by Ruth Lawrence
For thousands of years across the world humans have been sharing their homes with animals. From hamster to horse, animals can bring joy, purpose and love. Ruth Lawrence explains more.
If you are thinking about finding a pet to share your home with, there is a wealth of support out there to help you give an animal the love and care it deserves, and in return for all your hard work hopefully you will receive a lot of love and affection back.
Pets can provide a wealth of positive benefits to your life, both mentally and physically. They offer companionship, especially for those living on their own, and an antidote to loneliness. Children can find a best friend and a loyal playmate in a pet, and the physical benefits of exercising with your pet are numerous. From a vigorous horse ride, a refreshing dog walk, a game of chase with your cat or even playing with guinea pigs and rabbits in their run, both pet and owner will reap the rewards of an active and playful relationship. It has even been suggested that owning pets increases oxytocin levels, which has been associated with many health benefits.
However, pet ownership is not a responsibility to be taken lightly. Before you decide on an animal companion it’s essential to look deeply into your own motivations and think about the long term commitment, including the financial one, to the animal’s welfare.
The ‘Pet Advertising Advisory Group’ (PAAG) offers excellent advice on pet welfare. As defined under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, all owners must provide for the five welfare needs of their pets. The first is a suitable living environment; this is often the most overlooked requirement but it really needs to be considered from the animal’s point of view. Is the space too noisy? Is your pet able to find a quiet space if it needs? Is there a garden for a cat or dog to explore? Animals confined to indoors when their natural instinct is to roam can develop destructive behaviours to cope with being contained within four walls. Dogs like a space where they can be outside off a lead; they need regular exercise and put on weight if they are not able to exercise themselves or be taken on decent walks once or twice a day.
Animals can have surprisingly sensitive hearing and exotic species need very specific environments, often temperature and humidity controlled. It’s best to be realistic about what you can offer an animal and if you take a close look at your own home, you can consider whether the kind of animal you’d like would thrive there or if you may be better suited to a pet that would cope with your particular environment.
The second requirement is diet. Can you provide the kind of food that will maintain the animal into old age and keep it healthy? Large animals, particularly horses and ponies can get through enormous amounts of extra feed in winter and large dogs will require more food than smaller dogs. Exotic animals may need to feed on prey animals, which may present an entire ethical consideration in itself. Pets like a variety of food as much as we do – fresh, wet and dry foods and plenty of clean water.
The third requirement is that the animal is able to behave normally; this often ties in with suitable environment but also relates to your own capabilities. Are you able to walk a dog every day, come rain or shine, give a cat room to roam freely, ideally with outside space as well, and find a quiet place to rest? Even small, caged pets need enough space to play and roam; can you provide a suitable run and a safe outdoor space for it to inhabit in warmer weather? The key here to is research the animal’s natural behaviours and ask yourself honestly if you are able to provide for these.
The fourth need is companionship and this varies largely with species and individuals. For example, not all cats are solitary, some bond with close family members, and many dogs prefer a person all to themselves. This is where rescue centres can really help as they know each animal’s idiosyncrasies and will always seek to home a pet with an owner who can provide suitable companionship. Small pets should be kept with at least one friend of the same species. Care needs to be taken in introducing new individuals gradually.
The last requirement is health and being protected from suffering, pain, injury and disease. With so much information available from vets and online, it’s easy to research the health needs of particular breeds and species. Pets need to be vaccinated usually once a year although this varies according to breed, age, travel habits and lifestyle. Cats need to be protected against cat flu, enteritus and feline leukaemia while dogs require vaccinations against distemper, kennel cough, parvo, hepatitis and leptospirosis. Rabbits need protection too, namely from myxomatosis and rabbit haemorrhagic disease.
If something unexpected does unfortunately happen to your pet, it is advisable to be covered. Half of all pet owners have had to make an unforeseen visit to the vet within the last two years, and insurance can help with covering the sometimes considerable costs involved. There are differences between pet insurance and pet health plans; the former covers the cost of unexpected illness or injury while the latter makes routine treatments more affordable. Routine procedures include flea and worm treatments, annual vaccinations and regular health checks. A health plan will ensure that vaccinations are kept up to date and booster jabs are given to top up the immunity. An annual health check is given to nip potential problems in the bud and provide treatment before anything gets worse. Diet and weight consultations are part of a health plan; a tailor-made diet will ensure weight is kept healthy and advice can be given on the correct foods and exercise.
Over 80% of vets have seen a rise in pet obesity in the last two years and the health risks are serious for the pets involved. Overweight cats are three times more likely to suffer from diabetes and this is due to owners feeding treats and larger portions than is necessary. There is a method used by vets called ‘body condition scoring’ which assesses by eye and touch where areas of fat can be scored. Dogs and cats should have a clearly defined waist that tucks in behind their ribs when seen from above. From the side, their waist should follow a clear line upwards behind their ribs and should not be level or sagging. Their ribs should be easy to feel by running the hands over them gently.
Veterinary charity PDSA provides a useful guide to help owners body condition score their own pets with photos and information, although it may also be a good idea to talk to your vet or nurse about the specific feeding needs of your animal. Rabbits, for example, should not be fed ‘rabbit muesli’ style foods as this is linked to dental and digestive disorders. Instead, let them enjoy a diet of hay and grass, some leafy green vegetables and safe herbs and weeds. Good quality rabbit pellets or nuggets can be fed as well, but make sure they are in small, measured rations. Small animals like guinea pigs, rabbits and rats need to exercise in a permanent, sizeable run on grass to provide the opportunity to dig, climb, explore and run about if they are to avoid becoming overweight.
Most pet health plans will offer discounts on common veterinary procedures such as neutering, dental work and nail clipping and it may be a false economy to avoid taking one out for your pet. The cost can be spread to save money and there are plans for young and senior animals to help with specific needs. An older dog for instance may need urine analysis and extra nurse examinations and annual blood screening while a kitten may need neutering, a microchip, a first vaccination course and three months worth of flea and worm treatment. Food health plans are also available for pets which include a recommended diet and a nurse weight check every six months.
After you have done all the planning and research of pet ownership, it’s time for the fun part – go and choose your pet! This is where the rescue centres can help as they provide advice, support and a realistic assessment of your own requirements and ability to offer a long term home to a loving animal. Rescue centres in this country are bursting with pets that are in need of a good, responsible home and it honestly makes little sense not to search for a pet there. You may have to wait a while to find the perfect match, but it is worth being patient to find what will hopefully become your companion. Re-homing an abandoned pet is a two-way relationship, beneficial to both animal and owner and there is no shortage of suitable animals to match you and your home environment. Pets from reputable rescue centres will be neutered, vaccinated and microchipped and come with advice, support and encouragement.
There are of course other places to find your new pet pal, from family and friends to reputable and responsible breeders. PAAG have provided this advice to help you make the right choice: “If buying a pet be sure to follow PAAG’s advice, including doing your research and finding a breeder interested in the welfare of the animal they have bred. A good breeder will ask you as many questions as you will ask them and they’ll also not pressure you to buy and won’t insist on you buying the pet on the first visit.” Before buying any pet it is worth spending time in each other’s company to make sure you are compatible before committing to the relationship.
Time taken to fully consider the future relationship with a companion animal is time well spent and will lead to a lifetime of joyful memories and most importantly, the well-deserved love of a happy pet.
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