11 Ways to be the Best Pet Owner: Advice from Dr. Marty Becker

Dr. Marty Becker

Everyone Wants The Best For Their Pets.

We sat down with "America's veterinarian." Dr. Marty Becker, to get his take on how to be the best pet owner possible with some practical suggestions for keeping pets happy and healthy throughout their lives.

1. Get Educated

The first step to being an outstanding pet owner, according to Dr. Becker, is taking responsibility. “Nobody ever says ‘I was a lousy pet owner.’ It’s always the pet’s fault.” Learn the peculiarities of your pet’s breed such as how much exercise they need, how gregarious they are, how much maintenance their coat requires, how often they need to go outside, and about new technologies, products, and nutrition that might help you care for your pet. Knowing the basics about your pet’s upkeep ensures you won’t be caught off guard by troubling behavior.

2. Focus on the Human-Animal Bond

“Dogs and cats have broken down the walls of our hearts. There haven’t been comparable domesticated species in 5,000 years.” For Dr. Becker, it’s clear that pets and people have evolved to benefit each other. He explains, “When you’re petting them, you both get this massive release of oxytocin, prolactin, dopamine, and a decrease in cortisol. It’s a reciprocal biochemical spa treatment.” As they age, it can be easy to take pets for granted. Make time for a little human-animal bonding every day.

3. Learn to Detect Signs of Stress

“We’re naturally attuned to stress in other people. We know what a happy dog looks like, but what does a stressed pet look like? Stress increases cortisol, the fight or flight hormone, which over time can lead to long-term metabolic conditions.” Major indicators of stress to watch out for include:

  • Excessive yawning
  • Excessively licking lips
  • Shaking dry when not wet
  • Trembling
  • Avoiding or hiding
  • Hardening of the eyes

4. Reduce Stress

Dr. Becker notes, “The key is to reduce anxiety triggers.” If you have a vet visit, “don’t get the carrier out the night before,” give them a few days to get prepared. If they’re nervous alone or travelling, play soothing music, or draw the shades. The less stimulus pets receive from the outside world, the less anxiety they’ll have about events outside their control.

5. Share Your Home

You may pay the bills, but your home is your pet’s whole world. Dr. Becker says we often put our own needs first. “Humans put litter boxes where it’s convenient. But that bathroom or laundry room has no escape route. For your cat it’s less hassle to go behind that bureau.” To locate stressors in the home, consider the following:

  • Are feeding dishes and litter boxes easily accessible?
  • Are neighbor’s pets a source of irritation?
  • Does your pet have access to a secluded space to rest?
  • Are outside noises or light over-stimulating them? 

6. Plan for When You’re Not There

Make sure your pets are provided for during those long hours when you’re away. Dr. Becker suggests technological options. “DOGTV has stimulation and relaxation channels, and there are apps that control contraptions that talk to your pet, or dispense treats. Pheromone sprays can also reduce anxiety, creating that kumbaya atmosphere.” And, of course, daycare and dog walkers are a great way to enrich your pet’s day. “Know someone who wants exercise? Maybe they’ll walk your dog.”

7. Keep Them Active

Energy varies between breeds, says Dr. Becker. “GreyhoundsLabsGolden RetrieversJack Russell TerriersBorder Collies, and other active breeds  have unfathomable energy.” He continues, “wolves spend 80% of their time awake, moving. With cats, there’s not such an exercise requirement,” but providing outlets for play at home is still crucial. For both cats and dogs he recommends food-dispensing that “recreates the hunt,” and puzzle feeders that engage your pet’s “body and mind.”

8. Help Them Adapt to New Environments

“The only thing that likes change is a four-week-old baby in a wet diaper.” Though puppies and kittens are easygoing, mature pets often need guidance transitioning into new spaces. Dr. Becker advises introducing them slowly. “Don’t just dump them in a new house and hope for the best.” Pheromone sprays are handy for making strange houses more inviting. “Cats,” notes Dr. Becker, exist as both predator and prey, and in predator mode, they need vertical surfaces like climbing towers to feel safe.”

9. Be Diligent about Vet Visits

“Don’t wait for the signs,” Dr. Becker stresses. Focus on “prevention first.” Pets age fast, and when it comes to illness they are programmed to mask weakness, “they’re naturally secretive.” One to two visits a year is ideal, but if you suspect a problem, don’t hesitate, and don’t self-diagnose. “In the last two years I’ve seen four or five cases where people went to the internet for help, and by the time they get to the vet it’s too late,” says Dr. Becker.

10. Keep Them Social

Some breeds have a harder time socializing than others, but nobody benefits from an antisocial pet. Dr. Becker offered these techniques for introducing your pet to strangers:

  • Meet on neutral territory, where nobody feels territorial.
  • With humans (read: mail carriers), give them a treat to feed your pet.
  • With other animals, time and patience are key. Reward calm behavior.

“Don’t use negative training, don’t swat them with a newspaper. How cruel.”

Cat owners: check out more socialization tips here.

11. Celebrate Your Pet at Every Age

Everyone loves a new puppy or kitten, says Dr. Becker. “They’re wildly kinetic, and humorous. An older pet is thinner, bonier. Their coats aren’t as soft, they might have bad breath.” But, like people, a pet’s needs change with age. They may be less active, preferring a leisurely stroll to a rollicking tug-of-war. “Our old retriever, who’s blind, still wants to retrieve.” Adapting to their changing needs will ensure your old friend remains a healthy and happy member of your family.

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