Man petting a cat

We all want to be responsible pet owners but what does the word responsible mean when applied to how we care for our beloved pets? No doubt, there are as many definitions as there are breeds of dogs and colors of cats.

Here is my personal top 10 list of “essential responsibilities,” all of which have been gleaned from three decades of work as a small-animal veterinarian.

1) Believe in "Till Death Do Us Part"

When you adopt a pet, you are committing to care for the animal for its entire life. Now, we all know that life has a way of changing unexpectedly. Should your ability to care for your pet change, or if your pet has the potential to live for many decades (such as a parrot or tortoise), your responsibility should be to carefully plan who will be the next care provider for your pet.

2) Know It’s "For Better or Worse"

Just as in human relationships, commitment to a pet is to provide love and care “for better or for worse.” Undoubtedly, there will be struggles — delayed house training, separation anxiety, destroyed furniture, chronic health issues (no doubt, you can add to this list). When opening your home and your heart to an animal, be willing and prepared to invest the time, energy and financial resources necessary to successfully manage any rough spots. Such challenges are a normal part of life. The silver lining is that they help us appreciate and enjoy the smooth times so much more.

3) Guarantee Food and Shelter

Perhaps the most obvious responsibility on this list, provision of the basic necessities of life, is an important one. Water and nutritious food are a must, as is protection from the elements. Here is where I will present my plug for providing shelter within the home. Given the choice, I firmly believe that the vast majority of dogs and cats would prefer to be housed indoors, living side-by-side with their favorite humans. From their perspective, a bed in the garage or a doghouse in the backyard is invariably a second choice.

4) Provide Emotional Nutrition

The kitty who persistently meows at an unanswered door and the dog who is chained to a tree in the yard are both in heartbreakingly inhumane situations. The need for emotional nourishment is just as great (if not greater) than the need for what is in the food bowl. Every animal’s emotional needs are different, but every animal deserves to have their emotional needs fulfilled. Your responsibility is to recognize and fill such needs (overfilling is perfectly acceptable!).

5) Commit to Preventive Health Care

There is a rather long “to do” list when it comes to proactively preserving your pet’s health. Protection from harm, balanced nutrition, exercise and regular checkups are a good start to any list. I encourage you to work with your veterinarian to create your own “to do” list for your pets.

6) Practice Responsible Parenting

If I possessed a magic wand, I would personally like to see all the homeless animals in this country placed in loving homes before any more dogs or cats are bred. Without that magic wand in hand, my best bet is to appeal to you to do whatever it takes to prevent your pet from reproducing. If you are not convinced this is an important issue, I encourage you to visit your local animal shelter or to see for yourself how many pets are currently homeless.

7) Ensure Your Pet’s Safe Return

Should the unthinkable happen and your pet becomes lost, the likelihood of a happy ending is greatly enhanced if he or she has been microchipped (and the microchip registry has your current contact information). Another critical safeguard is a collar sporting a current identification tag.

8) Create a Model Citizen

Behavioral issues are the number-one reason dogs and cats are relinquished to shelters and other humane organizations. Rehoming such animals is a huge challenge, and the unfortunate end result is often euthanasia. Do the work early on to create a model citizen by participating in training classes or one-on-one work with a trainer. You and your pet will both benefit.

9) Advocate for Your Pet’s Health

Whether selecting a vaccination protocol or making a life-or-death decision, your active involvement as a medical advocate for your pet is imperative. You may not have realized it, but at the time of adoption, you accepted “power of attorney” to make medical decisions on your pet’s behalf. Yes, your veterinarian’s recommendations are important, and he or she is an important member of your pet’s health care team, but you are “team captain” because no one knows your pet as well as you do.

10) Plan for End-of-Life Care

Unfortunately, sick or aged animals rarely simply pass away peacefully and comfortably in their sleep. In most cases, it is incumbent upon their human family members to decide upon and create an end of life for the pet (whether via euthanasia or hospice care) that is managed humanely. If you share your life with pets, you will undoubtedly find yourself faced with this all-important responsibility, and it is up to you to make sure your animal is as comfortable, free of pain, and well-loved as possible.

This is my top 10 list of essential pet care responsibilities. What would you add to the list?

Dr. Nancy Kay graduated from Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine and is the author of Your Dog’s Best Health: a Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet and Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life. Dr. Kay is a specialist in small-animal internal medicine at Upstate Veterinary Specialists, with offices in Asheville, N.C., and Greenville, S.C. 

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