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Guidelines for dogs & cats

Many behavior and health problems in pets can be prevented by seeking guidance before obtaining a new pet. Not only will such advice help you to select the best pet for the household, but it will also provide information on how to prepare in advance for the new arrival. The species, breed, age, and sex of the pet all need to be carefully considered and it is important to make an informed decision about where to obtain the pet. Issues to consider when preparing the home will include housing, bedding, feeding, training, exercise, and health care requirements for your new pet.     

What breed is best for my home and family?

The first decision is whether to obtain a purebred or a mixed breed. By selecting a mixed breed from a rescue shelter, an abandoned animal will be re-homed. Some of the genetic problems associated with inbreeding can be avoided and the initial cost to acquire the pet will be considerably lower than when purchasing a pedigree puppy. On the other hand, obtaining a purebred from known parentage gives the best opportunity to predict the behavioral and physical attributes of an adult dog or cat. This is important when you wish to take on a young puppy since unless the parents are known it is extremely difficult to predict the size, health, or behavior that is likely to emerge as the dog grows up. Of course selecting an adult allows assessment of the physical characteristics, health and behavior of the animal and may be another option to consider.

If a purebred is chosen, it should be a breed whose physical and behavioral characteristics best suit the family. Behavioral considerations may be difficult to assess due to the vast numbers of breeds available and the wide variation of behavior types within breeds. Physical characteristics will be more predictable and you will want to select a breed whose physical appearance, including coat type, size and shape not only appeals to you but also fits in with your lifestyle and circumstances. It is also important to consider the expected life span of your chosen breed, since there is great variation between breeds with the giant breeds of dogs living considerably shorter lives than the smaller breeds.

Before going to your veterinary practice for advice about pet selection it is sensible to do some background reading and investigation of your own. There are a variety of books (and now CD-ROM's) that can help guide you through the selection process. Some books concentrate on the physical characteristics and history of the breed, while others consider health concerns and others cover breed behavioral characteristics. Books are also available which give advice on how to select individuals from a breeder, shelter, or litter and how to assess the suitability of the source. Behavioral factors to consider as you try to decide upon a breed of dog include, activity level, exercise requirements and any reported behavior problems of the breed. It is also important to find out about the origin of the breed as the function that the breed was originally developed for will strongly influence its behavior Once you have narrowed the selection down to a few breeds, your veterinary surgeon can guide you as to the physical and behavioral problems that you need to be aware of for each breed and help you to make your final decision.

At what age should I obtain a pet?

The most important period of development for puppies in terms of their social behavior is between approximately 4 and 14 weeks of age and in order for a puppy to grow up as a successful and acceptable member of society it needs to take full advantage of this period. In order to develop healthy social relationships with other dogs and learn to successfully communicate with other members of its own species a puppy needs to be socialized with other members of its own species and this process begins with the dam and litter mates. Spending time with the litter is therefore important but the puppy also needs to grow up in a human world and learn to relate to humans, other domestic pets, such as cats, and the environment. In order to do this successfully socialization to people and other pets and habituation to the environment need to be carried out within the sensitive period of socialization i.e. before 14 weeks of age. Reaching a compromise between these two equally important aspects of a puppy's behavioral development has resulted in the generally accepted view that the ideal time to select and obtain a new puppy is between 6 and 8 weeks of age. This allows adequate time for the puppy to be in its new home, and bond to its new family, before its primary socialization period ends, but it is important to remember that the puppy also needs to be learning about people and animals outside of its own social group as well as the environment in which it is going to live. The first few weeks in the new home are therefore critical to the puppy's development and socializing and habituating your puppy at this stage must be a priority.

Since the most receptive period for kitten socialization is 2 to 7 weeks of age, a kitten should ideally be obtained by 7 weeks of age, but where this is not possible, for example in the case of pedigree cats, you should question the breeder carefully to ensure that the kitten has had adequate and appropriate human contact prior to 7 weeks of age. As with puppies it is important that kittens have adequate social contact with their mothers and litter mates during their socialization period in order to learn how to successfully communicate with their own species. It is therefore not advisable to obtain a kitten much earlier than 6 weeks of age especially if it is entering an otherwise cat free household.     

Acquiring an adult dog or cat can avoid some of the problems of bringing a new puppy or kitten into the home. This is especially true for dogs where the time and commitment required to train a puppy are considerable. Fulfilling the play, feeding, elimination, and exercise needs of a puppy or kitten may be impractical for a family who spends much of the day away from home and an adult may seem like the perfect solution. However, an adult dog or cat that has had insufficient or inappropriate training or insufficient socialization may have behavior problems that are difficult to resolve. For owners who are ready and able to meet the demands of a growing puppy or kitten, obtaining a pet during its primary socialization period is strongly recommended.

Should I consider a male or female pet?

In many respects the choice of sex of your new pet is down to personal preference, but there are some factors that you may wish to consider. In dogs, males tend to be slightly larger in stature than females of the same breed and somewhat more assertive within the social group. There are certain undesirable behaviours which are known to be more commonly displayed by male dogs such as mounting, roaming, urine marking, and aggression directed toward other male dogs and castration is known to reduce the incidence of these behaviours. Similarly castration in cats will reduce behaviours which are more highly represented in the male of the species such as roaming, fighting, and urine marking.

Where should I obtain my pet?

Perhaps the most important reason to obtain a pet from a breeder or private home is to observe the physical characteristics, health and behavior of the parents. Choose a breeder who is open and willing to answer questions, and who will allow you to tour the kennel and meet the parents. When a puppy or kitten is obtained from a breeder or private home you are also able to observe the early environment and assess the exposure to people that the pet has had. A personal relationship with the breeder may be helpful should later problems arise. Dogs or cats acquired through pet stores, puppy farms, or rescue centers, may have received insufficient early socialization and habituation and be at higher risk of developing behavioral disorders. They may also carry a higher risk of contracting disease. It is highly unlikely that the parents can be observed and a lack of information about the genetic input limits the opportunity to predict future behavior

How do I decide which pet to choose?

The value and effectiveness of performing assessment tests on young puppies and kittens is highly debatable since many behavior and health problems do not emerge until the pet matures. Perhaps, the best approach is a simple, common sense evaluation. Dogs can be observed and handled to determine which ones are the most sociable, playful, or affectionate. Those with undesirable traits such as shyness, or uncontrollable biting may be less suitable. Different puppy temperament tests have been detailed in the literature, but there is no good available evidence that they are predictive of future behavior What puppy testing can do is identify problem areas that may need attention from an early age.

For cats, three personality types have been described: (a) sociable (b) timid and unfriendly or (c) active and aggressive. Because the socialization period for litters ends earlier than in dogs, early handling is extremely important.


Kitten assessment tests can be a valuable tool in determining the effects of genetics, socialization and early handling. If the cat tolerates handling, lifting and petting with little or no fear or resistance it is likely to make a good family pet. Fearful, timid, hard to restrain or aggressive cats should be avoided.

If you are obtaining an older puppy or kitten, or an adult pet, assessment tests are likely to be more accurate and therefore more valuable. You will be evaluating the effects of previous socialization and habituation, previous training, previous experiences and some degree of maturation and development.

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