Human/Animal Bond

The Eight Most Vital Things Pet Owners Need

Taking care of a pet means a lot more than just putting down a bowl of food

November 16, 2015 (published)

Owning a pet isn’t all fun, games, and sloppy kisses. I mean, it mostly is, but there’s a downside.

Not like a deep, dark, tragic downside, or a secret government plot to have your hamster spy on you and report your activities to a secret agency. Nothing like that.

But pet ownership is both a big responsibility and (sometimes) a big challenge. Ask anyone who’s stepped in cat barf at 2 a.m., and they will confirm that while pet ownership can add years to your life and make those years better, you face some stains, expenses, and frustration when you decide to own a pet. 

Of course, owning a child parenting also has its share of messy I-stepped-on-projectile-vomit or carpeting-wet-from-a-leaky-diaper, but we’ll leave that topic for Parents magazine and nearly every other blog online that isn’t devoted to food, beer, or weddings.

Just to be clear, I am strongly pro-pet: there are a ton of benefits of pet ownership. Some things like lower blood pressure, years added to your life, and better cognitive skills for the elderly are backed up by science. There’s also the less easily quantified things like a warm snuggle on the couch or a quiet walk in the woods that improve both your life and that of your pet.

But I want those contemplating pet ownership, or who are new to the joys of living with pets, to know what they’re getting into. In that vein, I present my list of the eight things that pet owners need to live happily with a pet.

1. Consideration of Size
My permanent #1 rule for pet ownership is to never get a dog bigger than you can lift. When dogs take ill, they often think “I’ll just lay right here until I feel better, thank you very much” and if you can’t get them into the car for medical help, I hope you have good relations with your neighbor who can help you out. For some of you with Great Danes, Newfoundlands, Great Pyrenees, and other giant breeds, this carefully thought out advice borne from experience on the receiving end in the ER is probably too late.

2. Patience
This is my personal struggle. My tripawd dog Rocco is now about 10 and he’s slowing down. I don’t mean that in some general sense: I mean he’s slow. He walks slowly, he chews slowly, and I’m pretty sure he thinks slowly. I have found myself gritting my teeth more than once when he was between me and the coffee maker, and the shame you feel when you realize that you are mad at a poor, three-legged elderdog because you can’t refill your cuppa is profound indeed.

In order to live with pets, just as with children, you need to flex your ‘keep cool’ muscles and develop the ability to rise above the furballs and scratches on the couch. As I said, I still struggle with it. I have definite anal retentive tendencies and pets don’t care if the couch pillows are arranged just so - they just wanna get comfies. Try and see the bigger picture and let it go. (No, that was not a Frozen reference, it’s just a phrase.)

3. Carpet cleaner
Dogs like to consider the world mostly edible until proven otherwise, and when they find out that lamps, socks, and hair scrunchies are, in fact, not as delicious as they look, their answer is usually to throw them up promptly. Cats do the same thing, although they’re armed with that uniquely potent material called the hairball. I expect the weaponized hairball to be the next secret weapon used in the fight against global terrorism once this whole drone fad passes.

Dogs and cats love to make a mess with their bodily effluents, and humans love to carpet their world in (usually light colored) fibrous material, and these two concepts rarely can coexist peacefully. To own a pet is to give up on the idea of a perfectly manicured carpet, but having a good bottle of pet stain remover and a little carpet sucky-cleany machine can help you regain just a little bit of that dream. Until the next hairball.

4. A veterinarian
Okay, I am one, so this entry is just a tad self-serving, but I do, at times, perform an important function. Keeping your pet healthy is my job, and doing that through prevention, if possible, and good medical care when it’s not is important. I think about one-third of the clients that I see in the ER don’t have a regular, everyday general practitioner for their pets, which is completely, totally unacceptable for any pet owner. I am willing to cut lots of folks slack for lots of things, but if you have a pet, you need a vet. Period. No, scratch that: exclamation point!

5. Time
Why get a pet if you’re not going to do stuff with it? Stuff like walks, fetch, romping in the surf, hang-gliding, laser pointing, and three-day catnip benders. If you don’t have time for a hobby, you might want to reconsider pet-ownership.

Owning a pet is a great way to meet people, get some activity and exercise, and clear your head. While I was composing this piece, I took my new dog Dax for a walk outside in the crisp fall air and added a few pointers to the list.

6. Love
This one’s pretty easy. A curmudgeonly, pet-hating troll would be unlikely to stop by the humane society and pick up a pet. But if you happen to be married to said curmudgeon, some problems can pop up. I’ll leave this one to the marriage counselors, but since pets give us so much love, why not give a little (or a lot) back?

