Dr. Sophia Yin, DVM, MS
Every year, when badly behaved dogs become the object of media focus someone asks me, ” Do you think pit bulls should be banned as pets?” To which I usually answer, “No, but some owners should be banned from owning pit bulls… or for that matter, Jack Russell Terriers, Basenji’s, Border terriers, Bengal cats and even Budgies”. In fact some people shouldn’t have pets at all.
Not because these people are cruel or have mean intentions, but because even the simplest pet can turn out to be more than the average person can handle, especially if the pet isn’t suitable for that person’s expectations and abilities.
Let’s face it, adopting a pet isn’t like purchasing a T.V. or kitchen appliance. TVs and appliances come with a set of instructions, work right out of the box and require minimal maintenance. And notice that even with these simple appliances getting them to work right sometimes takes longer than expected.
Pets on the other hand are a work-in-progress. What you end up with depends on how much time and effort you’re willing to put in. For instance, even rodents such as hamsters can be friendly enough to come when called, greet you at their cage door, and ask to be held and petted. But when not handled enough early on, they may instead spend most of their time hiding from humans and even biting when handled. This takes the fun out of interactions, which leads to a boring life for the tiny companion.
While owners may fail to notice that their caged pet is not living up to its full potential, with pets that freely share our living space, problems are more prominent. Owners who lack a plan with these pets frequently end up lacking a pet when they can’t stand it anymore.
Owner Expectations Must Match the Pet
As the owner of two rejected Basenjis, Renvelyn Grey knows about inappropriate owner expectations.
“Henry’s first owner got rid of him when she got sick of coming home to torn up pillows, sheets and shoes,” says Grey referring to her more recent adoption. Any basenji owner should know that for Basenjis this behavior is status quo. This breed is as curious as a three year old kid and individuals tend to examine and dissect all objects with their mouth.
“Henry’s previous owner walked him several miles a day but that’s not enough for these guys, they need lots of training,” says Grey. They also need more environmental management to keep them out of trouble. The Grey’s have babygates blocking off many rooms, they pick up all their shoes and clothing, and they make sure they’ve taken the trash out. With these household modifications and lots of training, the two Basenjis make perfect companions for the Greys.
Other breeds and individuals can be equally trying and the problems sometimes have to do with intelligence. States Terry Lake, owner of a Jack Russell Terrier named Jackie, “My partner says she wishes we’d gotten a dog that wasn’t so smart.”
Jackie is a wonderful, entertaining, companion for the Lakes, but due to her high energy, curiosity, and great problem-solving skills, she can be as much work as a pair of twin toddlers. Says Lake, “She has out-smarted every obstacle we’ve used to keep her from going up the stairs, and she once had a bath in the sink and because she likes water, we now have a hard time keeping her out of the sink where she tries to turn on the water.” Jackie’s also a problem in the truck where she rolls down the electric window by putting her paw on the button. “We roll-it up, says Lake, “and she rolls it down again.”
Jackie’s wild on walks too, where she bounces around like a superball attached to an elastic string. As a result, she rarely gets walked which means she not only misses out on exercise opportunities, but she also lacks the socialization to new humans, other animals, and the every-day sights which she needs in order to assimilate into city or suburban life.
These challenges are finally changing though. Lake took the time to trek 80 miles once a week for private training lessons with Jackie. After two private training lessons Lake was able to walk Jackie peacefully on leash with the aid of a Gentle Leader head collar and he can finally count on her undivided attention in the house on request.
Cats Can be Challenging Too
Of course problems involving pet suitability aren’t limited to dogs. Cats too have a wide range of personalities and consequently have to be matched to the correct household. Karsan Elliot found out the hard way when she added a Bengal cat, the feline equivalent of trouble, to her collection a “very happy pack of diverse dogs and 2 Abby cats.”
Says Elliot, “Spike relieved himself all over the home office and constantly beat up the other cats.” Like a teenager with time on his hands and no-one to focus his energy in the right direction, Spike just dominated the household. Elliot eventually had to give Spike up but was extremely fortunate to find a more appropriate home. For other cats, a poor match ends up spelling death in animal shelter after several failed adoptions or when abandoned on the street.
Choosing the Right Pet for You
So how do you find out whether a specific pet is suitable for you? You’ll have to put in the time ahead of time. Interview breed rescue organizations since they consist of breeders and individuals who regularly deal with placement mistakes. If the individuals do not acknowledge the difficulties of the breed or individual or know the common health problems and behavioral issues and how to prevent them then look elsewhere.
Go to dog or cat shows or canine sporting events and talk to many different breeders or trainers or experts. Some veterinarians and animal shelters even offer a service that helps match you with a pet. And most of all, ask yourself, what kind of time and effort are you really willing to invest and what to you expect for your work? Can you put up with a dog or cat that requires the same attention as a team of toddlers or do you need a couch potato who’s always happy to see you but just as happy to lounge around? Your honesty regarding both your needs as well as the pet’s can mean the difference between a happy relationship and an early demise for a potentially loving companion.
Originally appeared in SF Chronicle in 2005