My family recently adopted a Golden Retriever named Sir Woodford Bibble (it’s a long story), and we could not be more excited to have introduced him into our home and hearts. Although the adoption process was speedy, and the learning curve steep, this was a moment we had planned and waited for over the course of nearly a year.
As veterinarians, my wife and I know the many implications of pet ownership; from the many factors involved in selecting the right pet, to the costs of adoption and care, to the complications that can happen along the way. Throughout our training and careers, my wife and I have been privy to the ins and outs and ups and downs of pet ownership. Still, this decision was not an easy one for us, and I was struck by the realization that for most pet owners, this a journey they may embark upon without the guidance of their veterinarian.
Talking To Your Veterinarian
In a recent survey of pet owners in the United States, when people were asked where they sought information regarding obtaining a pet, speaking with a veterinarian was sixth on the list, behind family and friends, a pet shelter, a pet store, online pet finding services, and breeders. Although I was admittedly surprised by that statistic at first, upon further reflection I realized that this isn’t surprising at all. Most people don’t approach a veterinarian for advice about what kind of pet to get. In fact, finding a veterinarian tends to be further down on the checklist behind leashes and bowls, kennels and beds, or even what kind of food to feed. No one is at fault. It is the logical course to worry about the doctor taking care of your pet only after having obtaining the pet, but if I can relieve even an ounce of the stress that adopting a new pet can cause, or if I can help a single family make a better choice when adopting a dog by sharing what I know, then I’m glad to have done my part to help your family.
What Age of Dog Is Best for Your Home?
I have seen many puppies in my career and can verify that it takes exactly 0.01 seconds to fall in love with a puppy. I’m not a fan of scented candles, but if “puppy breath” were available at the store, I’d be there with bells on. However, there are many variables to consider! Puppies are like wild kids (another topic in which I’m well-versed); they’re cute as long as someone else has to deal with the mess. There is no doubt that puppies can bring pure happiness, but they also require tremendous patience, training, and time.
I’ve heard it said that a puppy can hold its bladder about one hour for every month of age. I don’t think that statement has ever been scientifically substantiated, but I would say that’s probably an accurate representation of how often you’ll be woken up in the early months if you hope to potty train your puppy. After that, there’s chewing on your pillows, muddy feet on your couch, digging in your garden, and a dozen other behaviors that will take time to work through. Considering these factors, for many households (including our own), an adult dog may be a better fit. In fact, if you are in search of quiet companionship, and instant loyalty, geriatric pets are often the last to be adopted from a shelter. They have often lived difficult lives, and fully deserve the benefits of a loving home.
What Breed Is Best for Your Home?
Beyond age, breed should be a strong consideration. Most dog breeds were developed for a specific purpose (do yourself a favor and never go down the rabbit hole of researching the original purpose of Chihuahuas). As such, some behaviors are bred into their very genetic makeup. If you live in an apartment in the city and work 60 hours a day, as regal as a Weimaraner or Brittany Spaniel may be, these are not likely the breeds for you (although there are exceptions to every rule). Research the breed you are considering, and make the decision based on much more than their appearance. Maybe most importantly, see if you can meet and spend some time with the dog you’re thinking of adopting before taking them home.
You’ll need to consider factors like:
- What kind of energy level are you looking for?
- How many hours a day will the dog be home alone?
- Will you be able to pay someone to exercise them regularly if you cannot?
- How much time in every day can you devote to the care and training of the dog?
- Can you keep that up for the foreseeable future (many dogs live well into their teens)?
- Will you pay someone to train the dog for you?
- Are there children in the household?
- Do you have the resources to ensure care when you are away, or do you hope to travel with them often?
- Do they have a job to do in your household?
- How strong is your vacuum?
The AKC has a Dog Breed Selector tool that you may find helpful if you’re unsure what breed may best fit your lifestyle.
Where Will You Get Your Pet From?
After deciding which pet is best suited for your lifestyle (I’ll assume that if you’re reading this, you’ve landed on adopting a dog, but much of what I have to say applies to most furry, feathery, and scaley family members), the biggest decision tends to be where you’ll adopt your dog. Sir Woodford Bibble (“Woody”) happens to be a “fabulous flunky” from a local organization that raises and trains service dogs. In his case, behaviors like barking when he heard an unexpected sound and not enjoying wearing his service vest led to being released from the training program. For us it was a pleasure to adopt Woody, and an honor to donate the cost of his adoption fee to such a wonderful organization. But this is just one of many routes to consider.
There are shelters, rescue organizations, online pet finding services, puppy stores, and even Facebook posts to consider these days. Of these, despite the path our family chose, with two boys under age three, we had many variables to consider.
Shelters and Rescues
I find it difficult to recommend any option above adoption from a local shelter. Shelters and shelter workers have dedicated themselves to placing as many animals in happy homes as possible and adopting a dog from a shelter may very literally translate to saving that dog’s life. If you are in search of a specific breed, consider identifying a rescue group. Rescue groups can be an amazing resource, and even if they don’t have the right dog for you the very moment you start looking, it’s very likely that more dogs will be surrendered into their care every month. The American Kennel Club provides some excellent guidance on the topic of selecting a rescue group.
If you are not only in search of a specific breed, but also feel like you’re up the task of a puppy, contacting a reputable breeder may be your best bet. Sadly, almost anyone can identify themselves as a “breeder,” and as you might imagine, it takes little skill to allow two dogs to produce a litter. As a veterinarian, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working with very reputable breeders with an immense passion for their dogs, but I have also been exposed to the heartbreak that occurs after adopting from a “backyard breeder.” The Humane Society of the United States offers several helpful tips for identifying a responsible breeder.