7. Space
It’s important to match your pet to your place. Don’t get a mastiff if you live in a fourth-floor walkup. A 40-acre parcel of farmland with 1,000-pound horses galloping around it may not be the best place for a three-pound Chihuahua to romp and play. In general, the bigger the dog, the bigger the need for space, the bigger the food and medicine bills, the bigger the poops to be picked up, etc.

8. Money
I left it for last because it’s the least fun to talk about, but pets cost money. The average dog lives for about 11 years (cats can go for far longer), and over that life time, you can rack up in food, medical care, and associated costs about what your average year of college tuition costs: $20,000 or thereabouts. Obviously, lots of factors can bump that number up or down by a wide margin, but taking care of a dog or cat for its whole life is going to have some financial implications. If your pet does not have average health or has a long lifespan, you may be in for significantly less or, unfortunately, significantly more than the average. Just like people, some pets glow with rampant health, and others are at the doctor all the time.

My advice? No one wants to hear it, but start a savings account for your pet. If you get hit with a big medical bill or other unexpected cost, you’ll avoid having to pay down a big credit card bill, or even worse, avoid having to make medical decisions based on cost, not what’s best for your pet.

There you have it. Taking care of a pet means a lot more than just putting down a bowl of food every now and again. It’s a big responsibility, all right, but there’s a big payoff in terms of love and companionship, not to mention the fun, games, and sloppy kisses.


Paula Kraus
May 13, 2016

I hope everyone takes the time to read this article.  great advice and covers the basics of getting a pet, or not.  I work with the humane society and seeing some of the mistreated dogs that come in is heartbreaking.  I hope everyone will consider taking in a rescue and giving them a 'forever home'.  Dr Bryant is wonderful vet, thanks for all the info you take the time to pass along.

Karen Smith
May 10, 2016

Boo, hiss to Nancy.  The advice was spot on.  I've seen too many dogs neglected by people who get a dog then pay no attention to them.  Just as people need food, love, exercise, stimulation, so do pets.  Don't get one if you're not going to spend time & money caring for them!

May 5, 2016

Thank you for writing this article. It was not only enjoyable to read but informative.  As an owner of a diabetic dog it is very important that would be owners are ready for the commitment for the long haul.

May 5, 2016

If you can't take GOOD care of a pet, you have no business having children. My dog taught me more about positive reinforcement & discipline (mine) that I wish I had known before I had my daughter!

Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM
May 5, 2016

Dear Nancy,  I'm sorry this piece wasn't what you were seeking. But, as you can see from the other comments, tastes are individual. I can assure you that Dr. Johnson is a devoted pet owner himself and an expert in veterinary emergency and critical care. 

Nancy O'Connell
May 5, 2016

While reading your "article," it struck me that you care far more about drawing attention to YOU than to "pets." SHAME on you! And your tone doesn't even pass as cutesy, it's self-serving, and your so-called advice is questionable at best.

May 5, 2016

Think carefully before getting a pet, and plan for the long run - a pet is not a piece of furniture you can "dispose of" if you're disappointed with them for whatever reason or when you move.

Tara Gilbert
May 5, 2016

Great segment! I am printing this and giving copies to my grown children. Everyone needs to get past the cute little puppy/kitty face and really consider what goes into owning a pet. Our pets deserve complete love and care.

Juanita leihenseder
May 5, 2016

Fantastic article, an informative, fun, enjoyable. Everything it takes to keep a person interested and enjoying the information they are acquiring. Thanks for making it a fun read!

Corliss Cureton
May 5, 2016

Thanks for the information of The Eight Most Vital Things. Piper can be costly, now that I'm retired. She's brought joy into our home, so she will receive the best care.

Nancy Richardson
May 4, 2016

If you're considering having a dog as a member of your family, please note that dogs are pack animals and the humans in the family are the dog's pack. The dog wants and needs to be with it's pack. Do not get a dog if you don't have time for it. Don't tie a dog out on a chain and leave him there! A dog takes as much or more care than a child. If you don't get along with children, don't get a dog. Dogs are wonderful companions and exceptional ones if you train them to have good manners. They want to please you! Dog spelled backwards is God. God gave us dogs for companions and to be members of our family. If you want some other kind of animal, or even a dog, do your homework first. Find out their expected life span and their health requirements. A well taken care of pet, is a happy pet. And a happy pet makes a happy family!

Roberta Place
May 4, 2016

If you get a pet when you are older you may want to consider who will care for your pet should it survive you.

Brenda Royer
May 3, 2016

I really loved what you wrote! People who do not have children and plan to also need to consider their pet also that changes things for them also.

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