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What You Need to Know Before Bringing Home a New Pet

In this video Dr. Karen Becker discusses the importance of planning for a new furry addition to the family and gives loads of great advice on how to successfully integrate a new dog or cat into your home and life.
Dr. Becker's Comments:

Today I want to talk about the incredibly important topic of how to successfully add a new pet to your family.

This is a very exciting time for most families (and their new pets), but it can also be a very stressful time for lots of different reasons. For example, some new pet owners underestimate how much time it might take to introduce the new arrival to other animals in the home.

Often, a new pet is much needier than family members expected. And then there’s lack of planning for the stress itself, whether it’s temporary or permanent.

As I often say, preparation is priceless. Pre-planning for your new arrival can go a long way toward reducing stress not only on your pet, but also on the two-legged members of your family.

Pet Proofing Your Home

This is something you should do before bringing your new dog or cat home with you. You might not think of everything you need to do right off the bat, but at a minimum, you should move cords out of reach, and plants if your new addition is a kitty.

If you have children, you can involve them by having them get down on the floor to take a puppy or kitten-eye view of all the temptations your new pet might want to investigate. Pick up anything that has dropped on the floor like rubber bands or paper clips.

I tell clients at my practice that the best incentive for keeping a neat, clean house is a puppy or kitten, because if it’s been lost or left behind, they will find it. Kitties will disappear behind your entertainment center or under your bed, and reappear with stuff you’ve either long forgotten or never knew was there in the first place.

Pet-proofing your home before your new puppy, kitten, dog or cat arrives is the best way to prevent a choking, vomiting, diarrhea or other crisis during those important first few weeks of new pet ownership.

Making Important Decisions

Another thing you should plan for ahead of time are decisions such as:

  • Where will your new pet eat her meals?
  • Where will his bowl of fresh water be kept?
  • Where will he sleep – in your bedroom? Will he sleep with you or in his own bed?
  • Where will you place the litter box, or in the case of a dog, where is the designated outside potty spot?
  • Where will you put kitty’s scratching post?
  • If you plan to crate train, where will you keep it?

If you’re bringing a new puppy home, I urge you to purchase a crate. Many of you may have already watched my videos on crate training and know I consider it a very important part of keeping your precious pup safe when you’re not at home or can’t keep a constant eye on him.

People who are uncomfortable with crates say things like, “I’m uncomfortable putting my dog in a box while I’m gone.” If that’s your feeling, you should know that dogs, by nature, are den animals. They crave being in a small, safe, dark spot.

I strongly recommend you have the crate ready when your puppy comes home. If she’s allowed to sleep in your bed with you for several days and then you move her to a crate, you’re apt to run into resistance.

Your pup has already learned her nighttime sleeping spot is your bed. Moving her to the crate may cause an exaggerated response – whining or crying, typically -- over and above what you could have expected had you crated her on her first night with you. So I recommend you purchase the crate before the puppy comes home, and put it to use her first day home.

Stocking Up on Pet Supplies

You should purchase all necessary pet supplies before you bring the new addition home -- leashes, balls/toys, collars, ID tags, potty bags, scratching posts, cat litter and litter box – everything you’ll need to be well-equipped when the new addition arrives.

And initially, I strongly recommend you keep your pet on the very same food she’s been eating, even if it’s very poor quality. Even if you’re rescuing your pet and your home is a blessed improvement over what she’s been used to, her little body will still interpret this wonderful change in circumstances as stressful. Change, whether good or bad, gets translated as stress in your dog’s or cat’s body.

Puppies and kittens, in particular, experience a lot of stress because they’re being separated from their mom and littermates for the first time. They’re changing environments, sometimes outdoor environments as well, which bring new allergens that can affect their immune system.

They have a brand new family, humans and often other four-legged members as well. The last thing their little bodies need at this particular time is a brand new diet that might cause gastrointestinal problems. That’s why I recommend you purchase whatever food your pet is currently eating, and then slowly wean them onto a better quality diet after your pup is settled and adjusted to her new environment. .

