Bringing a new pet into your house can be as intimidating as it is exciting. Even if you have an animal or two at home, a new pet can lead to plenty of unanswered questions.
Are dogs really that different from cats? Is it okay to let a bird fly freely around the house? Do fish need to see a specific type of vet?
We dove into some research to dig up tips for taking care of animals, focusing on the most common household pets. Whether you’re becoming a first-time pet owner or have had multiple animal companions, this guide can help your new family member feel right at home.
YOUR GUIDE TO TAKING CARE OF ANIMALS
No matter what type of furry friend you’re welcoming into your family, there are some basic animal care guidelines you should follow. Scan the article to find your species and see your personalized tips.
TAKING CARE OF DOGS—A CANINE COMPANION OVERVIEW
Basics: Make sure to stock up on high-quality dog food, especially if you’re bringing home a puppy. As the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) points out, puppies typically need three to four meals per day. Fresh, clean water should be available at all times also.
It’s important to maintain a safe environment. If your pooch will be staying outdoors, you’ll need some sort of temperature control system to ensure they remain comfortable. That may include a heated shelter during winter and access to cool water during the summer. A microchip or some sort of collar identification is a must for both indoor and outdoor dogs.
There are a few other things to remember as well. Make sure to implement a regular grooming schedule and set aside plenty of time for walking. Most experts agree dogs need to be taken out for a walk at least once each day—this is independent of bathroom breaks.
Veterinary care: Every puppy should have their first visit to the veterinarian when they’re around three weeks old. You should expect a physical exam and testing for worms. This is also a good time to have a discussion about vaccinations and determining when to spay or neuter. These reproductive surgical procedures can be done as early as eight weeks old.
Newly adopted older dogs will have a similar first vet visit. Make sure you bring along any available health records. Many pets adopted from shelters lack a complete health history, so schedule your visit sooner rather than later.
After a final round of vaccinations around four months of age, you’ll want to take your pup in for an annual check-up. Also make sure to look out for signs of health issues that may require immediate attention. Weight loss, changes in behavior, and lack of energy are all signs something might be wrong.
TAKING CARE OF CATS—FOR THOSE WITH FELINE FRIENDS
Basics: Though some pet owners allow their cats to roam the neighborhood, the Humane Society of the United States recommends you keep your feline friend indoors to ensure their safety. Identification, whether in the form of a collar or microchip, is also important. ID increases the chances of your cat safely returning home should they somehow slip away outside.
As far as feeding goes, you’ll have to figure out which strategy works best for your cat. Some felines are natural grazers and can handle access to food throughout the entire day. Some are prone to overeating and need to have a feeding schedule, such as twice per day. And make sure you’re reading the nutrition label to make sure there’s a good balance of fat and protein. If you have any questions regarding food, you can always ask your vet for advice.
There are a few important pieces of equipment you’ll need to fully equip your home for a cat. You’ll need a litter box, cat toys, nail clippers, and a scratching post. Though declawing is an option, most veterinarians don’t recommend it unless a cat has demonstrated they can’t resist furniture.
It’s also a good idea to regularly groom you cat. They certainly do it themselves, but many felines enjoy being brushed. Regular grooming can also help minimize hairballs.
Veterinary care: Guidelines for cats are similar to those for dogs. You’ll want to visit a veterinarian soon after you bring your feline friend home to check for worms and make sure you get vaccinations in order. Also similar to dogs, cats are safe to be spayed or neutered around eight weeks old.
Adult cats should be taken in for regular check-ups at least once each year—some vets even recommend twice per year. These routine visits are meant to ensure your cat stays healthy, and they usually only take about 30 minutes.
One thing to keep in mind is that some cats find vet visits extremely stressful. It’s a good idea to familiarize your cat with the carrier well in advance and make it as inviting as possible.
TAKING CARE OF BIRDS—ASSISTING THOSE WITH AVIAN PETS
Basics: Properly caring for a bird is a little more involved than a new owner might expect, especially when it comes to socialization. The Association of Avian Veterinarians (AAV) says it’s a good idea to keep the bird cage in an area where a lot of family activities take place and make human interaction a regular part of your bird’s routine.
Be sure to purchase a supply of toys, perches, and some sort of cage liner paper. Birds also need access to water for bathing. Some simply take care of it themselves when granted access to a bath, but you may need to provide regular misting to encourage self-cleaning.
Spend some time thinking about your home environment and your bird’s needs when determining whether you should clip their wings. A house with lots of windows and ceiling fans likely isn’t safe enough for your pet to fly freely. On the other hand, some birds may need more exercise to maintain a healthy weight.
