8 Steps to responsible pet ownership

What do you get when you take a random person and give them a dog, a cat, a bird, fish or small animal? You get a pet owner. However, simply owning an animal doesn’t make you a responsible pet owner – that takes work, compassion, time, empathy, maturity and – yes – money. Pet ownership is a specialised role that needs you to take responsibility for your pet for 10 to 20 years of your life!

In this article, we explore the eight steps to responsible pet ownership. This will give you the oppawtunity to check where you are in your own pet ownership role and to decide if there’s some room to improve.

1. Do your homework before committing to pet ownership

A pet is not like a new bicycle or a handbag – the life of an animal cannot be acquired on a whim, without thinking about their long-term physical, social, medical and emotional needs. Yes, that dachshund puppy is super adorable and you want her NOW, but are you prepared for the house-training, puppy classes, medical expenses, obedience training, socialisation, specialised food, sterilisation, dental cleanings, and all the time she needs as a sentient creature with a lived experience? If you are serious about being a new pet owner, it would be in both your and the pet’s best interest that you do some research and planning.

The responsible pet owner:

  • researches every aspect of the breed of animal they want to adopt
  • ensures they adopt a pet that will fit in with their lifestyle – or changes their lifestyle to suit the pet they want to adopt (e.g. only get a high-energy dog if your lifestyle allows you to spend an hour or two a day exercising her; don’t get a pet if you’re hardly ever at home)
  • is set up to accommodate the type of pet they want to adopt:
    • they have enough space to keep a dog;
    • they have the space and money to build a cattio to allow their cat outdoors safely (especially in an urban environment);
    • they have the appropriate space for a large hutch or rodent enclosure;
    • they can safely allow their bird to fly around inside their home (since a bird must never be kept in their cage 24/7)
  • ensures they have the financial resources to cover the regular and emergency costs of pet ownership
  • has a long enough view of their future – one that ensures their pet is part of the family and doesn’t become an inconvenience if their future plans change (moving house; emigrating; changing jobs, etc.)

2. Make sure you can meet the basic needs of your chosen pet

The foundation of pet care includes the following:

  • nutrition: the best quality pet food for your budget
  • fresh, clean water
  • safety: be responsible for your pet’s whereabouts and activity at all times
  • grooming: keep your pet clean, including their teeth, nails, eyes and ears
  • sanitation: keep your pet’s environment clean and hygienic
    • scoop your dog’s poop outside
    • scoop your cat’s litterbox regularly
    • regularly change your small pet’s bedding/shavings
    • regularly clean your bird’s cage and replace the paper
  • comfort: give your pet adequate shelter; a place they can retreat to (a pet bed or enclosure to help them feel safe)
  • physical exercise: meet your individual pet’s need for adequate exercise
  • mental stimulation: give your pet adequate cognitive challenges to protect them from boredom
  • happy life: understand the need that every animal has for a fulfilled life; do what they enjoy; do not expose your pets to neglect or abuse
  • healthcare: be able to meet your pet’s need for adequate medical care, whether routinely or in an emergency

3. Build a bond between your veterinarian and your pet

In order for the veterinarian to provide your pet with holistic medical care, they need to know your pet at their best (determine the health baseline) to be able to diagnose them at their worst. A vet is not only there for emergencies, but to prioritise your pet’s total wellbeing. As a responsible pet owner, you facilitate that relationship between your vet and your pet – from puppyhood or kittenhood, right through to the end of old age. Your pet’s healthcare must be dealt with in a timely manner, which means:

  • registering your pet with your vet and doing their first check-up as soon as you’ve adopted them
  • vaccinations (initial, boosters, and annual vaccinations)
  • microchipping
  • preventative care like tick & flea prevention and deworming
  • sterilisation (spay or neutering)*
  • annual check-ups as part of your preventative healthcare regimen
  • dental check-ups and teeth cleaning
  • the kindness of euthanasia when your pet is suffering

*As a responsible pet owner, you understand the need for sterilisation. Not only is it healthier for pets in the long-term (preventing certain types of cancers), but it’s helpful to not contribute to pet overpopulation in South Africa. Every year, around one million dogs and cats are unnecessarily euthanised because of a lack of space in shelters and rescue organisations. That equates to about 2700 pets killed PER DAY in SA alone. If your child needs to ‘witness the miracle of life’, there are enough videos on YouTube of pet dogs and cats giving birth to ensure you don’t have to put your pets through it. The responsible pet owner understands that they may have nothing to do with the source of the pet overpopulation problem, but they do not have to contribute to it.

