Seven Avoidable Pitfalls of Pet Ownership

There is little more exciting than discovering the companionship of a new pet. Whether you have just picked up a pooch from the Washington Humane Society or decided to formally take in the alley cat from the back yard, forming a bond with a dog or cat is a great feeling. However, once this bond has been formed there are some simple mistakes that can be made, even if you are a seasoned pet owner. This is a list of the top seven pitfalls that pet owners may fall victim to if they are not properly prepared for the task at hand. 

1. Not Getting the Right Pet for You

More often than not, our pets pick us. The lonely animal wanders up to the porch on a rainy night, or a family member becomes ill or moves and, surprise, we have a new five-year-old Lab mix! Whether or not the pet picks us, or we pick out the perfect companion from a local shelter or breeder, it is important, prior to making any big decisions, to know your comfort and skill levels of raising a pet. You should consider your living conditions, family status, and financial situation before signing up for a new pet. If a new dog or cat falls in your lap, take the time to confirm that owning a pet is the right thing for the family right now, and if it is a poor fit or timing consider finding a new, more appropriate home for the little guy.  

2. Failing to Train Your Pet

I see this on the streets of Capitol Hill all the time. An owner walks down the sidewalk while talking on a cell phone held in one hand and with the other hand holding a retractable leash attached to a rambunctious dog that is pulling the owner down the street like a sled dog. Proper training is essential to providing your dog with a safe environment and lifestyle. Signing up for a local pet-training class, having a trainer come to your house, or even learning lessons from a book or video can teach you simple steps to getting voice control over your dog. Learning valuable lessons like how to socialize your dog and how to use the proper equipment (retractable leashes are not ideal for training and can be dangerous to dogs and people) can make everyone’s life much easier.    

3. Not Having a Financial Plan for Pet Ownership

You might have read my article a few months ago about this very topic. As the development of veterinary medicine parallels human medicine, we are able to treat and cure diseases that we never thought possible a decade ago. With this leap forward in medical care can come a hefty price tag, and being prepared for a sudden emergency is crucial to getting your pet the medicine it needs. In a nutshell, any plan is better than none. If you have deep pockets and can drop $3,000 without a problem this pitfall is less urgent for you. If you are like the rest of us, purchasing pet insurance or saving small amounts of money specifically for pet care is a good place to start.  

4. Failing to Spay or Neuter Your Pet

Bob Barker was right when he reminded us to “help control the pet population. Have your pets spayed or neutered.” The primary purpose of getting your little furry friends “fixed” is to help keep animal numbers down, but also comes with many health benefits. Having a female dog or cat spayed prior to their first heat cycle significantly decreases the chances of breast cancer later in life. Intact males are much more likely to be hit by cars while roaming for companionship and will be better behaved if neutered. By removing the reproductive organs you eliminate the chance of common diseases like testicular cancer, prostate disease, and uterine infection.  

5. Avoiding the Veterinarian 

It’s raining. It’s a holiday. The Nationals are playing. Whatever your excuse is for not getting a sick pet into the hospital is not good enough. Dogs and cats vomit and develop diarrhea on a regular basis and often it resolves on its own. Unfortunately this is also how many severe disease processes begin. Differentiating between a mild problem and a severe one can be extremely difficult on your own. For this reason contacting your vet and scheduling a physical exam is always a good decision. Getting an early jump on any illness can save time, money, and possibly your pet’s life.  

6. Not Embracing Preventative Medicine

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This couldn’t be truer with companion animals. Annual exams, recommended vaccinations, and routine diagnostics can help prevent common diseases like parvovirus, a severe gastrointestinal disease that is common in younger dogs and preventable with vaccines. Taking care of your pet’s teeth by brushing, giving appropriate chew treats, and performing anesthetized dental cleanings when recommended are great ways to save money and improve your pet’s health in the long run. Giving recommended medications like flea and tick preventative and heartworm preventative year-round can keep your pet healthy year-round. At AtlasVet we recommend that any pet age seven or older start annual to semi-annual blood testing to screen for common age-related diseases. If abnormal values are noted simple changes such as a new diet or medications can help keep certain chronic issues from rapidly progressing.  

7. Loving Your Pet to Death

I’m often asked, “Is my pet too skinny?” The answer is almost always no. Many folks who ask this have a pet with an ideal weight, but when compared to other dogs in the area their pet seems too small. The United States is suffering from a severe obesity epidemic and our pets are not excluded. Sedentary lifestyles, high calories, and feeding too frequently are causing our pets to balloon to epic proportions. You should be able to feel your pet’s ribs and spine without having to jab your finger into its side. Your veterinarian will let you know your pet’s Body Condition Score (or a medical assessment of overall physical health), and if Fido is greater than a four or five out of nine, then it is time to cut back on the calories and break out the leash for some long walks. This will help prevent many chronic disease processes later in life such as degenerative joint disease, diabetes, and respiratory disease. 

There are many possible pitfalls when adopting a pet, but they should not discourage you from embracing the human-animal bond. Pets make us happier and healthier, so knowing what keeps them healthy and safe is key to maintaining this relationship. A small amount of knowledge goes a long way. And when all else fails, know that you have your local vet to fall back on.

Dr. Matthew T. Antkowiak and Dr. Miller reside in Capitol Hill and are the owners of AtlasVet (Atlas District Veterinary Hospital) at 1326 H St. NE (, @atlasvetdc, Dr. Miller is a graduate of the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine and practices full-time at AtlasVet.