Pet Health and You: Risky Mistakes Pet Owners Make

Reviewed on 10/3/2014

Letting Your Dog Walk You

Dog on a leash.

A poorly trained dog can pull you over while you're out for a stroll. According to the CDC, tens of thousands of people end up in the ER every year because of pet-related falls. Many of these falls occur during walks -- either when a person trips over a dog or is pulled or pushed by one. Experts say obedience training is the best way to make sure your pooch doesn't take you down during the morning walk.

Overlooking Ticks

Tick in tweezers.

After a walk in the woods, you check yourself for ticks, right? Don't forget about your dog. Tick bites put your dog at risk for Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and a handful of other diseases. They can also cause serious illnesses in cats. If your pet has infected ticks, this puts the rest of the family at risk. If you find a tick, remove it carefully with tweezers, being careful to get all of the head and not to crush it. Ask the vet about tick control.

Ignoring Ringworm

Cat with ringworm.

If your pet has a round bald patch, ringworm could be to blame. Leave this fungus untreated, and you're putting your family at risk. People can get ringworm from dogs or cats by touching their skin or fur. Ringworm usually causes a reddish, ring-shaped rash on the skin or bald spots if it infects the scalp. If your pet has hair loss, take him to your vet to see if it could be ringworm.

Not Bothering to Deworm

Roundworm lifecycle.

Roundworms are common parasites in both dogs and cats. They cause diarrhea and vomiting and may lead to serious illness. But many people don't realize these worms are a threat to humans, too. An infected pet can contaminate soil or sand with tiny eggs. Kids may ingest the eggs by putting dirty fingers in their mouths. When the worms hatch inside people, they can cause blindness and other tissue damage. Ask your vet about regular deworming.

Skipping Flea Medicine

Flea close-up.

Skip your pets' flea medicine, and they aren't the only ones who will pay the price. Fleas will quickly set up shop on untreated pets, particularly in summer and fall, and fill your house with their eggs and young. Some people wind up covered in itchy sores. Fleas can also transmit serious diseases to people including bubonic plague. Ask your vet about long term flea medication and put a routine reminder on your calendar.

Not Spaying or Neutering Your Pet

Abandoned dog.

Millions of cats and dogs live on the street or end up euthanized because of unwanted litters. Still, many people are reluctant to spay or neuter their pets. The fact is, spaying and neutering is a healthy choice for your pet. It reduces the risk of breast cancer in females and testicular cancer in males. Neutered males are also less likely to run away from home, mark their territory, or exhibit aggressive behaviors.

Keeping the Food Bowl Full

Overweight cat.

With the best intentions, some people keep their pets' food bowls full at all times. This is one of the most common mistakes pet owners make. The problem is that cats and dogs often eat more than they need. If food is constantly available, they will take in too many calories and put on too much weight. To avoid this, follow the suggestions on the pet food label or ask your vet for guidance.

Forcing Cats to Be Vegetarian

Cat on a table.

Vegetarian people sometimes want their pets to share their lifestyle. The trouble is cats are "obligate carnivores." This means they must eat meat to survive. They depend on nutrients, such as the amino acid taurine, that are only found in animal tissue. Dogs may be able to handle a well-balanced vegetarian diet, but check with your vet first.

Providing Too Little Exercise

Bulldog with remote control.

Just like people, pets need exercise to stay healthy. Couch potato pets are prone to obesity, which raises their risk of respiratory problems and joint problems. The right amount of exercise for a dog depends on the breed and size, but vets recommend at least a half-hour each day. Taking brisk walks with your dog can help you get in shape, too.

Misreading Body Language

An alert dog.

Sure, you love your dog. But do you really understand him? If you think a wagging tail is always a good sign, you could be in for a nasty surprise. When a dog wants to threaten someone, he may hold his tail high and wave it stiffly back and forth. Mistake this warning for a sign of playfulness and you could get bitten. To avoid misunderstandings, learn about your pet's body language.

Providing Too Little Attention

A puppy chewing a shoe.

Just like children, your pets will get bored if you don't play with them. And boredom can lead to troublesome behaviors like chewing, digging, barking and whining. Bored cats may resort to scratching and excessive meowing. Fight boredom by hiding treats for your pets to find around the house. Provide toys your cat can chase. Teach dogs to play fetch, tug-of-war, or hide-and-seek.

Making Your Cats Share a Litter Box

Kittens using litter box.

Multiple cats plus one litter box equals a formula for elimination problems. That's a nice way of saying your cat may choose to pee or poop on the floor. Cats can be very picky about their litter box. If it's dirty or smells like other cats, they may not use it. Experts recommend having one litter box for every cat in your home, plus one extra. It may be helpful to space out their boxes around the home.

Not Socializing Young Pets

A puppy laying on a woman.

It's important to provide puppies and kittens with positive human interaction during their first seven weeks of life. This includes handling and play that fosters trust in people. Reputable breeders will begin this interaction, and you can continue the process when you bring your pet home. To develop a strong bond, play with your new puppy or kitten every day.

