet enjoys the kibble games then I recommend ditching the bowl routine.


If your pet LOVES a particular treat or smell you could up your Nosework game and create an obstacle style course. I have seen the cardboard toilet paper and paper towel rolls used to hide treats so the pet has to figure out which ones have the treat and knock them over or toss them around a bit. You can just put their favourite treats in different areas around your home so they need to 'hunt' them.


Note: Many dogs and cats will not find all the treats or kibble. Due to their eyesight, they cannot see colours like we do and if a smell is not super distinct they may miss it. It does NOT mean they are stupid or lazy, it is just too difficult for them to spot. So it is up to you to figure out your pet's abilities and adjust the location so they can find the food. Ziggy is good, probably a 95% success rate, but I do find stragglers and often find more when sweeping or vacuuming. Just an FYI!


Training


This is where your time and attention can really impact your pet. Training is an important part of your pet's life, especially for dogs but most pets can use some training to learn what you need them to do. If you can spend time with your pet and teach them a trick or activity, even if it's only a short time each day, it will help you bond and stimulate them mentally too. Cats can learn tricks despite their reputation, especially if their favourite treats are involved. Birds, rabbits, and even fish can learn so see what you can teach them. There are lots of videos online. Just google 'how to train a goldfish' (or whichever animal you live with) and try it out!


Sniffaris


This is more so for dogs, but a good sniffari is a wonderful way to entertain them. This is where you let the dog sniff and explore, maybe try different routes or a new neighbourhood or park. Some dogs prefer the same route and may get nervous about a new location but the idea is just to let them sniff and check things out at their speed. They are still getting some exercise however mental stimulation is the important part.


You can adjust this for other pets. Cats can be trained to wear a harness and leash or you could set up a catio for them. Or you can do an indoor sniffari by introducing new items like feathers you found on your walk, using smells like silvervine and toys or boxes and placing them in different areas of your home. If you can train your bird to perch on your shoulder try walking around your home with them so they can see different things or look through different windows. You can also set up little obstacle courses with special items or treats for the pet to find.


Find a friend


There are some pets that are not keen to make new friends and may prefer to be solo but they can still make a new friend with someone. This could be a human friend, neighbour, or extended family member. A petsitter or dogwalker can also fill this role and be the playmate. It may not always work, but if you can slowly and comfortably introduce your pet to a new furry or human friend it can be a great source of joy and fun for them.


Best friends and biological brothers Moxie and Ramses were large tabbies. Ramses has more white on his face and paws and his right paw is on top of Moxie's back. Both are laying down but looking back up at the camera.
Moxie and Ramses

If your pet does like company and you have the financial means you could consider adding another pet to your household. This can be a great way to enrich their lives and keep them entertained when you are out for the day. I think many dogs enjoy a playmate (though not all). Many other animals do too, even Hermit Crabs. My cats are not playmates but I think of Ziggy and Bean as 'amicable roommates' and every once in a while their chase game does not end in Bean hissing so it is almost like they are playing together. Moxie is more like the grouchy neighbour asking them to get off his lawn, but he was best friends with his brother Ramses. Whether they are just amicable roommates or best buds it can still be nice to have the company.



But respect your pet and if they are not up for it then just use some of the other suggestions above to keep them entertained. I have seen many pets that do not get along well enough to be in the same space and live side by side. More space and additional equipment may be needed but that is certainly an option if you find your pets are not getting along. Sometimes just living separately and having their own resources that they do not have to share makes them content and then they still have company right 'next door'.


To wrap up...

Just think about it, and do what you can to set yourself and your pet up for success. And, if something does happen and you need assistance there are resources available including pet food pantries, low cost spay and neuter programs, online resources and helplines, and local rescues that can help.


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Our last blog post:

Hot Weather Tips and Signs of Heat Stroke in Pets


Other related blog posts:

Playtime and Enrichment for Your Pet

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