Picking the Perfect Pet for Capitol Hill

Pet ownership is on the rise and that is nothing new. Man and domesticated dogs and cats have been living together for tens of thousands of years. We have an mysterious affinity for each other. Pets make us happy and healthy. They improve our moods, protect our homes, and for some reason, look to us with a desire for companionship. Why are we attracted to each other? What makes us want a dog versus a cat? What benefits are derived from our relationship with one another?

These are all important questions that should be asked before diving into pet ownership. Often, our visceral attraction to animals has us thrown into a whirlwind relationship before we know what is happening. The rain soaked alley cat that wanders up to the back door. The neighbor that is moving abroad and needs to find a new home for their middle aged labrador. The hungry street dog you meet on vacation in a foreign land that convinces you to fill out hundreds of bureaucratic documents to get him back to your home in the states. Or maybe you just walked too close to a pet store. Whatever the reason, the attraction is there. It is important, however, to acknowledge that picking the right pet is an important decision.

First thing’s first: are you a “dog person” or a “cat person?” In the years that I have been a veterinarian, I have been unable to come up with a good rule of thumb for this one. Several factors should be considered. Tolerance of one animal versus the other seems to dominate the decision making. Living with someone who has an angry cat or a dog that won’t stop barking can often shape your opinions early on. Lifestyle and home size seem to be big factors too. No yard? Travel often? Maybe a cat is better for you. Looking for a hiking companion? Want to go on adventures with your pet? Maybe a dog would be better.

The next big decision is selecting where to get your soon-to-be friend. Should you purchase a purebred dog or cat from a breeder, or adopt your pet from a rescue organization or someone looking to adopt out their pet. I always encourage saving the poor little guys in shelter who are down on their luck and looking for a forever home, but doing your homework and finding a reputable breeder is an option that many turn to when searching for the perfect companion.

Shelters and rescue organizations have many benefits, the most obvious being that it gets pets off the streets and decreases the number of healthy animals that are humanely euthanized every year due to overpopulation. It also is the most cost effective option. Typically these animals come spayed or neutered, and with a decent idea of their health status. Many vet hospitals work with shelters or rescue groups to give a free initial exam or other promotional benefit to encourage adoptions, so be sure to ask when visiting. Also, mixed breeds and mutts seem to have fewer health problems. However, this is a generalization and having a plan for potential illness, despite the animal’s pedigree, is paramount.

Having said that, people often have a specific size, shape, goal and desired look when adopting a pet. This is where reputable breeders come into play. The biggest mistake I see new pet owners make is rushing into a decision without researching. Knowing the typical behavior, energy level, intelligence and ideal lifestyle of a pet is essential before bringing a specific breed home. Finding a reliable breeder is important too. Make sure they come with references and not just a sign on the side of a rural highway that says “Cheap Puppies.” Some breeds like English Bulldogs and Shar Peis are the cutest puppies you will ever see. They are also two of the most frequent fliers at AtlasVet due to many of the common chronic problems they can potentially have, like brachycephalic syndrome in English Bulldogs and mucinosis in Shar Peis. I’m not saying to not adopt them, but be prepared to do what it takes to keep them healthy and happy. Have a financial plan and don’t be the frustrated owners that say they no longer have the funds for veterinary care now that they spent thousands to purchase their purebred pet. Another thing to consider is that 25% of all pets in the shelter are purebred. The shelter and breed specific rescue groups are always a good place to start when looking for a purebred animal.  

Owning a cat is a great option for urban companionship. Tis the season for kittens, as every spring the shelters are flooded with families of cats. The Washington Humane Society will routinely have discounted adoption days to help find felines homes. There are also a wide variety of purebred cats that are popular on The Hill. Bengals, Maine Coons, Siamese and Persians come with their own commonly shared traits, anatomical features, and behaviors people find desirable. 

Cats can be great snugglers when they want to be, and there is nothing more fun than having a cat chase a laser. Typically, cats are a lower maintenance pets since they don’t need walks, tolerate small spaces, come pre-programed for litter boxes and are fairly self sufficient. I would encourage cat owners to not go with the hands off approach since activity and interaction make cats (and owners) healthier. No matter what pet you end up with, make sure to carve out some time to interact with them.

It is human nature to explore the human-animal bond through pet ownership. Sometimes the pets pick us, and sometimes we pick them, but either way, it is an important decision that requires thought and planning.

Dr. Miller lives on Capitol Hill and is the Co-owner of AtlasVet (the Atlas District Veterinary Hospital) at 1326 H St. NE. (www.atlasvetdc.com) He is a graduate of Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine.

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