Vet Talk

Is it Time to Get a Dog or a Cat?

Mistakes happen when circumstances or wallets aren't ready

Published: July 08, 2013

Photo by Karen Moeller
Dear Son,

There you were, all grown up and moving into your very first place after graduating from college. As we unloaded the U-Haul at your new place at grad school, I felt gray hairs spring out of my head when I heard you say, “Oh, I see a lot of people walking their dogs in this complex!”

Thank goodness that box I dropped wasn’t holding your grandma’s dishes.

Throughout your undergraduate years you resisted the urge to obtain your own kitten or puppy. After all, your mom is a veterinarian and you’ve heard me talking for years about when is the right time to bring a pet into your life. You’ve heard me talk about what mistakes I have seen people make when their circumstances or wallets aren’t ready. You know how much I hate helping rehome pets that belonged to a person who should never have gotten the pet in the first place but bent under the unspeakable desire to have one. In fact, I believe we WERE the new home for several of these pets!

I know the idea of a pet you don't have to share with the family is riveting. I know you have taken care of many of them, and understand what is involved. The dozens of animals we’ve had over the years have laid the groundwork for you. But let’s sit and chat a moment about whether or not this is a good time in your life.

Can I afford to buy pet food without forcing myself to live on PB&J’s and Ramen soup?
Honey, I know your budget for the next few years. It would be kind to call it sparse.

Can I afford veterinary care?
Dr. Mom now lives several states away, so you'd have to pay a veterinarian just like everybody else. The first 6 months of a puppy and kitten’s life are the most expensive. They need their vaccinations, and they should be spayed or neutered. Plus, just like you when you were a toddler, there's a good chance the puppy or kitten will eat something it shouldn't or get hurt. While the midnight trip to the veterinarian will give you a great parenting preview, it probably isn't the educational experience you're really looking for right now. While you can sort of expect some illnesses, like arthritis, injuries are by definition a surprise blow to the budget. People who are scraping by on a tight budget don’t save for medical emergencies. “In November Sport will get into my laundry and then have to have a sock removed from his intestine” is not the way life works.

Does my landlord allow me to have pets?
Let me state this as succinctly as possible: Sneaking pets in where they aren't allowed will lead you into a shadowy life of deception while you sneak the cat out when you think the landlord is coming over to fix the faucet. This is a bad plan. Trust me on this, it’s a bad, bad, bad idea.

Do you understand that your entire life will now be ruled by your dog's bladder?
If you get a puppy, you will have to housetrain the baby, which isn't usually accomplished overnight (plus you will lose all kinds of sleep while the puppy cries at night and settles in - it can be stressful). But even once the puppy is housetrained, or you get an adult who arrives with housetraining intact and a bladder of steel, you will still have to get home a certain number of times a day to let the dog out to pee and poop. It is unfair, and unhealthy, to ask a dog to hold it for 12 hours a day every week day. Could you hold it that long? Once you have a dog, your life is utterly ruled by the dog's need to go outside on a regular basis.

Is my place safe for a kitten to play and grow?
Toddlers and kittens can get into the oddest places, and they are always a surprise. “What the heck? I didn’t think Fluffy could crawl into that tiny hole in the wall that wouldn't let a mouse through. How do I get her out?” Remember, cats are boneless when they want to be, and kittens are tiny and boneless. No place is off limits to their curiosity.

Do I have a good, safe place for my new dog to run and play?
Puppies and dogs need enough exercise to keep them well behaved or they will destroy everything you own, right down to the crown molding on the door and your underwear (which brings us back to those unexpected veterinary expenses). If the soccer field isn’t fenced, it’s not likely a safe place unless your new dog has a rock solid recall. Unless your dog is the size of a cat, you will need to provide sufficient daily outdoor exercise for your canine.

Do I have time to devote to training a new pet?
Puppies and kittens are babies and need a lot of attention and play time to grow up to be happy companions.

Puppies and dogs require more time on a day to day basis than kittens and cats, and much of that time has to be outside. Dogs need to go to obedience school (another expense) not just to learn, but to socialize, so they aren't afraid of other dogs and places for the rest of their lives. The mistakes you make in the beginning by not training them will reverberate throughout this animal's life. Either commit to training - even for an adult rescue - or don't get a dog.

Do I have the time to devote to walking my new puppy or dog every day?
This is hard for everyone, but for students it a real concern. Your dog will not be happy with a quick run around the block, nor will you be happy when your dog burns off his excess energy in ways you can't even dream of. Do you want your security deposit back?

Will you scoop the litter box every day?
I always took care of that at home, so this may be new to you. A filled litter box that doesn’t get cleaned is disgusting and is sometimes cause for that most devoutly unwanted behavior of "inappropriate elimination." Cat pee is impossible to get out of your clothes. It’s vile in carpeting and luggage. Inappropriate elimination is a reason many cats are taken to the shelter yet sometimes it’s an easy fix with a clean litter box that doesn’t make the cat cringe when he smells it.

Who will take care of your pet when you go out of town?
If you come home (you’d darn well better, at least once in a while) you need to either bring your pet or arrange for care. It's an unusual cat who enjoys traveling. Dogs don’t mind, but if you’re flying home, it’s extra expense and concern for the dog’s safety. Since you are a student, most people you know will be gone for the same holidays you are. You may need to look into the cost (funny how that keeps coming up) of boarding or a pet sitter.

What kind of pet would you want to have?
A small dog? A big dog? A cat? Two kittens because they are so cute tumbling around together? Remember, whatever you get will grow up and take up more space and require more food and medications such as heartworm and flea preventive. Would you want a shelter dog or a purebred? Apartment life is not the best choice for Great Danes, so if that’s what your heart desires...

How long will you be living in this place? Will you be able to take your new friend with you when you move?
Pets are a lifetime commitment. Unlike textbooks, you can't just sell them back when the semester is over. Your physics book doesn't care if it gets fed, and it will live happily on anyone's shelf. Your dog or cat has bonded to you. It is a living creature with social and physical needs that you are responsible for meeting. Unless you're willing to devote the same level of dedication to your pet that you have to your studies, pet ownership is not the degree program for you.

You're in school. Not everything in your life - or even mine - can be ruled by pets. With all my love and honesty,

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