From the Today Show

By Andrea Arden

Pet expert contributor

updated 10:51 a.m. MT, Tues., April. 29, 2008

Most common mistakes pet owners make

Ensure your animal companion enjoys a long, happy and well-behaved life


Companion animals can enrich our lives in an almost endless number of ways. Whether greeting us enthusiastically at the door, keeping us company on daily jogs or simply entertaining us with their play, sharing your life with a pet is a great way to increase the length and improve the quality of your life. For all they add to our lives, we owe it to them to do all we can for them in return. One of the ways to ensure your animal companion enjoys a long, happy life is to avoid the pitfalls of the most common pet-parenting mistakes:

Impulsive adoptions/purchases
Making the commitment to invite any animal to join your family should take a lot of careful consideration. Unfortunately, many people can't resist the temptation of bringing home a cute animal immediately. It is much wiser to first go home and do some research to find out everything you can about this particular type of pet and what caring for and living with them will entail. Be sure to include all family members in the decision-making process. Carefully consider the commitment of time and money, and if this particular animal's size, age, temperament and activity level are a good match for your family.

Buying from a pet store
This can be a hard mistake for people to avoid as seeing a cute young animal in a store can be very tempting, especially since some people consider they are saving that particular animal. But keep in mind that while you may give that animal a good home, with each sale the pet store makes they are that much more likely to bring more animals in from animal mills where the breeding stock is subjected to a life of constant breeding and mistreatment. A much wiser source is a local shelter, breed rescue group or reputable breeder.

Killing with kindness
Because people love their pets so much, they often do things which are inadvertently to the detriment of their pets. Many people feel they are being mean if they don't give their pet everything they want when they want it. This often starts on the first day the pet joins the family and is immediately given free run of the home. The intended goal is often to allow the animal to feel at home and comfortable. However, the result is usually that they get into trouble by eliminating in the wrong place or chewing an inappropriate item. It is much kinder in the long run to set clear rules and boundaries — much like with children — to help your pet stay safe and ensure that he or she is with you for their whole life.

Unfortunately, the result of not setting boundaries and helping your pet learn how to behave is that they make mistakes that they are then punished for. Worse yet, many otherwise lovely animals are surrendered to shelters for simply behaving in a manner that was permitted to become habit due to a lack of clear rules and boundaries.

Focusing on punishments rather than rewards
Considering how much we love our animal companions, it is surprising that one of the big mistakes people make is focusing on punishing their pets for things they don't like rather than rewarding them for what we consider good behavior. A perfect example of this is letting a pup eliminate on the rug (by not supervising them properly) and then yelling at them for doing so. Dogs think in pretty simple terms, so it is unlikely they are thinking they are in trouble for eliminating in the house. They probably think you don't like to see them eliminate, so they learn to hide behind the couch to do so. In this and most cases, punishments don't tend to be very effective and often cause negative side effects as bad as or worse than what they were intended to resolve.

Punishments are also likely to damage your relationship with your pet. Instead, focus on managing them (using supervision and confinement, such as keeping them on a leash or in a pet-proofed room or crate) to set them up for success and rewarding for good behavior. This will prevent problem behaviors from becoming habits, reinforce appropriate behaviors and improve your bond with your pet.

Assuming your pet is a person in fur clothing
It's wonderful that most people adopt pets into their home as full-fledged members of the family. However, while most pets adapt incredibly well to living with people, many people forget they are still animals. Keep in mind that pets tend to think in different and often much simpler terms than we do. They aren't walking around all day plotting how to get back at you for leaving them at home while you go to work or to punish you for what you have or haven't done for them lately. Accusing an animal of being spiteful or stubborn does a great disservice to them and tends to create a barrier to a healthy relationship.

So, the next time your dog digs in the yard, consider that he is probably doing so because it is fun for dogs and he's probably bored, not to punish you and ruin your newly planted yard.

Not spaying or neutering pets
This is a common mistake pet owners make with some of the most serious consequences. Unfortunately, some people still think that if they spay or neuter their pets they will get lazy and fat or that it is kind to let their pet have just one litter. Aside from the fact that there is a serious pet overpopulation problem that spaying and neutering can help decrease, doing so also means your companion is less likely to wander away to look for a mate and in doing so potentially get lost, hurt or contract diseases.

For males, neutering eliminates the chance of developing testicular cancer and may reduce problems with aggression, as well as decreasing inappropriate urination issues. For females, spaying decreases the chance of developing breast cancer down to almost zero if done before the first heat cycle. It also eliminates the chance of developing pyometra (a potentially fatal infection of the uterus), decreases or eliminates mood swings associated with heat cycles and eliminates spotting. Overall, spaying and neutering will greatly increase the length and quality of your pet's life.

Lack of supervision between pets and children
While many animals are very tolerant of and even enjoy interaction with children, all animals should be supervised at all times when together with kids. Regardless of the breed or type of animal you have, there is always a risk when leaving children and pets unattended together. What many people don't understand is that an animal can be tolerant for years, but if pushed too far (e.g., rough play, overexcited behavior), they may react. Unfortunately, the most likely person to be bitten or scratched by a dog or cat is a family member.