Animals have been bringing companionship to mankind for more than 20,000 years. From the domestication of wolves to cattle to cats to hamsters to snakes, animals are intrinsically linked to the human experience. As students many of us have experienced having a family pet. We may want to have our own companion as we go through the experience of professional school. When considering whether or not you should have a pet during professional school, and what kind of pet that should be, one main concern should be thoroughly considered. How are you going to handle your life so that the animal’s welfare does not suffer?
Don’t get me wrong. I get long days. As a rising third year veterinary student, I averaged 14-hour days at the school per day, between classes, jobs, and extracurriculars. Including weekends. Professional school takes and takes and takes.
Having a pet can be the highlight of any person’s day. They can make the grind that is professional school that much easier to handle and bear. However, the considerations of the animal are paramount to the needs of the student. I personally do not have a pet. I knew going into veterinary school that I would not have the time to properly care for one. However, if you think you can give an animal a positive-welfare life, here are some further considerations.
Assess Your Situation
When you own a pet, you own a one to 80 year commitment, depending on the species that you pick. As such, you need to assess not just your current student life, but what your life will be in the years to come. Society is rightfully moving away from the concept that animals can be left behind when they become an inconvenience for their owner. So whatever pet you are considering, that animal should be viewed as a permanent resident in your life.
You will need to pick appropriate housing for you and your pet. Pet rent is a concern that will add to the cost of living wherever you are considering attending school. You may need to board your pet while on vacations. A pet sitter may be required during away rotations. Is there someone to check on your animal a few times a day on those extra long days when you can’t leave at lunch? All these considerations should all be taken into account with your housing.
Additionally, the type of space will set your animal up for success. Having enough room to display natural behaviors will prevent unwanted behaviors such as accidents in the house, destruction to furniture, or noise complaints.
Animals are expensive. Pets should have at the very least a yearly veterinary exam by a veterinarian, in addition to any possible emergencies. Diets need to be picked properly for the species in question. Extra equipment for pets that need it, such as exotics (amphibians, fish, birds, reptiles, and small mammals) should be considered a must, not a luxury. Animals that are able to be trained should be for both their comfort and yours. Puppy classes should be strongly considered if you will not have enough time to devote to it by yourself. Behavioral consultations are always recommended first in cases where bad behavior does not seem to resolve itself.
Perfection in mammal form (in my opinion), dogs are great companions, and have been for tens of thousands of years. More than 300 breeds are recognized by various kennel clubs. There are also always the beautiful mutts, all of which have their own personalities. Certain characteristics are certainly expected of specific breeds of dogs (particularly health concerns), but my Miniature Pinscher (currently living with my parents) is definitely different than the Miniature Pinscher that lived across the street.
Training is an absolute must for any dog. Barking, indoor accidents, aggression (on any level), and destruction are all behaviors that dogs can be trained to control, which is in their best interest. The negative-behaviors listed are some of the top reasons for dogs to be relinquished in shelters. Bringing a dog into your home is a seven to 18 year commitment, depending on the size of the dog. Training sets you both up for success as you go through school and move into professional lives thereafter.
Certain dogs do not belong in certain living situations. An English Bulldog, though reaching 60 pounds, would be fine in an apartment. A Border Collie less so. While some working dogs like sled dogs or farm dogs do in fact live outdoors the majority of their lives, the average person living in an urban or suburban area should maintain an indoor lifestyle for their pet dog. A pet Husky is completely different than a Iditarod sled dog. A puppy will need to be let out multiple times a day (once every 3 to 4 hours at least). Middle-aged dogs can handle going out two to three times per day.
Some dogs dislike children, strangers, men, women, or other dogs. As such, if adopting a dog with “special needs,” keep in mind that you may be working with that behavior for years to come. All dogs, regardless of breed, need activity and mental stimulation. Staying at home alone all day without mental or physical stimulation can be a one-way ticket to negative behaviors. Toys, food puzzles, access to a backyard via a dog door, and doggie daycare are all solutions fellow vet students employ for their canine companions. Even when you’re home, your dog should be kept mentally and physically sharp.
Physical problems such as obesity and diabetes stem from poor physical activity and cause more problems later in life for dogs. Many diseases that occur in humans also occur in dogs with the same welfare implications. Obesity leads to poor joint health; for example, consider Dachshunds that are overweight with that long back. Certain breeds have a propensity for cancer, and even specific types of cancers such as Rottweilers and osteosarcoma. Some dogs like Pugs and have difficulties breathing just by existing, let alone with added health conditions. If getting a dog is up your alley, set up an emergency fund for them that you add to throughout their life. Your emergency fund must be able to support acute problems like trauma or sudden onset of disease and chronic problems like degenerative joint disease or cancer.
Bottom line with our canine companions: You are committing seven to 18 years to what essentially amounts to having a five to eight year old human being. They rely on you for everything, while being extremely capable in their own right. Veterinary care is an annual commitment in addition to any health emergencies that occur, which is also true for all pet species. Dogs require training to be setup for success by their owners.
