PET CARE: Your Pet’s Basic Needs
Find out the basic needs:
• Getting Started
• Basic Physical Care
Thank you for choosing your new pet from the countless unwanted pets we receive each year. A large percentage of the animals abandoned in the streets and surrendered to shelters come from owners who didn’t understand responsible pet care. Unlike a new appliance, a dog or cat does not come with an “instructions for care and use” label glued to a back leg!
To help you prepare, check out the following tips and reminders on basic pet care. You will need more education, but this is a start. We hope you and your pet enjoy all of the benefits of pet ownership. The only way to do this, though, is PREVENT any potential problems before they become real trouble.
Whether you have adopted a puppy or kitten or an adult pet, remember that your new pet comes with a past. A puppy’s brief life may have already included several “homes” and many confusing sounds, smells, and faces. Your home will be just another frightening place unless you take care to make the puppy comfortable there. An adult pet has already lived with at least one other person, so it will need reassurance that THIS person can be trusted and that THIS home is for good. Like a child, your new pet needs to know that it will be fed, protected, and loved…and loving a pet includes teaching it what “home” means and how to behave there.
Your new pet will not automatically know that your home is also ITS home. If possible, take your new pet home at a time when you will also have time to be home, like a weekend or a vacation. This will help you both become accustomed to the “newness.”
You will also need to make some preparations; planning ahead can help avoid chaos. Your new pet will need:
- its own sleeping area and/or bed
- food and water dishes (sturdy and unbreakable)
- toys (unbreakable and too large to swallow)
- a collar with ID tags (rabies and license if old enough)
- a leash (for puppies and dogs)
- a dog house/shelter if your dog will be staying outside* please see below
- a litter box and litter for your kitty
If these items have been used by other pets, your new pet may not want to use them. Another pet’s scent may say “off-limits.”
Indoors, or out? Pets should, as a general rule, live where their humans live. This means mostly indoors for dogs, who need lots of playtime outdoors, but they shouldn’t live their whole lives outside (see below). Cats can live their entire lives indoors (with outdoor trips only in harness or under supervision), and this is highly recommended. The risks of being “outdoor only” or indoor/outdoor, for cats, outweigh the benefits. This article explains why.
Pet proof your house. Pets can chew and swallow anything out of curiosity, including tacks, poisons, electrical cords, threads, holiday ornaments, string, yarn, and pet toys that are too small or that fall apart. Just realize that anything which would be dangerous for a toddler is dangerous for a pet.
Gradually introduce the new pet to other animals in the house. It helps to introduce them to each others’ smells before they actually meet. Then let them discover each other only with your supervision. See our handout about pet introductions here.
Make time and space for quiet time. Too much activity too quickly is disorienting. Puppies and kittens need even more time-outs; like all babies they tire quickly and will want to rest and sleep. So don’t allow family and friends to wear out the new pet with excitement.
Set up a private spot your pet can call its own. Any pet will adjust more easily to a new home if it has a quiet retreat. Establish the pet’s own area with a bed, a clean blanket, or a large towel to “nest” in. A radio tuned to a soft music or all-talk station and a favorite toy nearby make this area comfortable and secure.
A puppy or kitten may miss its littermates or shelter-buddies at first and may cry during the night. To help comfort it, place a ticking clock near the pet’s bed and leave the radio playing. Wrap a towel around a securely sealed bottle filled with warm water and tuck it in the bed for the pet to snuggle up against.
Fleas and Ticks: Prevention of fleas and ticks can be time-consuming, but the results are well worth the effort. There are flea and tick preventative dips, one spot applications, sprays, pills, powders, shampoos, and collars. Dips and “one spots” have proven to be the most effective and collars the least effective. Read directions carefully and watch combining products. Be sure the product specifically states that it is appropriate for your pet. Consult your vet regarding the right products for your pet.
Because these pests actually spend very little time on the pet itself, you can effectively control them by keeping your pet’s environment free of fleas and ticks. Vacuum regularly and throw the bag away, or use flea-killing products as you vacuum. Keep your pet’s bedding and other favorite areas clean of fleas and ticks. Monitor your pet daily, checking for any signs of fleas. See our handout “Fleas, Ticks, and Pets” more more specifics.
Grooming: Schedule a regular daily grooming session with your pet to help socialize it, to detect any potential health problems, and to keep it clean and parasite-free.
Brushing your pet daily reduces shedding and pests on ANY pet, and is a must for long-haired pets. But be honest with yourself and your pet. If you will find it difficult to be consistent with grooming, contact a reputable professional to schedule regular appointments. Tangles happen quickly and can be difficult to remove without causing pain for your pet.