Leaving a Dog Alone Too Long

A dog digging in the yard.

Spending 8-10 hours alone in a crate, tiny laundry closet, or even outdoors is too much for most dogs. It can lead to separation anxiety and destructive behaviors including chewing, soiling, digging, and nonstop barking or howling -- even depression in a timid dog. Better choices are doggie day care, a mid-day visit from a pet sitter, or a canine companion. Adult dogs can go 4-5 hours in a crate but need exercise before and after.

Setting No Rules

A cat on the couch.

Some people expect their pets to know right from wrong without being told. But human etiquette does not come naturally to dogs and cats. You need to make it clear that jumping up on people, scratching the furniture, and peeing on the carpet are unacceptable. Be consistent about the house rules, and reward your pets for good behavior. If you need guidance, consult a trainer promptly.

Scolding Pets for "Accidents"

Training a dog to obey.

If you come home to find a puddle of pee on the floor, you may have the urge to yell at your pet. But animal behavior experts say this will do no good at all. The transgression took place in the past, and your dog or cat won't know why you are yelling. A better strategy is to praise your pets immediately when they do their business where they are supposed to.

Leaving Young Kids Unsupervised

A small boy with a big dog.

Most children adore animals, but sometimes their enthusiasm can lead to someone getting hurt. Young kids may play too rough, pushing a dog or cat to strike out in self-defense. Be sure to supervise play time when a new pet joins the family. Set rules for how children should treat the pet and teach them to recognize the signs that a dog or cat wants to be left alone.

Giving Milk to Cats

A cat drinking out of a glass.

The idea that cats thrive on milk is a myth. In fact, the opposite is often true. Most cats are lactose intolerant, meaning that they can't properly digest the sugars in milk. This can result in diarrhea and vomiting. While some cats can digest milk with no problems, they don't need it. So most vets recommend skipping the milk.

Letting Dogs Eat Spoiled Food

A dog eating trash.

Your dog may be tempted to rifle through the neighbor's garbage in search of a treat, but don't let her! Food gone bad is no healthier for pets than it is for people. Dogs who eat garbage are at risk for bacterial food poisoning or irritation of the pancreas. Spoiled food may also contain toxic mold, which can cause vomiting, severe tremors, seizures, and death.

Giving Bones to Dogs

A dog eating a bone.

We may think of bones as a wonderful treat for dogs, but the FDA paints a different picture. The agency warns that chewing on bones can injure the teeth, tongue, or mouth. Bones can also get stuck in the digestive tract, where they will have to be removed with surgery or an endoscope. If your dog likes to chew, ask your vet about safer alternatives.

Feeding Dogs Table Scraps

A dog being fed under the table.

It can be hard to resist a dog that's begging at the table. You look into those big eyes and want to share your food with your pet. But rewarding your dog's barks or whines will only encourage more begging in the future. And then you can forget about quiet dinners with your family. If you want to share table scraps as an occasional treat, do it away from the table -- and use the food as a reward for good behavior. Also, some human foods can be toxic to pets.

Feeding Cats Only Dry Food

A cat eating food.

Cats have a low thirst drive by nature, so they may not drink enough to stay well hydrated. Chronically underhydrated cats could be at risk for urinary tract disorders. Encourage more drinking by adding a water fountain designed for cats. There is also a prescription food by Royal Canin (Urinary SO) that is a dry food that encourages pet to drink. Canned food is generally about 78 percent water and is a good option too, but not needed by every cat. A fluid-rich diet is particularly important for cats with a history of urinary tract problems.

Giving Up a Cat During Pregnancy

A pregnant woman with her cat.

Some women are advised to give up their cats during pregnancy, but is this necessary? The concern is an illness called toxoplasmosis, which is caused by a parasite found in feline stool. If a woman is newly infected during pregnancy, her fetus could be harmed. But most people who have cats already have antibodies to protect against toxoplasmosis. The CDC advises pregnant women to keep their cats but avoid handling cat litter if possible.

Having No Disaster Plan

Dogs on a roof.

If an emergency forces you to evacuate your home, what will you do with your pets? Leaving them behind is not an option if your community is threatened by fire, flooding, or hurricane-force winds. And not all Red Cross shelters allow you to bring your pets. It's best to identify pet-friendly shelters and motels ahead of time, so you can keep your pets with you during an emergency.

Adopting a Pet on a Whim

A dog in the pound.

If a friend is giving away puppies or a local animal shelter is filled to capacity, you may be tempted to bring home a new pet. But this should never be a spur-of-the-moment decision. You are making a long-term commitment to care for the animal -- 10 to 15 years for dogs and up to 20 years for cats. It's also best to do some research ahead of time to decide what type of pet -- and what specific breed -- would be best for your family.

Pet Health and You: Risky Mistakes Pet Owners Make

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