Before bringing home a four-legged family member, read this!
Bonding with a pet is one of life’s most rewarding experiences. Studies show that pet ownership brings a wide variety of mental, physical, and emotional benefits, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Plus, millions of dogs and cats—especially those in animal shelters—are in need of a loving home.
If you’re ready to take the new pet parent plunge, this guide will get you started. You’ll learn about adopting the right dog or cat, creating a pet-friendly home, traveling together, and finding a qualified vet.
Follow these expert cat and dog-care tips to create a happy and healthy life for your new family member. You’ll get years of loving licks and cuddly companionship in return.
Finding your perfect pet
If you want to adopt, think about the type of animal you’d enjoy living with most, and the one that best fits your lifestyle. “It takes research and careful planning to bring the right pet into your home,” according to the ASPCA.
So consider the following:
Size of your home. Do you live in a studio apartment or house with a yard? Consider the space your new pet will have to play and roam, as well as the animal’s size, breed, and activity level.
Hours away from home. Think about how much time you spend at home both on work days and weekends—and how much you travel. Is there someone else who can care for your pet when you’re not there?
Cohabitants. Do you live alone or with rowdy roommates? Children or elderly family members add another layer of complexity.
Budget. Dogs generally cost more than cats in terms of food, veterinary care, boarding fees, and other general expenses. Also, large dogs cost more to maintain than small ones.
Lifestyle. Do you relish daily 5-mile jogs—or are you more likely to kick back on the couch? Cats or low-energy lap dogs may be a better choice for more sedentary owners.
Health issues. Got allergies? Consider a less-allergenic breed of cat or dog—or a different, non-furry type of pet.
New puppy vs. older pet. A puppy or kitten will be high-energy, not housebroken, and generally untrained. Older animals are usually housebroken and have at least some behavioral training, but might also have bad habits or age-related health issues.
Indoor vs. outdoor animals. Certain dog breeds are hardier and thrive outside, while others are happier as indoor companion animals only. Some cat owners keep their felines indoors, while others let them out for a few hours a day—and may require certain vaccinations if exposed to other animals.
Breeder or rescue. Adoptable pets of all ages are available through animal shelters and rescue organizations. Most shelters vaccinate, spay and neuter, and microchip rescue pets before they’re adopted, but these animals can come with health or behavioral issues. (Purebred puppies or kittens from breeders may also have inherited health conditions due to overbreeding.) Ask your shelter, rescue group, or breeder about an animal’s specific needs and medical history before taking it home.
For more advice on finding the right pet, read the Cost of pet adoption and Adopting a rescue dog: From first impression to forever home.
Creating a pet-friendly home
Before you bring your pet home, make your space is safe and welcoming. That includes getting the right supplies and pet-proofing any off-limit areas.
It typically takes about 3 weeks for a dog to get acclimated to a new home, but you’ll need to be extra-patient with a pet who’s anxious or insecure, according to the American Kennel Club (AKC).
If you’re getting a dog
- Local pet stores can help you select the right supplies for your dog’s size and breed. That includes food, food and water bowls, bed, collar or harness, leash, grooming tools, pee pads, toys, pet first aid kit, crate or cage, and more.
- Create a dedicated area for your pet with its bed and crate or dog house. Make sure any enclosure is large enough for your dog to stand up, turn around, and lie down.
- Remove any chewable or breakable items in your home, cover electrical cords, and block off any part of the house or yard that are off-limits or contain toxic and/or poisonous substances and plants.
Pro tip: Make sure the fabric covering your pet’s bed is machine washable. Antimicrobial is even better, advises Adrian Archie, owner of PetnMind in Coconut Creek, Florida.
If you’re getting a cat
- Provide a scratching post or cat tower for them to sharpen their claws. Scratching furniture and other objects is normal cat behavior. A post will keep them from shredding your couch instead.
- Pick a permanent place for their litter box; they prefer a familiar spot to do their business. This can help avoid bad habits, like marking with urine or relieving themselves in places where they shouldn’t.
Find pet stores in your area.
Feeding your pet
There are many options to choose from when feeding your pet. Vets typically advise selecting brands that recognize the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) feeding standards (look for this designation on the pet food label). No matter what kind of food you choose, always provide fresh water.
- Dry kibble. Many cat and dog owners feed their pets dry food. Just make sure it has the right ratios of protein, fat, and carbohydrates for the age and species of pet. If your pet is exclusively on a dry food diet, plenty of water is essential.
- Canned food. Some canned foods are toppers (which are sprinkled onto their regular food), while others are full meals. Canned food is often more enticing than dry food for picky eaters.
