A fresh new year can mean the adoption of new pets. This is an exciting time, and one that is very enjoyable with some research and preparation. This article includes general considerations for selecting a new pet, common behavior questions, and abbreviated husbandry information. Remember, this is not a substitute for visiting your veterinarian with questions or concerns about your new family member. As always, seek veterinary-endorsed, reliable resources when searching for answers online: consider websites such as Veterinary Partner (check the behavior tab) and the American Animal Hospital Association for recommendations on topics related to domestic pets.
How to choose
The first task after deciding to bring a pet into your home is selecting the pet. It is important to consider the breed that would match your family and your lifestyle, as well as qualities like sociability, lifespan expectations, and coat. If you choose a pet from a shelter, adoption agency, or rescue, this can be complicated. A trial period may be offered to help you decide if a mixed breed dog has the qualities you expected.
Breed selection makes a HUGE difference. If your family loves outdoor activities, a tiny toy breed is not likely to keep up on the trails. If you enjoy relaxing at home, a working or herding breed is not for you. German shepherds and Belgian malinois may look tough taking down bad guys on TV, but can be balls of anxiety with behavior issues unless given a job, plenty of exercise, and proper training. Giant breeds (Great Danes, Irish wolf hounds, Great Pyrenees) are cool looking, but their massive sizes mean large costs for food and medications, and they can be difficult to control if not well-trained. Unfortunately, larger dogs are susceptible to shorter life spans due to heart and bone disease.
Toy breeds like Chihuahuas, Maltese, Papillions, and many poodle hybrids (Malti-poos, Chi-poos, Cavi-poos) are adorable as pups, but need regular grooming, may be susceptible to heart conditions at higher rates, and tend to be the dogs who get stepped on in busy households. Bulldogs of any persuasion, Pekinese, and Shih-tzu dogs are brachycephalic (lovingly called “smooshed-faced”), meaning they have a shortened nasal cavity. This conformation often leads to chronic eye irritation, breathing trouble (snoring!), and even upper airway deformities that require surgery.
Cat breeds are easier to divide up: long-haired cats will likely need regular grooming, and you should be vigilant of hairballs. Large cats like Maine Coons are cuddle bugs but are prone to heart disease at young ages; brachycephalic cats such as Persians and Himalayans may have ocular and respiratory issues to manage.
Shedding is a common query. Remember: short haired dogs DO NOT shed less than long-haired ones, and every breed has slightly different coat maintenance requirements. Taking time to read up on the breed you always wanted may help you match the reality of living with that animal to your expectations.
Sociability and energy level must be considered when selecting a pet. Some cats are very social and love playing, while others are aloof and snub social interactions. Working or herding breed dogs present unique challenges when asked to become a house dogs. They may be hyperactive due to misdirected energy. Dogs bred for protection like Akitas, Chows, and “pit bull”-derived breeds may need tougher training to avoid negative interactions with visitors and new animals. Toy breeds are notorious for “Napoleon syndrome” and trying to bite when fearful due to lack of discipline and socialization as juveniles.
When you choose the pet of your dreams, it’s time to visit your veterinarian! A new animal will require a thorough physical examination, vaccinations at appropriate time intervals, intestinal parasite screening and deworming, and sometimes blood testing. Your vet will ensure that your new pet is free of many congenital diseases. If adopting from a breeder, it is essential that you confirm their relationship with a veterinarian: ask for records of neonatal examination, deworming, and vaccination if these were done prior to your purchase.
Vaccination through your veterinarian is imperative to ensuring that your young pet develops an adequate immune system. Three to four sets of boosters are important for “combo” vaccines like feline viral rhinotracheitis, calici virus, and panleukopenia for cats and distemper, hepatitis, parvo, and parainfluenza viruses +/- leptospirosis for dogs. Rabies vaccination is obligatory in “endemic” areas like eastern Georgia. Other vaccines may be selected based on lifestyle and risk of exposure.
Intestinal parasite screening is a must because pets can harbor pathogens capable of infecting humans! The hot, moist climate in Georgia allows roundworms, hookworms, and whipworms to proliferate year-round. Diarrhea, “pot-belly” appearance, vomiting, failure to gain weight, and poor hair coat are clues that your pet needs testing, and an appropriate treatment should be selected. Scooping and disposing of feces will reduce the chance of transmission back to pets or to people.
“Preventatives” are a group of medications that your veterinarian will want to prescribe on a regular basis. These keep parasites like heartworms, intestinal worms, fleas, and ticks away.
“Which food is best?” is a common question, and the simple answer is “it depends.” The age, breed, lifestyle and known diseases of a pet must be considered when selecting a diet. There is no FDA for pet food, so anyone can manufacture and sell food for dogs and cats in the U.S. Only one voluntary regulatory association exists to ensure nutritional “adequacy.” Therefore, many veterinarians recommend avoiding smaller “boutique” brands, which may not have the resources to employ veterinary nutritionists or to perform food safety trials. Well-known brands like Hill’s Science Diet, Royal Canin and Purina do employ veterinary nutritionists who carefully formulate diets for many animal needs and conditions, and regularly test the diets.
Properly introducing your new pet to older pets and young family members is another task. Generally, you should go slowly: give pets a chance to meet under doors rather than face-to-face, or introduce them on neutral ground and not inside the home. Always supervise new interactions, and be ready to intervene. Be smart: don’t allow your toddler to approach the new dog when eating or chase the new cat around. Allow the new pet a “safe space” to hide or go to rest if acclimations are stressful.
Crate training can be useful and allows new dogs a place that is their own. Similarly, providing cats with special hiding places offers them safety and security. It is best to start pups off in the crate from day one so they can adapt. When company is over and pups are prone to getting underfoot, the crate can provide safety. When you are not home, this is the only place that may be suitable to keep your little chewer from putting teeth on furniture, electrical cords, or tearing up carpets and toys. Crates also help to enforce house training practices.
House training can be an extension of crate training: the pup learns not to eliminate there, then this practice is extended beyond the crate, under constant supervision and with regular trips outside.
Litterbox training tends to come naturally to most cats, but the type and placement of the box, form of substrate, frequency of cleaning, and other factors can influence the appropriate use of the box. Talk to your vet if you need help.
Enjoy your new pet, and have grace. Remember that most animals can be taught to abide by house rules. Patience, persistence and solid practices are the foundation to building a new and lasting pet relationship. Best of luck!