4. Make your pet’s home within your home

As a responsible pet owner, you’ll go the extra mile to understand your pet’s need for comfort and safety, but also their social needs. Most pets (like dogs, cats, birds, mice, rats, guinea pigs and rabbits) are social animals, while others (like hamsters) are more solitary. It’s imperative that you understand and meet these needs, so your pet is healthy and happy.

Your pets need to ‘fit in’ indoors and behave appropriately in their pack or pet group, while also expressing themselves naturally. In order for this to happen, the responsible pet owner needs to:

  • house-train and litterbox-train their dogs and cats
  • socialise their pets, so they behave appropriately around adults and children, as well as around other animals
  • ensure their pets have adequate social enrichment, and are not bullied, dominated or ostracised
  • meet their pets’ needs for a routine (mealtimes, toilet times, playtime, naptime and training time, etc. happening consistently, daily)

Routines help pets’ lives feel predictable – as stability makes them feel calm and stable, and builds their confidence. Unpredictability – not knowing when they’ll be fed, exercised, engaged with, etc. – can make them anxious, which is unhealthy. Even when unpredictable things happen (such as moving house, starting a new job, or a new person moving in with you), just maintaining your pets’ basic routine will help them to stay calm and still feel confident and at ease.

5. Meet your pet’s need for exercise

Whether high-energy or couch potato, all pets need exercise. If you’ve researched your pet’s exercise needs, you’ll be able to adequately meet those needs without under- or over-exercising them. If you don’t have a lot of time to exercise a pet, low-energy breeds of dog, cat and small pets are better suited to your lifestyle. A Labrador is a great walking buddy, but don’t adopt a working breed like a border collie or Belgian Malinois if you don’t have a few hours a day for exercise AND mental agility! A husky puppy may look cute, but remember, when he’s an adult, he needs at least 10km under his paws every day!

Individual dogs will have different preferences for exercise – the responsible pet owner knows to give their dog more of what he enjoys, and less of what he’s just not interested in. Cats also differ in the amount of energy they need to expend – some just love lots of toys and playtime, while others prefer cat-friend rough-and-tumble games instead.

Pet birds need flight time. Cooping a flying creature in a cage all day long is cruel, but the responsible pet owner understands the complex physical and emotional needs of their bird and meets those needs so that their feathered friend can thrive.

6. Ensure your pet is getting enough mental stimulation

Just as important as physical exercise, mental stimulation is critical for your pet’s wellbeing. An intelligent pet needs to solve more complex problems than simply chasing a ball or a red dot on the wall. Give them a ‘job’ to do – such as agility competitions, competitive sports or becoming a therapy animal. The independent thinking and positive feedback are an excellent combination that is incredibly mentally stimulating for your pet.

Most birds have a range of skills that many people underestimate. They need to play, learn and be social; solve puzzles and interact with objects. Similarly, rats and other rodents are also more sociable and intelligent than we think, and can be trained to perform tasks and do tricks. Enthusiastically train a pet rat, positively reward them and build up a training repertoire and you’ll have a little friend who is very bonded to you. The responsible pet owner will identify their pet’s mental health needs and ensure they are met, which contributes towards their pet’s overall quality of life.

7. Train your pet

Pet training not only involves tricks and commands – it is the foundation of the way you communicate with your pet, which allows them to experience the world around them in a more social way. The responsible pet owner also knows that pet communication comes in all forms – e.g. a dog that barks compulsively, digs huge holes in your flowerbeds, and chews everything he can get his teeth into is probably bored and under-stimulated. He doesn’t need ‘naughty time’, he needs a lot more exercise and mental stimulation.

Pet training is about communication, but it’s also a fantastic way to build a bond with your pet. Done correctly, it takes a short time to establish, but its lifelong reinforcement will become your pet’s favourite activity with you.

8. Be responsible for your pet in public

You are totally responsible for your pet in public. It is every pet owner’s responsibility to:

  • keep your pets under control at all times (keep dogs on leash and close to you)
  • respect other people’s property – do not allow your pets to roam freely and trespass
  • not let your pets impose on the personal space of other people and animals. Never approach others without permission, even if “your dog is friendly”
  • adhere to municipal bylaws: keep your dog leashed, pick up their dog poop, don’t let them bark unnecessarily or cause a noise disturbance

The responsible pet owner takes full responsibility for their pet’s behaviour and the consequences thereof.


As a responsible pet owner, you know that no person or pet is perfect, and this road you walk with your furry, purry, fuzzy and feathered friends is a learning experience. It will teach you a whole lot about pets as well as about yourself, and you will learn more the longer you commit to being a responsible pet owner. All you have to do is your best – but if you need advice, assistance or help with being the best pet owner you can be, contact the vet and we’ll do our best to help.

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