Of the many options for finding a new pet, I find it difficult to recommend buying a dog from a pet store. The ASPCA and Humane Society offer detailed explanations as to why this may be a poor decision, but the short version is: they often come from puppy mills, they are often in poor health due to poor living conditions, and the payment plans that people often sign up for to pay exorbitant prices are typically exploitive and predatory. It pains me to tell you that I have personally treated countless very ill “puppy store” puppies, often within 48 hours of their adoption, and that many of those cases ended it heartbreak despite the best efforts of multiple veterinary specialists.
Are You Ready to Care for Your New Pet?
Perhaps the biggest stressor that pet owners fail to consider is the cost of owning a pet. Sure, the adoption fee may have been $75 and included spay/neuter, their first deworming, vaccines, and perhaps even an introductory veterinary visit, but the average cost of owning a dog is currently somewhere between $15,000 and $94,000 depending on their breed, size, and medical care required. I know what you’re thinking: that’s outrageous… I would never… how is that possible? I would have said the same, but when my family’s last Golden Retriever was diagnosed with lymphoma, I didn’t hesitate for a second to treat him. His chemotherapy afforded him many more months of happy memories that I wouldn’t trade for the world, but the cumulative cost of his treatment over the course of two years was nearly $18,000. Fortunately, what would have been an insurmountable burden was an easy decision thanks to the fact that 90% of his care was paid for by his insurance.
This brings me to what is perhaps my strongest recommendation to pet owners: please consider the benefits of pet insurance! Many pet owners don’t realize the peace of mind that you can obtain by paying $40-$80 a month in insurance costs. Imagine if you were faced with the decision of taking your dog to an emergency surgery because his bowel had perforated after he ingested his favorite toy, and lifesaving surgery would cost $5,000-$10,000. A smart alternative may be to put that $40-$80 a month into a rainy-day fund that is most likely to become necessary in your pet’s later years, but many young dogs have been known to get into some very difficult situations. For more information on pet insurance, check out Dr. Susanna Schwartz’s Cincy Pet Magazine article.
What To Feed Your New Pet
Another point of tremendous controversy is selecting the best food for your dog. Should your 12-pound Bichon be eating a diet of raw rabbit just like his ancestors? Are the big companies in the pet food industry out to feed your dog “junk” that is unfit for human consumption? You are bombarded with both aggressive marketing and the opinions of what feels like every enthusiastic human who has ever fed a dog. Suffice it to say that there are those among us who devote their lives and livelihoods to knowing what constitutes the best nutrition for dogs: they are Board-certified veterinary nutritionists. That means four years of college, four years of veterinary school, one year of internship, and two or three years of residency, all dedicated to knowing what your dog needs to be healthy. I recommend visiting Petfoodology from Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.
Choosing A Veterinarian For Your New Pet
Last, but not least, comes a decision which is near and dear to my heart. The veterinary hospital you choose is a group of people you’re choosing to trust with the health of your new furry family member when there’s easy sailing and when the unexpected happens. This is a stressful decision not unlike finding the right pediatrician for your child. Your neighbors and family may have strong opinions, but few people know enough about human or veterinary medicine to truly know whether the person they are working with is genuinely a good doctor. As a result, much of choosing the right veterinarian for you comes from your instinct. Does your veterinarian share your philosophy about pet care? For example, if you felt strongly that you wanted to feed a raw-food diet, I readily admit that I would not be the veterinarian for you. Furthermore, I find there is tremendous value in alternative medicine such as acupuncture but have very little training in the matter.
Find a veterinarian who is forthcoming about their limitations. Take note of how you and your pet feel about visiting your veterinarian. I’ve yet to meet a human doctor that I genuinely want to visit, but there have certainly been doctors that I found approachable, reliable, trustworthy, and easy to talk to. Review their accreditations (American Animal Hospital Association and/or Fear Free certifications) and experience but remain open-minded. The wisdom and experience that come from decades of practice are invaluable attributes of any seasoned veterinarian, but never underestimate the passion and new knowledge that a “green” veterinarian may have to offer.
Visit your veterinarian’s office with or without your pet.
- Is the facility clean?
- Is the staff courteous and professional?
- What kind of resources are available in case of an emergency?
Partnering With Your Veterinarian
Remember that the veterinary-client-patient relationship is a two-way (or maybe more accurately a three-way) street. Veterinarians do what they do out of a passion for animal care, but that does not mean that they are willing to endure any sort of abuse. Even in the most stressful circumstances, remember that your veterinary team is there to help you, and avoid venting your frustrations on them. Notice that I have not mentioned cost as a deciding factor. The costs of veterinary care are rising due to many factors, the largest of which is the demand for better and better care for our pets. The quality of medicine being provided is similar to what is provided in the human medical field. The advanced training, technology, and manpower that it takes to provide state-of-the-art medical care contributes to those costs. I recognize that there is still a large population of “back in my day” pet owners, but back in those days, pets did not have access to MRI, radiation therapy, endoscopy, 24-hour emergency care, dentists, dermatologists, ophthalmologists, and oncologists (among many other veterinary professionals).
Enjoy Your New Pet
It is difficult to describe the joy and nervous excitement that pet parents feel when bringing a new member of the family home. It starts the moment you lock eyes and know it was meant to be, and it continues as you introduce them to your home, your family, your friends, and just about anyone who will listen. My hope is that these words of advice will help you in choosing and caring for your new pet in a way that gives you both many happy years of health and memories.