- Raw food. Animal experts are increasingly favoring a raw-food diet, since it more closely mimics what pets would eat in the wild. You can find freeze-dried and frozen raw food at your local pet food store, with many organic and grain-free options. Keep in mind that high-quality raw food is pricier than canned or dry options.
- Homemade meals. While human food like pizza isn’t advised for your pets, cooking homemade meals—such as ground turkey or beef with brown rice and veggies—can be a healthful alternative to store-bought food. Consult your veterinarian on the right quantity, ingredients, supplements, and feeding schedule, to make sure your pet is getting the right nutrients and enough calories.
Pro tip: Be sure to feed dog food to your dog, or cat food to your cat, since nutritional needs vary between species. Dogs are omnivores who eat meat, grains, fruits, and vegetables—while cats can derive all of their necessary nutrients from animal protein.
Want to give your dog a special treat? Read about the Top 50 dog bakeries in the US & Canada.
Training your pet
A professional pet trainer can help reinforce good habits and curb annoying or destructive ones that can worsen over time—from potty training a new puppy to “crate training” an adult cat or dog (that is, helping them become comfortable staying in a crate or cage when necessary). In-person training also strengthens the bond between cat or dog parents and their furry companions.
There are some differences between training goals for dogs and cats:
Obedience training for dogs. In addition to good behaviors, dogs should learn basic commands (including sit, stay, come, and down) that’ll help keep your pet and others safe.
Training for cats is usually focused on housebreaking or improving behaviors such as biting, scratching, or making excessive noise. A trainer can also help your cat become more comfortable around people and other animals.
For more information, read Dog training 101: How to hire the right pro for your pup.
Keeping your pet healthy
When it comes to your cat or dog’s health, never cut corners. Regular exercise and proper grooming can help stave off some easily preventable health conditions, while a qualified vet can provide ongoing care and treat any serious problems.
It’s important to find a veterinarian you trust to provide top-quality pet care and give you the right health tips and advice. Here’s how to make the most of that relationship.
“Vet” the vet. When searching for a provider, ask friends and family for recommendations, search online reviews for highly rated veterinary practices, and make sure candidates have the right qualifications. You should feel comfortable with the vet and their staff.
Do your part. Give the vet copies of your pet’s healthcare records, notify them of any health conditions, and set up a vaccination and checkup schedule.
Get informed. Ask questions about the proper feeding, exercise, and grooming routine for a new pet’s breed, size, and activity level. And find out if their breed has any hereditary health problems you should be aware of.
Be consistent. Once you’ve established a wellness schedule with your vet, stick to it.
Be financially prepared. Consider purchasing pet insurance, which can help you pay for routine and emergency health issues (and read the fine print to see what is and isn’t covered).
For more tips on picking the right provider, read How to find the best vet for your pet: Questions to ask and services to consider.
Just like people, pets need activity for their mental and physical health. If you’re busy or away for long hours, consider some of the following options to make sure your pooch or kitty is properly exercised.
Dog walker. These pros will walk your pooch around the block, or a mile or more, based on the dog’s exercise needs (and your budget). Some dog walkers or pet sitters will also provide home visits that include feeding, administering medications, and playing with an indoor cat.
For more info on how they price their services, read Cost of dog walking.
Doggy daycare. For all-day play, doggy daycare services are a great option, especially for active and outgoing dogs. They’ll run off excess energy and socialize with other canines, and save the worry about what they’re doing at home alone.
For more information, read Cost of doggy daycare.
Grooming your dog or cat isn’t just for good looks or smell—dental care, nail trimming, and bathing are also necessary for good health. If you don’t have the time, experience, or tools to DIY, consider hiring a professional pet groomer.
For more, read How much does pet grooming cost?
Going places with your pet
After you and your pet establish a strong bond, you may want to take them out with you. Local dog parks and walking trails are always a fun option for active dogs. Many restaurants and other businesses are pet-friendly these days, so your dog (and sometimes cat) can join you for a meal.
Before visiting the park, read When can I take my puppy to the dog park? and Dog park etiquette: 11 dos and don’ts for people and their pets.
Traveling with your pet. If you want to bring along your pet (and it’s not too stressful for them), search Yelp for dog-friendly hotels. Many will roll out the red carpet for you and your pooch (often for an extra fee).
Pet boarding. When you can’t take your animal with you—and don’t have a local friend or family member to help—you’ll need to make arrangements for their care. Many areas have multiple options, including in-home pet sitters, boarding facilities, and dedicated feline catteries, which offer playtime, feeding, and occasionally training, for dogs and cats.
For more, read How much does pet boarding cost?