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The Cost of Ownership: What You Owe to Your Pet

Updated on April 29, 2013
Unwanted kittens await adoption in the local shelter
Unwanted kittens await adoption in the local shelter
An abused goldfish (please note the bag is not indicative of where the fish came from)
An abused goldfish (please note the bag is not indicative of where the fish came from)

Having worked with animals most of my life I'm constantly surprised at how easily many people enter into a big commitment...specifically, adopting a new pet. Thinking back I can remember many summer days sitting in front of the local grocery store giving away puppies (my dad refused to have his dog spayed) and even now I can hardly believe how many people looked at those puppies and decided on the spur of the moment to take one home...sometimes it was a child's incessant pleas that they take the cute ball of fur home or the "it would be fun to have a dog" reasoning. Now that I'm older and have spent more time in pet shelters I see how many of these sorts of pets end up being given up when the new owner gets tired of the pet, frustrated at chewing or house training, or just plain realize how much time and money that "free puppy" is going to cost them.

I have had many dogs come into my life that were simply abandoned. One had the good fortune of being abandoned right in front of the shelter, being tied to the fence during the night so the owners could avoid the surrender fees. Another (whose picture appears in my article "Selecting the Right Dog for You" linked below) who was originally tied to the fence on her owner's property where she stayed for an unknown period of time after her people had moved away until thirst drove her to break her chain, she was found wandering the countryside dragging the broken chain and in a horribly emaciated state. The saddest case I've seen yet was that of my sister's chow chow; before she came to us the police found her after concerned neighbors called...they'd heard a dog whining in the house next door where the occupants had moved out a week before. What they found was an appalling site...two dogs were running loose through the house desperate for food and water and in horrible shape, the third (our chow) was found tied to the bathroom sink on a very short tether...with her litter of half-starved puppies lying beside her.

What causes something like this to happen? I can tell you right now that the majority of people who abuse animals do not start off with the thought in their head that they're going to treat that critter badly, it just sort of happens along the way. Some of the factors that may contribute to this kind of behavior are the obvious lack of responsibility, lack of respect for the animal, or a simple misunderstanding of what the animal needs. So what should we be prepared to give or do for our pet when we bring them into the family?

Thoroughly research your pet. Before you even think about bringing a pet into the family you should exploit every possible resource available regarding its needs and behavior. Unfortunately I've done some very heartbreaking work with the country's most abused animal...goldfish. Granted, all types of fish are habitually abused and the unwitting owners just think that it's normal for those fish to die within a couple of months and so continue purchasing fish and subjecting them to slow and painful deaths. Did you know that a goldfish can live up to 30 years and needs anywhere from 10-50 gallons each depending on the type and size? That's not including koi, mind you, which can live up to 50 years and reach lengths of three feet. A tetra has a life span of 9-12 years...but even some of the shorter-lived fish such as guppies and bettas often don't get to see their life expectancy (3 years) as many die in too-small unfiltered bowls or overcrowded and uncycled aquariums.

Even such common animals as dogs are often ill-researched before a person decides to adopt of my dogs was previously adopted by someone who "thought it would be cool to have a big dog" but didn't take into account that his small apartment and busy schedule would be completely unfit for a sizeable dog, he gave her up when she started chewing to alleviate her boredom and promptly adopted a Rottweiler (who has since also turned up at the shelter).

Take unexpected expenses into account. Acknowledge that your pet will have vet bills. He will have to have routine checkups and shots and there's always a possibility that he will be hurt or get sick or end up having a nasty genetic disease. In my mind it's not acceptable for a person to give up on their animal just because they're going to cost a lot, they should have thought about that to begin with. I understand that there are some extenuating circumstances in which a person simply cannot handle a huge vet bill and have to do what's right by the animal and turn it over to someone who does have the money to get it the care it needs. In such a situation it falls to you, your pet's owner, to find a suitable caring home and follow up to make sure his medical needs have been met, it's not alright to simply abondon the animal at the local shelter where he may or may not get the care he needs and will be deprived of the individual attention he requires during such a trying time...many shelters that simply can't afford to care for a special needs animal will euthenize it in short order.

