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Taking care of a cat or dog is more than just making sure they’re fed each day and picking up after them — it’s a commitment you make to a living being that will depend on you for its entire existence.
And try as you might, you can’t stop a beloved pet from eating strange items, getting sick, or running away from home that split-second the front door is open. But there are things you can do to prevent problems and give your pet a great life.
1. Vaccinate, Operate, and Microchip to Locate
All cats and dogs need certain vaccines, and most vets will insist on sterilization to help control pet overpopulation, and microchipping to locate lost pets.
All three are often included in the cost if you’re adopting a cat or dog from a shelter or humane society. It’s important to note that these costs can range upwards of $500 per animal when visiting a private vet.
“Identification is crucial. A microchip is a very, very good idea,” says Dr. Gabrielle Carrière, the chief veterinarian of the Montreal SPCA shelter. She also recommends a collar with your phone number, in case Fido or Kitty make a break for it.
As for vaccines, Carrière says puppies and kittens should receive their base vaccines starting at eight weeks old, and then go for a booster every three to four weeks until they hit four months of age.
“Once they hit four months, they need to go back to their veterinarian a year later for their booster,” she says.
The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) has a canine vaccination task force that publishes universal guidelines on best vet practices. It recommends four core vaccines for dogs:
“For cats, core vaccines include FVRCP (feline viral upper respiratory vaccine) and rabies. There are other non-core vaccinations that may also be recommended depending on a dog or cat’s risk factors and lifestyle,” says Dr. Wendy Mandese, a clinical assistant professor in small animal sciences at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
For animals that spend time outside the house, additional vaccines for feline leukemia, which is highly contagious among cats, and leptospirosis, an infectious bacterial disease that can be transmitted from dogs to humans, are important. Heartworm and flea protection for dogs, particularly in the summer months, is also a must.
“In Florida we see a lot of heartworm disease and skin problems related to allergies and parasites,” says Mandese.
It’s important to speak with your vet about which vaccines are most appropriate for your pet based on their lifestyle and location.
2. Find a Reputable Vet
Unfortunately, animals can’t tell you when they’re sick or injured. Sometimes it’s an upset stomach — and sometimes they’ve ingested an entire spool of thread while you were out grocery shopping. Avoid undue and entirely preventable stress by finding a reliable and trustworthy vet close to where you live.
Ask for recommendations from friends, colleagues and family members who live in the area for their best — and worst — vet experiences. Read online comments on clinics’ social-media pages and on third-party commenting systems like Yelp and Google reviews. Better yet, call up clinics and ask to speak to a vet tech or veterinarian directly.
And for all of those incidents that happen when your vet’s office is closed, jot down the number and address of your local emergency veterinarian hospital or clinic and stick it on your fridge.
3. Be Observant of Your Pet’s Behaviors
Is your normally sociable cat hiding under the bed? Is your normally very active dog sleeping more than usual? Give your vet a call — the staff there should be able to tell you whether it’s something urgent or something to be monitored.
“Any abrupt change in behavior should be brought to the attention of your veterinarian, as they can be a symptom of an underlying health problem. Examples would be inappropriate urination, which could be a sign of a urinary tract infection, or aggression, which could indicate pain or anxiety,” says Mandese.
Vets see every kind of health disaster possible in animals — broken bones, skin conditions, and a plethora of random items — rocks, carpet, corn cobs — inside of digestive tracts.
“Vomiting and diarrhea are also common in dogs, especially ones that like to eat foreign objects and get into the trash,” Mandese says.
Cats and dogs rarely make their pain known to their humans, so it’s up to you to be vigilant about changes in your pet’s behavior — you could end up saving your furry friend’s life.
4. Clip Those Nails
Grooming isn’t just for shih tzus and show dogs.
Becky Misener, the owner of Grooming With Finesse in Waterloo, Ont., and the president of the Ontario Dog Groomers’ Association, says regularly grooming a cat or dog is beneficial in a number of ways.
First, regular handling of a pet conditions them to be more patient and accepting of a good brushing, bathing, and nail-clipping. “Anything you want a dog to learn, teach it on a routine,” Misener says.
Second, groomers usually get far closer to the skin than pet owners do.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found things on dogs, like lumps or ear infections. We found a tumor on a dog one time,” Misener says.
Keeping a dog’s nails neatly trimmed is extremely important but can be tricky to do at home. The thickness and darkness of most dogs’ nails make it hard to see the quick — a red line that, when cut, leads an animal to bleed profusely (but not fatally). However, letting nails grow can be dangerous too, Misener says.
“What happens is, the foot doesn’t sit properly and it can cause splaying, and then they’ll bend their pastern (wrist bone) and it can cause long-term damage,” she says.
As for cats — well, have you ever tried giving a cat a bath?
It may never get easier, especially if you only bathe your cat when absolutely necessary. Misener’s best advice for cats is to start them out in the bath when they’re young, and to do it regularly. Of her now-deceased, water-loving cat, Misener says, “I would get her wet every single week, and this cat just loved the bath.”
Cats are notoriously squeamish about getting their nails clipped, as well. Your best bet is a thick towel to tightly wrap your cat up in, a proper pair of nail scissors, a healthy dose of determination, and perhaps some very thick rubber gloves.
5. Good Care Is In the Details
Quality dry and wet pet food is essential to an animal’s prolonged health, so do your research and look for food where meat is the first ingredient. Some people choose to feed their pets raw meat to simulate a biologically appropriate diet, but that approach is not always recommended by vets — and it can also be very expensive. Speak to your veterinarian for a diet best suited for your pet.
You might also consider purchasing a pet insurance plan, which may help cut veterinary costs and give you and your family some piece of mind in the event of an unexpected accident, injury or illness.
Owning a pet is a big responsibility, but it can also be a lot of fun. Take the time to research, prepare and find great healthcare for your cat or dog so you can raise a happy and healthy new member of your family.
The ASPCA on vaccines
The ASPCA on general animal care
AAHA’s newest guidelines for dog vaccines