Want Your 4-Legged Friend to Adore You for Life?

Story at-a-glance -

  • This week is the 35th anniversary of National Pet Week, which promotes responsible pet ownership and the human-animal bond
  • The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), which sponsors National Pet Week each year, spotlights seven specific needs — one for each day of the week — every pet parent should consider
  • These needs include choosing your pet wisely and making a lifetime commitment, socializing your pet, and providing both physical exercise and mental stimulation
  • Also important: veterinary wellness visits, controlling your pet’s ability to reproduce, preparing for emergencies and caring for your pet as he or she ages

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

This week, May 6 to 12, is the 35th annual National Pet Week, sponsored by the Auxiliary to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) to promote responsible pet ownership, recognize the importance of the human-animal bond and help pet parents understand the value of regular wellness exams.

During National Pet Week each year, the AVMA spotlights seven specific needs every pet parent should consider to ensure their furry family member lives the longest, healthiest life possible.

A Lifetime of Love —The Basics: 7 Days to a Happier, Healthier Pet

1. Day 1: Choose well. Commit for life.

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. A person’s heart may be in the right place, but unless he or she is 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 by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) titled “Goodbye to a Good Friend: An Exploration of the Re-Homing of Cats and Dogs in the U.S.,” over a million households in the U.S. re-home a cat or dog every year.1

I can’t emphasize enough the need to carefully evaluate your readiness and ability to care for a pet by answering these nine important questions to ask yourself before adopting (or purchasing) a pet.

2. Day 2: Socialize now. New doesn’t have to be scary.

Dogs who haven’t been adequately socialized often develop entrenched fear responses and generalized anxiety, resulting in behavior problems that can make them very difficult to live with. In fact, almost half of all dogs relinquished to shelters have at least one behavior problem — aggression and destructiveness are among the most common. These behaviors often originate from the fear and anxiety that develops as a result of improper or incomplete socialization.

Socialization should engage all of your puppy’s senses though exposure to the sights, sounds and smells of daily life. This exposure will help her develop a comfort level with new and different situations, with the result that she’ll learn to handle new experiences and challenges with acceptable, appropriate behavior.

Socializing your puppy or adult dog should be an enjoyable, satisfying experi­ence for both of you — one that will pay dividends for the rest of your life together. Socialization must be paced according to the animal. Shy animals need soft introductions to new experiences to avoid making their current anxiety worse or subjecting them to overwhelming experiences, which is obviously not the goal.

There's a wonderful program I recommend to all new parents of adopted or rescued dogs that helps them adjust to a new home in the least stressful manner. You can find it at A Sound Beginning, and you can immediately begin using the book's tips and tricks and the calming music CD on your dog's first day home. If you have a super-shy dog and need to build confidence at home while working on training issues, I suggest you visit Recallers.

3. Day 3: Exercise body. Exercise mind.

Animals are built for movement. Our pets are born athletes, and it’s up to us to provide them with opportunities to exercise and be physically and mentally active. Healthy canines and felines in the wild are incredibly muscular and fit because they live the lifestyle they were designed for. There are no obese couch potato animals in the wild.

Regular aerobic activity provides incredible benefits for our furry companions. It helps them maintain a healthy weight. It keeps muscles supple and strong. It promotes organ health, including the heart, as well as the overall structural integrity of the body. It cures boredom and the undesirable behaviors that come along with it. And it also helps strengthen the bond you share with pet.

If your dog isn’t leash-trained yet, you can play fetch in a fenced backyard, but daily movement is essential for a balanced body and mind.

4. Day 4: Love your pet? See your vet!

I recommend twice-yearly wellness visits for pets because changes in their health can happen in a short period of time. In addition, sick pets (especially cats) often show no signs of illness, but early detection allows for a better outcome.

Semi-annual visits give you and your veterinarian the opportunity to closely monitor changes in your pet’s body, behavior and attitude that require further investigation. Pets age much faster than we do, and I’m always shocked at how much can change in six months. My clients are so thankful we stay ahead of degenerative aging by updating and altering their pet’s healthcare plans semi-annually.

At a minimum, younger healthy pets should see the vet once a year. Animals over the age of 7 and those with chronic health conditions should be seen twice a year or more frequently if necessary.

If your pet has any abnormalities on bloodwork I recommend asking your vet for a plan to address the changes and recheck the values no more than three months after they’ve been discovered, and sometimes much sooner, depending on how abnormal the test results are.

I recommend you find a veterinarian whose practice philosophy you’re comfortable with. This may be a proactive or integrative veterinarian, or a conventional veterinarian who is capable of formulating reparative treatment plans and protocols, and who doesn’t aggressively promote unnecessary vaccines, pest preventives or veterinary drugs at every visit.

Generally speaking, if you’re dealing with a conventional vet, you’ll need to advocate for your pet and push back as necessary, politely but firmly. Always remember that you have the final say in what treatments and chemicals are administered to your pet.

It’s important to note that most conventional veterinarians are reactive rather than proactive as a result of the training they received in vet school. This means they weren’t taught how to intentionally create wellness through proactive health protocols. This is why many people use two vets: one for emergencies and one for “lifestyle” or wellness support.

5. Day 5: Pet population control. Know your role.

There is a purpose for each organ in your pet’s body, and organ systems are interdependent. Therefore, it is inevitable that removing any organ, including the organs of reproduction, will have health consequences. In addition, there’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that desexing dogs (spaying or neutering), especially at an early age, can create health and behavior problems.

My approach to sterilizing dogs is to work with each individual pet owner to make decisions that will provide the most health benefits for the dog. Whenever possible, I prefer to leave dogs intact. However, this approach requires a highly responsible pet guardian who is fully committed to and capable of preventing the dog from mating (unless the owner is a responsible breeder and that's the goal).

My second choice is to sterilize without desexing. This means performing a procedure that will prevent pregnancy while sparing the testes or ovaries so they continue to produce hormones essential for the dog's health and well-being. This typically involves a vasectomy for male dogs, and hysterectomy for females. A hysterectomy (or “ovary-sparing spay”) removes the uterus while preserving the hormone-producing ovaries.

The good news is that cats have entirely different reproductive physiology than dogs, so traditional spay and neuter does not have the same damaging effects in cats.

6. Day 6: Emergencies happen. Be prepared.

There are two kinds of emergencies pet parents should be prepared for. The first is an injury or illness requiring emergency veterinary care. For a step-by-step discussion and videos, including how to determine if your pet’s situation is a true emergency or can wait till the next day: “Life-Saving Steps That Every Pet Owner Needs to Know.”

The second type of emergency is a natural disaster. Rule No. 1: If you must evacuate your home, take your pets with you. For help in developing a plan to keep your pet safe, read “6 Steps to Save Your Pet's Life in a Disaster.”

7. Day 7: Give them a lifetime of love.

As loving, committed pet parents, we want to keep our animal companions with us as long as possible, well into old age. Caring for a happy, healthy senior means providing these three basics:

  • Physical and emotional comfort as your pet ages
  • A nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate, fresh food diet
  • Ongoing, regular opportunities for exercise, socialization and mental stimulation

Here are the answers to seven common questions pet parents ask about an older dog or cat.