Despite the cultural narrative that pets are always good for our physical and mental health, there’s surprisingly little evidence that’s the case (Herzog, 2020; Bekoff, 2020). One thing missing from this narrative is the hard side of owning a pet.
We glimpse it in stories about pets being rehomed or euthanized at shelters and rescues (thankfully on a downward trend [Rowan and Kartal 2018], although rehoming pets online is harder to track). And we see it in the grief people feel on losing a much-loved pet.
But there’s also the everyday lived experience of having a pet, which, while it can be wonderful, can also have its annoying side.
Source: Kat Jayne/Pexels
So what are the potential downsides to having a pet? And since many people do little research before getting a pet, would thinking about the downsides help people be better pet owners?
You have to think about where to source your pet
It’s true that many people skip this part, but it is important to take great care at this stage to have a better relationship with your pet and avoid scams. Because of the sensitive period for socialization (in puppies, from 3 until 12-14 weeks; in kittens, from 2 until 7 weeks) and the poor conditions in commercial breeding establishments, many pets do not get the best start in life.
Dogs sourced as puppies from a commercial breeder are more likely to have behavior problems than those from a responsible breeder (McMillan et al 2013), and may have serious health issues. Yet a recent survey in the UK showed many people do not care about the source of their puppy even if it’s an illegal import (Dogs Trust, 2020). For some tips, see why it’s buyer beware when it comes to puppies.
They are a responsibility and cost money
Are you ready for the daily responsibilities of caring for your pet, and do you have the funds to cover costs? The Ontario Veterinary Medical Association puts the annual cost of a puppy at $4,287, a dog at $3,417, a kitten at $2,899 and a cat at $2,272. But if you are unlucky and your pet needs emergency and/or specialist medical care, the costs can quickly add up.
You have to think about what’s good for the pet
We often talk about how the pet is good for us, not so much about what the pet needs. But pets need to have good nutrition, a good environment, good health, good behavioral interactions (with their environment, other animals, and with people), and a good mental state (Mellor et al 2020).
This takes time and effort, but if we don’t provide for their needs, we are more likely to see stress, behavior, and/or health issues. For exotic pets in particular, providing what they need in a home environment can be tricky and expensive.
The good news is that when we know what our pets need, providing it can be fun— like the joy of watching a dog romp in a park, a cat chase a wand toy, or any pet operating a food puzzle toy for treats. For tips on providing what dogs need for good welfare, see my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy.
You should train your pet (even if you think you don’t need to)
Training can be a chore for many people. Training a dog is made harder by the fact that dog training isn’t regulated, so you have to filter potential dog trainers carefully to ensure they will use reward-based methods.
It helps to think of training not in terms of obedience but in terms of helping your dog (or other pet) have the skills they need to cope with everyday things, and providing socialization for your puppy (see: why dogs’ happiness, not obedience, is what counts). If you have a cat, you’re not off the hook: at the very least, you should train them to like their cat carrier as it will make vet visits so much easier.
Caring for a sick pet is tough
Sadly, pets can get sick, and sometimes this can cause real difficulties for the people taking care of them. For example, people whose dog has idiopathic epilepsy find their dog’s seizures distressing and often have to make changes to their routine to help their dog (Pergande et al 2020). People whose pet has a chronic or long-term disease have greater levels of stress and depression than those with a healthy pet, and a worse quality of life—something we can think of as “caregiver burden” (Spitznagel et al 2017).
This is a side of pet ownership that is rarely talked about but for those going through it, it would help if there was more recognition of what it is like. After all, our dogs and cats are family members and deserve good care, but providing it can be difficult and involve sacrifices.
Losing a pet is really hard
I think everyone knows that the hardest part of having a pet is having to make decisions around the end-of-life. Losing a pet is a stressful life event and many people feel grief and other emotions (Tzivian et al 2015; Barnard-Nguyen et al 2016). Everyone deals with grief in their own way; some rush out to get another pet as soon as possible, while others feel disinclined to ever get another pet again. And because some people—especially those without pets of their own—don’t recognize the significance of pet loss, social support is often not there as much as needed.
Pets aren’t for everyone
I’ve only touched on the main issues here; there are many others, such as finding pet-friendly housing or caring for your pet through changes in life circumstances (e.g. divorce, redundancy, or ill health). Many people rise admirably to the challenge and do what it takes, and would without question say their pet is worth it. But many others struggle. There’s no shame in recognizing that caring for a pet can be hard or that your lifestyle means now isn’t the time to get a pet.
If you have a pet, learning what they need and providing it will help you have a better relationship with your dog/cat/rabbit/guinea pig/hedgehog/iguana etc. If you need help, reach out to a veterinarian, dog trainer, animal behaviorist, or grief counselor as needed.
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