February is considered to be Responsible Pet Ownership month. We hope this blog will identify and celebrate responsible pet owners everywhere.

What is responsible pet ownership?

When the phrase “responsible pet ownership” is read, it is almost always immediately associated with the spay/neuter campaign. In fact, many factions see spay/neuter as synonymous with responsible pet ownership. This blog is not about that topic, but rather what cats and dogs need to be happy, balanced and healthy, both mentally and physically. Note: intact dogs and cats can reproduce on accident only if other criteria of “responsible“ are not met.


Cats, as a general rule, need a personal assistant. They need a human to provide and set out their food and water, prepare and maintain all resting places and elimination stations, and be the on-demand toy mover. If their human also provides wellness veterinary care and a safe environment, they are likely to be a happy pet for many years. Variations on this theme include the very hairy cats and the very bald cats. These cats will need extra maintenance of their hair and skin.

What is the right cat for my family?
Variations in temperament of cats will influence how they interact with their human. Some cats are very independent and aloof, some are touching and talking to their owners at every opportunity.
If you want a certain extreme in cat temperament, you may find your match by researching breeds. If you want a more middle-of-the-road cat, local shelters and cat rescues will have many for you to choose from at any point. Many workers in these facilities will know their charges and are likely to be able to help you get closer to what you are hoping for in a suitable pet.

Cats and children
Many cats are incredibly tolerant of their owner’s children. It is amazing to see the little girls dressing up big adult cats that clearly could leave the party if they wanted. Those same cats then go out hunting and deliver vermin to the front porch, or claw and bite their veterinarian.

Feral Cats
Cats that are not handled by humans at critical points in early kitten-hood are unlikely to be a happy housecat where the humans want to pet, hold, and interact with a cat. These cats thrive on good nutrition and an environment where social needs are met by other cats; humans provide food, shelter and only absolutely necessary health care.


Like all living things, dogs need food, water and shelter. Some dogs could still survive without us, and some do. The dogs that live and thrive with people have humans to help them with their physical needs, but the definition of “dog” in this writer’s mind is: a canine that makes a human’s life whole.

Dogs’ evolution alongside man resulted in dogs of great variety, drives and purposes. Dogs selected for the desire and aptitudes to do certain activities resulted in different mentalities, body types, hair coats and conformation. What a herding, guard, sled, hound, terrier or hunting dog needs to be happy and fulfilled is as different from each other as they are physically different from the toy and non-sporting types. Dogs, via their incredible genetic flexibility, have developed so many extremes and have been specialized so far, that the dog that is right for one family or person, may be completely inappropriate for another.

Some dogs must have the intelligence, independence and physical prowess to work on their own, unattended. Other dogs must be willing to comply to requests that put them at risk of life and limb. These two types have completely different needs in both exercise and training.

Then there are the dogs that could no longer exist without their humans. Without the intervention to make breeding possible, or manage their extreme hair or size, they could not continue successfully without human assistance.

What is the right dog for our family?
In this writing, I would like to look at 3 different families that would like to have a dog. The first is a young professional couple. Both people work and are away from the home 8-10 hours per day, 5 days per week. Is there a right dog for this family? Should they even have a dog? Are they even remotely attracted to the breeds of dog that require little exercise, and are content with limited interaction? After a long day of work, is either party longing to do something with the dog, or are they looking for something to cuddle at the end of a stressful day?

Actually, if the questions are answered honestly, there is a great dog for this family. It will require research into breed/type of dog they are attracted to, lines within those breeds, or a very specialized search through available shelter dogs.

As an example, if this couple is attracted to a breed like the Labrador Retriever, it is interesting to note that there are some lines of this breed that are so high drive, high activity level, that even an older retired dog would destroy their house and yard and make all people upset in very short order. There are also very laid back strains such that a retired brood bitch would find their household heaven on earth.

Likewise, some of the companion smaller breeds dogs that require little exercise might fit the bill for this couple once puppyhood and training needs were fulfilled. If this couple were set on a puppy, sacrifices to other commitments, or special assistance/day care with a commitment to training would be necessary for a better chance of success.

The second type family I would like to discuss is the stereotypical nuclear family with 2 adults and 2-3 school age children. Do the kids all have different afterschool activities? Do both parents have commitments away from the house every week day? Are the hobbies and non-work or kid activities dog friendly, dog exclusive or dog–requiring? If one parent was primarily a home keeper, and the other likes to bird hunt, a bird dog that was happy to rest on a rug when not hunting or supervising children in a yard would be an appropriate match. This is why so many retriever breeds make good family pets. Similarly, some of the “working” breeds are successful at having the minimal work of hanging out with an active family.

The 3rd type of dog ownership involves a human, whether in a nuclear family, single, or busy lifestyle, who desires a dog of extreme drive and/or intelligence– they want a dog to do things with. The activities may be competitions that involve dogs, or activities that the human wants to do with a dog. These dogs go to classes to learn special skills, their human is devoted to homework training and preparations and conditioning for competitions. They spend more time with the dog than the people in their lives. The dog provides an adventure and a sense of accomplishment based on what they do together.

What makes all these homes “responsible”?
Responsible dog owners are not only sure to control the reproductive status of their dog, but also every footstep, tooth action and elimination. A good pet owner does not let their dog run free unattended where they could be in physical danger, eliminate on someone else’s property, jump on or lick other people (or animals uninvited), or approach other animals inappropriately. Training, leashes and fences are needed to accomplish this.

Furthermore, responsible owners recognize what the dog they have chosen needs to have a fulfilled life. Good food and shelter are only a part of this. Training to end up with appropriate manners and restraint when excited is also required. Activities the dog enjoys, to fulfill exercise and mental stimulation, are also required. A dog bred to run 50 miles/day or work livestock 16 hours/day is unlikely to be happy sitting in a house 23 hours a day and getting two half-hour walks. That same dog getting an hour run and 2 hours of training each day in some dog activity like agility, tracking or obedience, however, might thrive.

A dog designed and bred to sit on someone’s lap is unlikely to have the physical and mental stamina to stand up to high levels of activity. Their structure and temperament are often unsuited for extreme activity. Asking one of these dogs to do too much is just as inappropriate as not doing enough with a high energy dog.

As mentioned above, responsible pet ownership also involves appropriate medical care for the pet. This includes preventive health care such as vaccinations and parasite prevention, as well as care for medical issues that will provide a pet and their family with many happy days together.

by Dr. Cheryl Smith

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Ann Arbor Animal Hospital is a locally-owned animal hospital operating for over 90 years in Ann Arbor, MI.