Be ready to make sacrifices. This follows right along with those unexpected expenses, except now we're referring more to your time. You pet needs you to make sure his cage/tank/kennel is clean, he needs to get out to do his business in a timely fashion, and he needs time to spend one-on-one with you so he knows he's loved and cherished. Training takes time. Acclimating a young pet such as a puppy or kitten into the home takes a LOT of time. Additionally, your pet may have end up with special needs...he may jump the fence and get hit by a car and require you to take time off work to nurse him back to health or he may develop a health problem that requires immediate attention.

Be sure to take time to socialize your pet so he's used to multiple people being around...a recent episode comes to mind with a friend of mine and her diabetic cat. Soon after she found out the cat was diabetic this friend had a new baby, had to move, and work more hours at her job. She knew the cat's chances in a shelter so she hesitated on giving him up but she was having problems getting him his insulin shot on time. I offered to give him the shot when none of his own people were available to do it, but this particular cat was not used to strangers and would not let anyone but the person who'd raised him from a kitten touch him. In fact, the first time I ever touched this cat was about a month ago when I rushed over to the house to give him first aid for insulin shock (his owner had attempted to give him both his doses at once to "make up for not being there" for his morning dose), it was a Saturday and the vet was out on rounds treating livestock and wouldn't be back for several hours. The cat was barely conscious and had seizures about every ten minutes, yet he did live long enough to get a glucose pack from the vet that evening...but just as he was getting back on his feet the next day another of his insulin doses was missed and he died shortly thereafter. I know this friend didn't mean to hurt her pet and had done what she thought best for him, but the point it that this tragedy, at least, could have been prevented if the cat were better socialized so other people could give him his shot. Many people may say she should have found her cat a new home before events led to his death, but the sad truth about a very small town is that there are not a large number of homes for special needs animals. Either way, there are steps that could have been taken years earlier to prevent just such an eventuality but many people, even the best of pet owners, don't take time to consider the big picture in the way they bring up their pets.

Commit to the long haul. Animals are much like humans (their larger, slightly less-bright animal counterparts) in that they can become deeply attached to their adoptive families and are often willing to do anything they can to please and protect you. A customer once explained to me that a cat will only bring you live food (such as a very lively mouse) if they truly care for you, they can see you're a bad hunter and are worried about your well-being and so will take it upon themselves to teach you how to hunt. An animal doesn't understand why you're angry when they have an accident on the floor if they haven't been house-trained, they don't understand why they're punished for trying to alleviate boredom or try to get exercise if they're not getting enough in their daily lives, and they certainly don't understand why they've been uprooted from their homes and thrown amongst strangers when their humans decide they've had enough and give him up to a shelter. Many senior animals are known to die of depression and a refusal to eat when they've been given up to a shelter after many years of devotion to their family. Know your pet's expected life span and commit yourself to that entire period, a pet is a family member and should be treated just as permanently as any other member of the family.

Get your pet spayed or neutered. This is especially important for cats and dogs that can fairly easily find a mate if they manage to escape from the house at the right time. I know puppies are cute and can be very educational to the kids, but this does not mean you should allow your animal to breed...the sad truth is that thousands of cats and dogs are euthanized every year because of unwanted young and negligent humans. If you want to have the experience of puppies foster a pregnant animal from the shelter or foster a young animal to house train until a forever home can be found for it, don't intentionally create more animals to go into the shelter. If you have a purebred dog great, doesn't mean you have to breed it either...if you do breed, be sure they are high quality animals and buyers are found before pregnancy ever even occurs. Rabbits and guinea pigs are a couple of others that often should be fixed but aren't as unwanted babies can easily result, and easily die, if both sexes are present and their humans aren't properly equipped to care for them. Another excellent point...altered animals are often healthier and get along better with their families. A neutered dog is less likely to become aggressive or run off looking for a mate and an un-altered bitch will go into heat regularly and is susceptible to all manner of uterine infections.

