Good pet care about more than just food

Posted: Sunday, April 03, 2005


  A frightened husky abandoned with 10 other dogs in Kasilof peers out of a dilapidated structure recently. Being a responsible owner means ensuring that pets never end up this way. Photo by Joseph Robertia

A frightened husky abandoned with 10 other dogs in Kasilof peers out of a dilapidated structure recently. Being a responsible owner means ensuring that pets never end up this way.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

We've all seen flyers up in the post office and ads in the newspaper that read something like this: "Puppies — free to a responsible owner" or "Kittens free to a good home." But what exactly makes a responsible pet owner or a home a good one?

The rescue last week of 11 huskies that had been abandoned in Kasilof should underscore that there are people in the community who don't know that answer.

Tim Colbath, co-owner of Alaska's Extended Life Animal Sanctuary in Nikiski, rescued the 11 dogs and brought them to his no-kill facility where animals are rehabilitated and cared for as long as needed until they are adopted.

Colbath stated during the rescue that, "People have got to stop thinking of animals as possessions."

In Colbath's line of work, he encounters people who subscribe to a philosophy that animals are inanimate, unfeeling objects.

These folks don't realize that animals are sentient beings with a conscious awareness — not mere possessions or toys. They have their have their own thoughts, feelings, wants, desires, emotions and sensibilities.

This is why more and more often, people are starting to refer to the relationship between pets and humans not as pet and owner, but as companion animal and care giver.

This change isn't just a reflection of the politically correct movement in our society. This change in language is reflective of a change in thought.

This also is part of the reason for the change in terminology from buying a pet to adopting one. Adopting implies a loving, caring and taking into one's heart.

Dogs are pack animals. When people remove them from their canine pack and bring them into their homes, they are essentially allowing them to join their human pack — their family.

That doesn't mean people should treat dogs as people. Dogs are dogs. But they should make concessions to provide for pets' psychological well-being in addition to providing basic care.

The law doesn't recognize a pet's need for companionship. Legally, a person is required to provide food, water, shelter and care. Meet the pet's physical needs on at least a minimal level and you're within the law. There are many law-abiding people who consider themselves responsible pet owners who nevertheless subject their animals to psychological neglect.

Responsible guardians provide things like food, water, shelter, veterinary care, supervised exercise, birth control, companionship and training.

Staking a dog on a chain in the backyard is not cruel in itself. It can be humane husbandry practice if certain requirements are met.

The dog should not be staked alone, since they are social animals, and the dog should have the ability to reach other dogs around them to play and interact safely, without tangling their chains.

Chains should be long enough to allow exercise and play. Lengths of 6 to 8 feet are a good minimum.

Dogs should not be staked indefinitely, but rather for durations in between when they are allowed to exercise on a leash, in a harness or by running free, and they should have regular daily interactions with the humans in their lives.

It's important to remember that humans have their own work, entertainment and friends, but pets have only their owners. They like being with people and any separation can be mentally and emotionally painful.

Hygiene also is important, particularly with staked dogs, since they are forced to urinate and defecate very close to where they are living. Cleaning should be done daily at least, with more than once daily cleaning preferable.

Responsible people also ensure that their pets don't have unplanned breedings. Unplanned breedings result in unwanted puppies and kittens that will need to find homes. With an estimated 6 million dogs and cats euthanized in animal shelters each year, there's already more pets than homes for them.

Spaying and neutering pets can seem like an expensive procedure, but it's a one-time surgery that offers a lifetime of benefits. Spayed and neutered animals not only don't contribute to the pet overpopulation problem, but have been proven to live longer and healthier lives.

The responsibility of caring for a dog or cat is not just significant, but also long term. Acquiring a pet or additional pets, should not be done spontaneously or as the result of an unplanned action.

The decision should be an informed one that is reached after careful consideration so as to avoid not being able to care for the animal at some point down the road. Adding a pet to the home should be viewed as a commitment for the life of the pet.

If for some unavoidable reason it's impossible to keep a pet, responsible guardians don't try to "get rid" of them. They explore every avenue before even considering the possibility of giving them away. If there really is no other option, they try hard to place the animal in a good, permanent home. This is done first through their own contacts, then through the local animal shelter. Animals should never be abandoned or dumped in remote locations.

Being a responsible pet owner isn't just about providing the basic physical care, it also means proper mental care and freedom from cruelty, neglect, fear and abandonment.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He has worked with wildlife and domestic animals for more than 10 years as a veterinary technician, a zoo keeper, and most recently as a zoologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. He welcomes any pet-related questions or story ideas, but please none of a veterinary nature. Ideas and questions can be sent to his attention by e-mail at

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