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One mistake pet owners make is waiting too long to take young pets to training class.
By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 4/27/2009 3:14:38 PM ET 2009-04-27T19:14:38

The squirmy puppy in the cardboard box was so adorable. The fluffy kitten on display at the pet store touched you with her paw. The docile bunny rabbit seemed like such a nice Easter surprise.

Many of us mere mortals fall in love with animals on the spot and impulsively take them home with us. That’s not always the wisest move to make, though, especially in economic times like these. It’s all too easy for inexperienced pet owners to step on financial land mines before they know what hit them.

Even in flush times, hasty decisions about animals can prove to be hard on the humans and the animals involved. To avoid unnecessary heartache and steer clear of some of the most common mistakes new pet owners make, consider these tips.

1. Just say no if money is tight. If you’re even a little bit unsure about whether you’ll be able to afford a pet over the next few years, then this may not be the best time to bring a pet home. Far too many people are losing their jobs and even their homes these days — including plenty of people who never imagined that anything like this could ever happen to them. Having to make accommodations for a pet during a difficult time can make the whole experience that much more stressful.

2. Research breeds ahead of time. Rather than make an impulse purchase when you’re overwhelmed by the cuteness of that little animal, learn about the breed so you can make an informed decision. Author and msnbc.com pet-health columnist Kim Campbell Thornton cited examples of weird traits that a new pet owner might not anticipate: “Border collies and other herding breeds need a job to do or they’ll start herding your family, staring at all of you and nipping your heels to make everyone stay together. Basenjis yodel. Spitz breeds and hounds will wander off unless your yard is as inescapable as Alcatraz .... Bloodhounds, shar-pei and pugs must have their wrinkles cleaned regularly to prevent infections.”

3. A tiny dog’s bite can be bigger than its bark. It’s easy to think that those adorable toy breeds can’t cause much trouble. But all dogs need to be trained not to chew, dig, bark — and yes, bite. “Don’t skip training class just because you think Tiny is too small, cute or sweet to do any damage,” Thornton advised.

4. Carefully dog- and cat-proof your home. Wires, remote controls, shoes, poisonous plants and easy-to-chew-and-swallow items such as socks and gloves can all pose serious threats to your pet. “Get down on your hands and knees ... to see what’s down at that level that might look chewable or fun to drag around,” Thornton said.

5. Don’t unwittingly start bad habits. If you start feeding your dog human food from the table, he’ll always want human food from the table. If you start letting your dog sleep in your bed, he’ll always want to sleep in your bed. Unless you really don’t mind living with a pet who begs during every meal and hogs your covers — and granted, you seriously may not mind those things! — resolve not to let these behaviors take root.

6. Help Fido stay physically fit. Make sure your pet gets enough exercise, especially if it’s really important for that breed. Otherwise, your pet may channel all of his or her pent-up energy into destructive behavior around your home.

7. Don’t minimize your vet’s advice. It may, for example, strike you as cruel or unreasonable to make your pet wear a cone to prevent licking open a wound or incision. But if you ignore those instructions, you almost certainly will face bigger vet bills. If your pet absolutely loathes the cone, try a soft one made of fabric or a clear, see-through plastic one that won’t make it feel so disoriented.

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8. Take steps to avoid having a scaredy-cat (or dog). Socialize your pet through exposure to lots of different people, experiences and sounds before he or she turns 4 months old. “By that time, a puppy should have met 100 different people,” Thornton said. “Puppies and kittens that don’t get lots of early handling and socialization are likely to be shy and fearful for the rest of their lives.”

9. Start training early. Don’t wait until your dog is 6 months old to take him to training class. You can begin teaching him to sit, come, stay and walk on a leash when you bring him home at 7 or 8 weeks of age, and he can start puppy kindergarten by 9 or 10 weeks.

10. Stay alert for unusual behavior. It requires patience and attention to detail to learn your pet’s rhythms and habits — but that’s important to do so you can quickly spot behavior that seems weird. “Most often, that means something’s wrong,” Thornton said. “For instance, cats with lower urinary tract infections may strain to urinate, but some people don’t notice the behavior until the infection is advanced — by which point the cat is going outside the litter box in an attempt to find someplace to pee that isn’t painful. Straining is also a sign of a blocked urethra, which is really serious. Some people have found their cats dead because they didn’t realize the urethra was blocked and the cat couldn’t pee.” Another tip for ensuring that your cat continues using the litter box as intended: Keep it nice and clean. Scoop it at least once a day, and clean out the entire box and refill it with fresh litter once a week or at least every two weeks.

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