For a personal significant other adopted the dog that was mentioned at the beginning that was tied to a fence outside the shelter and abandoned by whoever had her before; he adopted her the next day before the vet had had time to spay her so the shelter personnel informed him she still needed to be spayed and sent her home with him. Being new to dogs (she was his first) he didn't know the importance of spaying a dog even if she's never going to be around unaltered males or be outside unattended and so he never got her fixed. Fast forward five that point I'd been pestering him for nearly three years to let me take the dog in and get her fixed but he still wouldn't let me. One day I noticed she was a little lethargic and alerted him to a potentially sick was a weekend so we opted for a "watch and wait" plan as she may just have a mild bug or eaten something that didn't agree with her. The next day she was worse and did nothing but follow her beloved master around the house and lay at his feet...but by the morning after that she didn't even wag her tail when he got up and he thought for a minute that she'd died. Luckily she wasn't dead, but I rushed her straight to the vet despite the vet's insistence that he didn't have an opening for her (it helps to be well acquainted with said vet), telling him that she was very sick and I'd be willing to pay boarding fees for her to wait in a kennel at his office until he had a spare minute to look at her. As soon as she arrived he ordered blood tests and called me three hours later to confirm what he'd guessed at first glancing at her...she had an infection in her uterus. The fix was simple, she'd have to be spayed that very day, but if we'd waited any longer or even handled her a little too abruptly that uterus could have ruptured and killed her. The vet weighed her pus-filled uterus at 3 ½ pounds when he removed it, and all because her owner didn't see the importance of having her fixed.

Be willing to do what's right for your pet even if it's not what you want to do. Despite that long-term commitment you've made to your pet there's always a chance that life will throw something in your way you're not equipped to handle...maybe a close relative ends up needing live-in care and you're the only one who can or will do it and can't take your pet, maybe you or a family member develop a serious allergy to the animal, or any of a number of other situations. Some of these can cause great harm to an animal's health and happiness and even though you love your pet dearly you may be faced with having to let him go. It's important to be able to recognize these situations when they come along...if a dog has to be outside all the time with little human contact because one of his humans developed an allergy it's probably time to submit to the inevitable and start searching for a new home. Often you can get lucky and find a close friend that can take him and allow you to see him on a regular basis. If you must go with a complete stranger be sure to do as much background checking as possible and find someone who's willing to visit your pet in your home several times before taking him to his new home so he won't feel like he's been abandoned and given to a complete stranger. Visit the animal several times in his new home until he gets settled in and make those visits your follow-up checks to ensure the dog looks happy and healthy in his new environment. I recently saw a pair of senior bassett hounds up for adoption on Petfinder with the story of how their house burned down and so had to be given up by the humans that had cherished them for their entire lives...yet another reminder that life isn't always as predictable as we'd like.

On the flip side, if your pet sustains an injury, illness, physical failing, or has a genetic abnormality that will cause them a great amount of pain and keep them from ever living a normal life you may have the absolutely gut-wrenching duty to discuss euthanasia with your vet. Trust your vet, if he says your pet won't recover and will be in agony for the rest of its life and feels euthanasia is the best route then you may have no other choice...don't force your pet to suffer just because you can't stand to have him put to sleep. If this unthinkable situation does occur do whatever you can to ease the animal's final days and ALWAYS be in the room and as close to your animal as allowed when the procedure is done...he's given you a life of devotion and deserves to die in your arms instead of staring at strangers in a place full or scary sounds and smells. As I write this paragraph I can't help but glance at the dog laying beside me...I've had this dog for 15 years now - ever since I bottle-fed him as a two-day-old puppy - we've grown up together, and now as cataracts and cancer close in and he has an increasingly difficult time of controlling his bladder I know the time when I'm going to have to make that decision probably isn't far off...I know it'll break my heart to see him die but I at least owe him my company when he passes for his years of unfailing friendship.

A pet is a huge commitment and should never be taken on lightly, but if you enter into the relationship with eyes open and prepared as much as possible to provide for the animal's needs you can develop a mutual bond unlike any other in the world...someone who will love you no matter what you do and want nothing more than to comfort you when you have a bad day, someone who lives to please you if you'll just take the time to guide him on how he might achieve that end. Having a pet is a wonderful thing, but whether you're adopting a rabbit, goldfish, cat, iguana, dog, or some other pet make sure that you ready to give it all you've got to provide for that animal the rest of its life.


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