More Important Decisions to Be Made Before Your Pet Comes Home

Decide ahead of time what family member will be responsible for which pet care chores.

Often children will beg for a pet and their parents oblige without realizing a child’s desire for a pet doesn’t translate to a desire to take care of a pet. Also, children need help to learn how to care for a pet properly.

Even the adults in the family, if chores aren’t assigned ahead of time, can assume that it is the responsibility of someone other than them to, for example, pick up the dog poop from the backyard or clean the kitty’s litter box.

So, who’s on potty duty with a very young puppy? How about in the beginning, in the middle of the night? Who will feed him? Who will take him to his vet appointments? Who’s in charge of making sure he’s exercised several times a week?

Who’s going to take care of trimming nails, oral hygiene, brushing the cat, or bathing the dog? Those are all questions that I encourage you to think about before you bring your new furry baby home.

Taking good care of a pet requires time, energy, and commitment. To avoid either neglecting the new pet, or battles over who didn’t do what to care for the dog or cat, it’s best to set everyone’s expectations ahead of time.

Who Will See to Your Pet’s Schooling?

Which family members will be responsible for socializing a new puppy? This is a really important aspect of raising a well balanced dog.

What I tell the pet parents in my practice is if you bring home a puppy but don’t plan to educate him properly, it’s a lot like having a child and deciding a formal education is overrated.

Puppies are educated about the world through socialization with other people, dogs, cats, and environments outside their houses. Dogs that don’t get out of their home environment often wind up with developmental or social abnormalities later on in life.

Just as you would never look at the precious infant sleeping in your arms and imagine he’ll one day commit a felony and wind up in prison, neither do you look at the sweet puppy who never leaves your house or yard and imagine he’ll one day be so difficult to manage you have to abandon him to an animal shelter.

There’s a period of time during your pet’s young puppy or kitten-hood – and this is especially the case for puppies – typically weeks six to twelve, during which mental and social development is most achievable. If your pet isn’t socialized during that time, you’re setting the stage for problems down the road.

Your pet will like you and behave for you (usually), but no one else. This problem often doesn’t become apparent until the animal is two, three or four years of age, at which time though it’s not impossible to correct the situation, it’s much more difficult than it would have been when your pet was just a few months old.

Having a puppy class picked out and having your new addition enrolled by 10 weeks is very important.

Consistency in Training is Key

For the sake of consistency in training your new dog or cat, you should set up house rules ahead of time that all family members agree on.

For example, will he be allowed on the living room furniture? Will it be okay for kitty to walk on the kitchen or dining room table? Will your pet sleep in bed with you? Decide ahead of time what the rules will be, and get agreement so that everyone enforces them consistently.

You can’t successfully train a pet that is allowed to do some things, sometimes – but not all the time. This only creates confusion for the animal, and whereas cats will pretty much make up their own minds what they will and won’t do (especially in your absence), most dogs want to please their human pack members. So give them every opportunity for success by consistently enforcing house rules.

Will your dog be allowed to bark if he hears a strange sound or sees a stranger at the door? Do you want your dog to provide protection in the form of barking, or is that unacceptable because you live very close to neighbors and don’t want your pet to be a nuisance?

Training must be consistent not only in terms of house rules, but also with the words family members use to give commands. Your pet doesn’t understand English or the fact that people use different words and phrases that mean the same thing. That’s why it’s important to decide ahead of time which one or two-word commands everyone will use when they expect a specific behavior.

For instance, at my house we use the word “Down” to tell our dogs to lie down, and we use the command “Off” for a dog that’s jumping up on people or furniture.

Other folks use “Down” to command a dog to stop jumping. But if the “Down” command is also used for lying down, that will be confusing to the pup. All family members need to use the same words to mean the same thing so as not to create confusion, and ultimately, non-compliance in your dog.

And Yet another Important Decision to Make Ahead of Time ...

Ideally, you will have a veterinary appointment set up the first week your pet is home with you. Some vet practices, mine included, are booked weeks or even months in advance.