Feeding birds is generally pretty easy since they’re natural grazers, but a healthy diet is much more than nuts and seeds. You’re better off going for a diet based on vegetables and specialized pellets.
Veterinary care: You’ll want to research veterinarians well in advance, because your winged pet may need care from a specialist. Take a new bird in for a visit as soon as you can to make sure everything is in order, then maintain annual visits.
Birds are often very good at hiding injuries and illnesses, so it’s important to pay close attention to any behavioral or physical changes. When in doubt, schedule an appointment.
TAKING CARE OF FISH—FOR THOSE WITH WATER-BOUND BUDDIES
Basics: Fish are easier to care for than many animals in some ways, but there are some specifics you might not know. For example, PetMD points out fish don’t understand when to stop eating since they lack stomachs. This means you need to be careful to avoid overfeeding. As for the type of food, most commercial pellets and flakes are designed to meet a fish’s nutritional requirements.
The actual tank can be as simple or deluxe as you wish as long as you have water, a filter, and a heating system. You’ll also need to clean the tank as needed, regularly replace a portion of the water, and maintain a safe pH level. It’s also worth mentioning saltwater fish aquariums require some additional equipment and maintenance, so you might want to start with freshwater fish.
Veterinary care: Fish might not need as much veterinary care as other animals, but they can become sick just like any other creature. Loss of appetite and changes in behavior or appearance signal it’s time to schedule an appointment as soon as you can.
Vets can typically diagnose the issue with a simple exam and some diagnostic tests. Poor water quality and infectious diseases are often the root of health problems in fish, so maintaining a clean habitat is one of the best preventive measures.
TAKING CARE OF REPTILES—ASSISTING THOSE WITH FROGS, TURTLES, SNAKES, AND LIZARDS
Basics: Reptiles and amphibians are separate classes of animals, but are collectively known as herptiles. These cold-blooded creatures need habitats with heating elements to ensure proper temperature regulation. Do some research on your specific pet to choose the most appropriate type of terrarium habitat.
Though some herptiles will happily chomp away on commercial pet food, many require fresher fare. This could include fruits, veggies, insects, and small rodents. Snakes, for example, often eat chicks and mice. Ask your local pet store about what they have available and be sure to research your pet’s specific nutritional needs.
Like fish, reptiles and amphibians need to have their habitats cleaned regularly. You’ll want to do some daily maintenance, such as removing uneaten food and wiping up spills, plus a more thorough weekly cleaning. It’s a good idea to have a second terrarium on hand to make sure your pet is safe while you clean.
Veterinary care: Though some mixed-animal veterinarians take amphibian and reptile patients, many don’t. You may want to search for a qualified professional using the Find a Vet page from the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians.
You may be surprised to learn that, along with an initial visit, your herptile needs an annual veterinary appointment. Your vet will perform a standard physical exam, but they may also call for imaging or testing if something seems unusual.
TAKING CARE OF SMALL MAMMALS—TIPS FOR THOSE WITH PETITE PETS
Basics: Small mammals like rabbits, mice, gerbils, and Guinea pigs are great options for people who are bringing a pet into a home with young children. These types of animals don’t require owners to invest as much time and money as they would if they were bringing home dog or cat. That said, small mammals still require proper care and attention.
You’ll first want to purchase a cage that meets your pet’s needs. Everything from the size to the accessories will depend on the animal. Some small mammals benefit from an exercise wheel, particularly hamsters. Chew toys are also a must to keep your critter from gnawing on their food bowls or cage.
Fruits, vegetables, and pellets are common foods for small mammals, but make sure you research what type of diet is most appropriate for your pet. Nutritional needs can vary among small mammals more than you might expect. You should also reach out to your veterinarian with any questions.
Veterinary care: Like all the other animals we’ve discussed, small mammals should see the vet soon after you bring them home. You want to make sure your new pet is in good health and you should also discuss spaying or neutering. The animal may or may not need vaccinations, so be sure to ask.
Be aware that not every small-animal practitioner works with Guinea pigs, gerbils, and similar small critters. Some of these creatures are considered exotic pets, so you may need to seek a specialist.
PROVIDE THE BEST ANIMAL CARE
Properly taking care of animals starts with welcoming them into a loving home. But you also need to address nutrition, habitat, and everything in between to keep your pet happy and healthy. Establishing a relationship with a veterinarian is one of the best ways to make sure you meet your pet’s needs.
All this talk of animal care might leave you curious about what exactly veterinarians do. After all, they don’t just play with cute animals. Learn more about these medical professionals by reading our article, “What Is a Veterinarian? Uncovering the Role of Animal Doctors.”