Be gentle with your pet, especially in combing out matted areas. Watch for skin problems or bald spots, eye or nose discharge, swellings, tender spots, broken teeth, torn or ingrown nails, or anything else unusual. If you notice a problem, consult your vet. Your pet’s teeth and eyes should be cleaned and its nails clipped regularly. Your vet can help you with supplies and scheduling.
Keeping your pet clean does not necessarily mean bathing it. Too many baths can dry out the skin. When you do bathe your pet, place a few drops of mineral oil in its eyes to keep them from getting soapy. Use warm water and rinse carefully. In cool weather, keep your pet inside after bathing or make sure it is thoroughly dry before going outside. Always put your pet’s collar with I.D. tags back on before it goes outside! Consult your vet concerning special shampoos for dry skin or flea problems.
Cats and kittens bathe themselves, and so only occasionally need baths to kill parasites or remove substances they may get on their fur. Be careful when attempting to bathe a cat, as they are lightning fast with their claws. If you are unequipped to do this, consult a vet or groomer to help.
Diet: There is an endless variety of well-balanced commercial dog foods on the market: wet, dry and semi-moist. A good quality dry food is usually best, but talk with your vet about what kind and how much is most appropriate for your pet’s age and condition.
Pets should be fed regular meals (we recommend 3 times per day for puppies and kittens up to 12 weeks of age, and twice a day after that). Consult the food packaging for general feeding guidelines, and split up the daily ration into 2 or 3 meals. Offer the meals on a schedule and remove any uneaten food after 20 minutes or so. This will help with training and housetraining in puppies and dogs, and will help cats settle into their natural cycles. You may need to adjust the amount you feed based on your pet’s exercise regimen–just like us, pets can easily get fat and this causes many avoidable problems!
Do not leave food out for your pet constantly–this enables overeating, takes away a training opportunity, and canines and felines don’t understand constant access to food.
Avoid giving your pet any kind of meat bone, especially poultry. Your pet could easily choke or suffer internal injuries. And your pet may think that table scraps and sweets are tasty, but “people food” not only interferes with a healthy diet, but can cause painful complications. Stick with a food specifically designed for your pet.
Always provide fresh, clean water and make sure your pet has access to it. Milk is often upsetting to a cat’s delicate system and should not be your cat’s primary drink. Be sure your cat has constant access to fresh water as well.
Regardless of where you got your new pet and how old it is, its training needs to be consistent, patient, and done with an understanding of animal behavior. Pets learn through repetition, association, and immediate reward. Therefore, the amount of time you spend with your pet is directly related to the speed and ease of its training.
If your new dog is an adult it may already have had some training, perhaps through a different method. This may make your training go more quickly, or it may take a little longer. Be patient, start from the beginning, and you may be amazed at how much you’ll BOTH learn.
Housetraining: Your pet needs to be healthy before you begin. Worms or other problems may prevent your pet from controlling its elimination. If your pet “forgets” after it has been fully housetrained, check for health problems first before taking behavioral steps.
The most important aspect of all animal training, and especially housetraining, is that you praise your pet every time it does the right thing in the right place at the right time. Training experts agree that there is never an excuse for hitting or screaming at a pet; it just doesn’t work. Prevent mistakes and reward successes.
If you see your pet in the act of making a mistake in the house, give it a sharp “NO” and immediately take the pet to its designated toilet area. Encourage it to relieve itself there by using your chosen command. Remove any scent of the accident with an odor neutralizer such as Nature’s Miracle, or your pet will return to the spot in the future.
If you find evidence of an accident after the fact, do not attempt to correct your pet. It will not understand the connection unless the reprimand is given during or immediately after the mistake. When you cannot be at home and your dog is not yet fully housetrained, confine it in an area where you won’t mind an accident. (See our handout about Crate Training for Dogs.)
For Your Kitty: Keep the litter box clean by removing wastes at least once every day; twice is better. On a regular basis you will also need to dump the litter into a strong garbage bag (not your toilet) and dispose of it. Wash the box with hot soapy water, rinse and dry it well, and add fresh litter at least once a week for non-scoopable litters.
Place the litter box in a private, easy-access/ easy-escape location. Avoid places in high-traffic areas or too near your cat’s food or bed. Your kitty prefers privacy, not a parade, around this important place. If you also have a dog, put the litter box where the cat can easily reach it, but the dog cannot…cat feces is a delicacy to dogs.
Escort your kitty to the litter box four or five times a day for the first few days in your home. Set the kitten onto the litter and step away to give some privacy. Praise it warmly for using the box or even just for digging.
Ideal opportunities for these reminders are when your kitty wakes up from naps, about ten minutes after meals, and after heavy play sessions. If your kitty appears confused or nervous, make light digging motions in the litter with your fingers. Never scold or force the kitten to remain in the box. If your kitty associates the litter box with negative, frightening experiences – loud noises and voices or aggression – it may avoid the litter box entirely.