If the vet you choose takes walk-in appointments, obviously this won’t be an issue. Just decide before you pick up your new furry family member who her vet will be and set aside time for that first important appointment.

I recommend you find a vet whose practice philosophy lines up with the way you want your pet to be cared for. For example, does she titer rather than automatically vaccinate? Does he handle emergency cases? Does she take credit cards? It’s a good idea to have all those details sorted out before you actually need to bring your pet in.

Introducing a New Pet to Other Pets in the Home

This is actually a topic all its own, it’s that big and important.

Please understand there’s no one perfect way to introduce a new cat or dog to an existing cat or dog pack in your home. If your vet knows the personalities of your existing pack, solicit his or her advice in how to best integrate a new dog or cat.

In my house, as an example, we have a female dog that is aggressive to other female dogs. She’s fine with male dogs, but when other females come onto our property, she reacts very defensively and aggressively. Through experience, I know what to expect. But if you have a female dog that’s never encountered another female on her turf, she could be female-aggressive but you don’t know it – until you bring home a new female dog and your home dissolves into chaos.

The way a new pet is introduced to existing pets can change depending on breed, sex, age, and disposition (personality). You might have an easygoing pit bull that can get along with any dog, but your high-strung Golden Retriever is another matter.

Depending on what breeds you’re trying to bring together, for example, a dog the size of a Chihuahua with one the size of a Great Dane, you have the additional consideration of physical size differences and the opportunity for a smaller dog to be hurt by a larger one.

If you don’t have any idea what to expect from your current pets when you introduce the new dog or cat, I encourage you to seek advice from your vet or another knowledgeable source.

As a general rule, it’s best to try to introduce a new dog to existing dogs in a neutral place, like a park. Bringing your current dog outside his territory can reduce stress and friction during the dogs’ first meeting.

If you have two or more existing dogs and are adding a new dog, I recommend you introduce each current dog to the new guy individually. Your existing dogs have formed a pack, and packs will occasionally gang up on a new ‘intruder.’ This can be very intimidating and stressful for the new addition to the family.

Respect the Natural Pack Hierarchy -- However It Evolves

If you have more than one dog, one is dominant. However, a new addition to the pack sometimes changes the social structure. A new pet can become the new ruler of the roost, and the animal you thought of as dominant can become a subordinate in the new pack structure.

This may not feel right or fair to you, human that you are, but it’s important to respect whatever hierarchy evolves in your pack. Trying to force your re-structured pack to return to the old hierarchy can foster inter-pack aggression issues. So let your animals decide their own reporting structure, and fall in line with it.

And remember to give the dominant pet his due. In other words, pay attention to him first when you come through the door (as an example). This is what he expects, and so do the other members of his pack.

Don’t try to ‘square things up’ by ignoring the new leader in favor of your displaced dominant dog. All you’ll likely get in return is sibling rivalry among your pets, which is stressful, chaotic and unnecessary.

Let a New Kitty Set Her Own Pace

If you’re bringing a new cat into your home, regardless of whether there are other pets or children in the family, I recommend you separate the new addition in a little bed-and-breakfast setup of her own for at least a week. This will help her get acclimated on her own terms, which is the way cats prefer things.

Kitties are very sensitive to new environments, sounds, tastes, smells and so forth – and they are very easily stressed by any change in their lives.

Put her litter box, food and toys in her private room and keep noise, confusion and other animals (including humans) in her space to a minimum.

Introduce other members of the household to the new kitty one at a time. Ideally, this takes place in, say, the living room, and the new cat has ventured out on her own to investigate. However you arrange these meet-and-greets, they should be done in a calm, quiet, low-stress environment so as not to scare or further stress the new kitty.

Whether you’re bringing a new puppy, kitten, adult dog or cat into the family, it’s very important that the new pet not have free rein in your home before you’re completely confident he is safe in the new environment, and that both he and your other pets are safe in terms of interacting with each other in your absence.

Don’t ever leave a new pet unattended with an existing pack until you’re very sure the new arrival has acclimated to the other animals and vice versa.

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