By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
Happy 2018! As we kick off a fresh new year today, I bet that like me, many of you are thinking about what you can do differently over the next 12 months to make your pet's life happier and healthier. Fortunately, you know you can always count on me to offer some suggestions!
Remember: Don't become overwhelmed thinking you need to make big changes overnight. Baby steps in the right direction are absolutely acceptable. The important thing is to make a plan and move steadily forward.
8 Ways to Make Your Pet Healthier and Happier in 2018
1. Feed fresh
The goal in feeding your pet a diet she can truly thrive on is to mimic the ancestral diet of dogs and cats as closely as possible without breaking the bank. My basic recommendation is to feed yourself and your pet as much unprocessed, fresh food as you can afford.
I have clients who can't afford to feed an all-fresh, living and raw food diet, so they offer fresh food snacks instead. Research shows that offering some healthy foods is better than offering no healthy food at all.
I also have clients who can afford to feed their pet maybe two to four fresh food meals out of 14 in a week. Others do a 50/50 split, meaning one meal a day is a processed pet food, and the other is a fresh food meal. I recommend taking small steps toward providing the best diet you can afford for your dog or cat.
2. Exercise with your pet
Believe it or not, some indoor-only cats not only learn to go for walks with a harness and leash, they really enjoy it. In addition to exercise, it's important for indoor cats to put all four paws on the ground as often as possible. If your kitty is agreeable, consider making a daily walk with her part of your exercise routine in the new year.
Several studies in recent years suggest people who regularly walk their dog are more likely to be in better physical shape than people who walk with other people. Even older people are more likely to take regular walks when their walking partner is a dog rather than a human.
Of course, physical exercise helps keep your canine companion's heart, lungs, joints and digestive and circulatory systems in good working order. It also helps him stay trim and burn off energy. And it's really no joke that "a tired dog is a good dog." Under-exercised, bored dogs are prime candidates for developing undesirable habits and behaviors, as well as anxiety.
3. Consider replacing your retractable leash
Retractable leashes are popular primarily because they aren't as confining as regular leashes, allowing dogs more freedom to sniff and poke around on walks. But unfortunately, there are many downsides to this type of leash. For starters, the real purpose of using a leash to walk your dog is to keep him safe and under your control. Retractable leashes often do the opposite:
- On a retractable leash, your dog can get far enough away from you to either get into trouble or into harm's way
- Retractable leashes are responsible for many injuries to both dogs and dog walkers — from superficial burns and cuts to horrific amputations
- These leashes are also typically counterproductive when training a dog to walk politely on lead, because they actually teach dogs to pull on the leash to extend the lead
4. Crate train your pet
Most people assume crate training is just for dogs, but it's actually a really good idea to crate train your cat as well, so he doesn't freak out when he needs to be crated for a ride in the car or a vet visit.
And I'm a huge fan of crate training dogs and recommend it to every dog parent, especially those who need to housetrain a puppy. Whether your canine companion is a puppy or a senior, a new member of your family or an old hand, providing him with his very own cozy space has a number of advantages for both of you. A crate can help not only with housetraining, but also car or plane travel, and overnight stays with friends, family or at a pet-friendly hotel.
5. Refuse unnecessary vaccinations
I'm not talking about become an anti-vaxxer. I'm talking about recognizing the difference between too many vaccinations and protective vaccinations, and advocating for your pet to insure he or she is not over-vaccinated. Find a vet who believes in minimal vaccines to create immunity against disease, with follow-up titers for the lifetime of your pet.
There's significant risk involved in over-vaccinating dogs and cats. Some veterinary vaccines are substantially more toxic than others. It's your job as your pet's advocate to know enough about the subject to make the best decisions for your animal companion. And if your vet doesn't respect your opinion and point of view, find a new vet.
6. Do your homework before adopting a new pet
Adopting a pet is one of the most significant commitments you will make in your lifetime. Accepting the responsibility of caring for another life — a creature that will be totally dependent on you — isn't something to take lightly. Sadly, too many pets are acquired on a whim, without thought or preparation. Your heart may be in the right place, but unless you're prepared to invest the time, effort and money necessary to properly care for the pet for its lifetime, things can quickly sour.
In those cases, and there are far too many of them, the animal is the inevitable loser. Shelters are full of pets that were the result of an impulse purchase or adoption. According to a recent report compiled by the ASPCA, over a million households in the U.S. re-home a cat or dog every year.
I can't emphasize enough the need to carefully evaluate your readiness and ability to care for a pet, and encourage you to do your homework before making a decision to bring home a new family member.
7. Learn about genetic diseases your pet may be predisposed to
Unlike dogs, the majority of domestic cats reproduce without interference from humans, which helps dilute disease-causing genes in their lineage, with the result that they acquire inherited disorders less often. The most frequently diagnosed feline diseases involve combinations of multiple genes and environmental factors.
While genetic diseases are unfortunately quite common in many purebred and mixed breed dogs, it's important to keep in mind that just because certain disorders may be inherited in certain breeds, it doesn't mean your dog of that breed is destined to acquire that condition.
There are steps you can take to help prevent your pet from acquiring diseases to which he may be predisposed, and there are ways to successfully treat or effectively manage existing genetic conditions.
8. Provide your pet with ongoing training and socialization
Kittens can benefit tremendously from kitten kindergarten classes, and many adult cats are trainable as well. Well-socialized cats make wonderful companions and have much less chance of winding up at an animal shelter. And stay alert for ways to enrich kitty's environment every so often.
When it comes to canine companions, there's no doubt about it — training and socialization are the secrets to a sensational dog. The ideal age to socialize puppies is between 5 and 16 weeks, when they are most able to investigate new environments and stimuli.
Providing daily opportunities to interact with new people, places and things for the pup's first year is critically important. It's also important that puppies are trained in basic obedience. One way to get your pup off to a good start is by taking advantage of local puppy classes. Ongoing training and socialization are important throughout your pet's life — not just when he's young.