For more help with litterbox training, click here.
For Your Dog: It is best to decide what kind of housetraining system will work best for your lifestyle and stick to it. You can train a dog to eliminate outdoors, or on indoor pads or grass (best for high-rise living situations). There are benefits and drawbacks to each method, of course, but switching from one to another is confusing to your dog and frustrating for all of the people involved.
Routine is an important element in a dog’s life and is especially essential for effective housetraining. Put your dog (and yourself) on a daily schedule of feeding, exercise, playtime, and rest. Puppies and dogs usually need to relieve themselves before they go to sleep for the night, after they wake, after they exercise, and about 20 minutes after they eat.
At these times, use an encouraging and brief voice command like “Go outside?” The sound should be different from other commands so that your dog will associate the command with the physical need to relieve itself. Take your dog to its designated “toilet area,” stay there to encourage and supervise; give immediate praise for correct performance. Click this link for information on how to housetrain with potty pads indoors.
Regardless of which housetraining method you choose, it is always important to exercise your dog through walks, yard play, and/or indoor play. Daily exercise is essential for good health and good “manners.” Even small dogs who live in highrises need to get outside regularly to smell the grass and explore on leash.
Separation Anxiety: Some dogs become anxious when left alone, often resulting in destructive chewing, whining and barking, and housebreaking “accidents.” When a dog is new to the household, it is logical for it to worry that you may never come back! To reassure your dog, help it become accustomed to being left alone.
Leave the house with a positive attitude; don’t act sneaky or guilty! Get your keys, get your coat or bag, say a calm goodbye; drive around the block and return immediately. Gradually increase the time that you are gone, perhaps running short errands and returning. Each time you return, be pleasant and positive, but don’t overwhelm your pet with attention. It will become more comfortable with the awareness that you do come back after you leave.
Basic Obedience: To truly enjoy the many benefits of owning a dog, we recommend that you and your pet put a little time into obedience training. Good basic obedience techniques will carry over into all aspects of your relationship, long after the classes have ended.
Many trainers now agree that effective training is gained primarily through positive, physical/verbal rewards. When selecting an obedience school, try to find one which emphasizes positive interaction between the owner and the dog and verbal (or physical) praise rather than punishment. Most instructors require a six- foot-leash, some form of collar, and daily half-hour practice sessions at home. Materials may vary.
Obedience classes are offered in many communities through training clubs, shelters or vets. Check with your local shelter or your veterinarian for resources in your area. Click here for information about the Atlanta Humane Society’s excellent training program for dogs and people.
Socializing Your New Dog: A well-trained dog needs more than perfect attendance at obedience school. A socialized dog is accustomed to being around people and understands the appropriate behavior for various situations. It knows how to behave in a human’s world, is less suspicious and afraid of people, and is less likely to bite. Click here for a great video about puppy socialization.
These “manners” are gained by including your dog in your day-to- day activities. Segregating it in a fenced back yard will not allow you to consistently remind your dog of proper manners. Expose it to a variety of situations and people through carefully supervised walks in the park or visits with friends. Schedule at least 30-60 minutes of play each day. All it takes is some ball tossing or a walk on a leash with YOU. Your dog wants to be with you, and your time will pay off in a well-exercised and well- adjusted pet. And it’s good for YOU, too!
A Happy Household
There is no substitute for responsibility. Educate yourself and be prepared for surprises and emergencies. This includes having a disaster evacuation plan. Think ahead before taking your pet with you on your daily errands. Your pet is not equipped to endure excessive heat or cold. Don’t leave your pet in the car when the temperature is above 70 degrees (sun and humidity play a factor here) or below 40 degrees, even if you are only going to be a few minutes. Your plans may change unexpectedly and your pet could be in serious danger in a very brief period of time. Providing a safe, reliable environment for your pet will help everyone feel more secure.
*Dogs are social animals and do not thrive when they must live their lives outdoors. It is best to train puppies and dogs to live indoors, using confinement as necessary, with lots of access to the yard with you. Dogs that live in yards are not having their needs met. Please reconsider this approach, and read this article for more information.
This information is part of the Atlanta Humane Society’s SmartHeart Educational Series.
The AHS depends on friends to provide funding for our services and programs of animal aid, support for individuals with animal related problems, and community animal issues.
The Atlanta Humane Society and Society For Prevention Of Cruelty To Animals, Inc. is a private nonprofit organization for the purpose of preventing cruelty, relieving suffering, and providing humane treatment of animals. The Society’s mission is to eliminate causes of animal suffering with an emphasis on education and the human/animal bond.