Another common human companion, cats are more prolific in numbers than dogs in most areas of the world due to their substantial reproductive qualities. Most cats are certainly capable of caring for themselves (see any feral cat colony anywhere). But they are also adept to being indoor companions like dogs.
All the same considerations that apply to dogs also apply to cats. Behavior is especially important to consider in cats. Vertical space for climbing is a necessity, not a luxury. Keeping the litter box clean (at least 1 litter pan per cat in the home should be maintained), having toys or training for mental stimulation, and being as much a companion for your cat as they are for you will help prevent some of the most common feline behavioral problems that result in cats ending up in shelters.
You may have grown up with indoor-outdoor or outdoor only cats. Outside of rural areas (barn cats), society is moving away from allowing indoor-outdoor domestic pet cats . The risks of being indoor-outdoor far outweigh any benefits for the cat. They can be hit by cars, attacked by other cats or dogs, contract an infectious disease (FIV, FIP, FeLV, parasites), or be “kidnapped” (thought to be a stray and adopted by a family). Outdoor cats also contribute to changing ecosystem dynamics where local wildlife populations suffer. If you are considering a cat, having an indoor cat is in their best interest.
Bottom line with our feline friends: You are committing seven to eighteen years to what essentially amounts to having an independent five to eight year-old human being. They rely on you for everything, while being extremely capable in their own right.
Furthermore, as a species, many laypeople do not consider the welfare needs of cats due to their independent nature. Cats need just as much mental and physical stimulation as their canine cousins. Overall, they should not be automatically considered an “easier” pet than dogs. The individual dog and cat may differ greatly in what they need – compare a rambunctious 1-year old cat compared to a senior Beagle, for example.
An up-and-coming animal group in the welfare world, fish seem to be a go to for students no matter the living situation. Regardless of where you live, they will have very specific requirements: a tank, a filter, water treatment, and their own stimulation. No fish should simply live in a bowl or tank without the previously stated. New research is beginning to suggest that our fish friends do indeed need filtered water regardless of if they are a goldfish or an Oscar. Water should also be prepped for the fish that will be living in it prior to them being placed in the tank. Go figure, something that needs water to breathe needs clean water to breathe.
Tank size is imperative. Being in a too small tank or bowl stresses fish as they cannot “roam” in a large enough area. The same applies when having multiple fish in one tank. Though a tank may be big enough for a single fish of a specific species, that tank may no longer be big enough when you have two or more individuals from a species. Some fish need companionship of their own or are better suited alone, and such behavior is species dependent. More space for an individual fish is never a bad idea, either. A betta or goldfish will always benefit from being in a 10 gallon or more tank rather than a small bowl topped with a plant.
Veterinary care also cannot be foregone in these species. Veterinary medicine in fish is extremely niche for now. However, more veterinary students and veterinarians are going through classes, continuing education, externships, and more in order to properly care for these animals. Like dogs and cats, they should also be seen by a veterinarian at least once a year and whenever there is a change in the health of the fish. Before getting a fish, look for veterinarians in your area that offer veterinary care for your fish.
Bottom line with our fish friends: You are committing one to 15 years to something that is completely in your care. They rely on you for all of their food, clean environment, mental and physical stimulation, and healthcare. Though they may seem “easy” in the fact they do not need to be handled every day or even necessarily directly interacted with, they deserve your commitment to their timely and appropriate care. Being a fish does not mean their welfare is any less than that of a dog or cat. When deciding on a fish and their needs, go to fish experts, including veterinarians that specialize in fish, rather than local big box stores where the employee training is generalized.
As a continued theme, birds have all the same considerations as dogs, cats, and fish. Housing for these creatures is vital and varied. From zebra finches to African Greys, they need a space where they live full time (finches and the like) or part time (parrots and the like). The cage needs to be appropriately sized for a lone bird or for more than one bird. Many species of birds do better with a companion rather than alone, particularly if you have long days as a student or professional. For larger birds such as parrots, companionship is a necessity, not a luxury.
Birds can display many destructive behaviors if not sufficiently stimulated physically or mentally. Many of the behaviors can be self-destructive (feather picking/plucking as an example). Some larger species of birds are considered more intelligent than most human children. They need puzzles and games designed for the mind of five to seven-year olds. Training for appropriate behaviors and tricks is a good outlet for this mental stimulation.
It is these species where being in contact with an expert is also vital. Some commercial diets are essentially junk food for birds. They do not provide enough nutrients or the proper balance of said nutrients. Many birds can suffer from antherosclerosis and metabolic disorders that affect their digestive and reproductive tracts, skeletons, and cardiopulmonary systems. Moreover, bird lifespans vary greatly from a few years to 80 years, depending on the species. Parrots and macaws are frequently included in wills to ensure that the bird is cared for following the death of the owner. For example, I am currently the next up to take a 30-year old Rose-Breasted Cockatoo if my 46-year old aunt were to die.
Like dogs, cats, and fish, birds should be seeing an avian veterinarian once a year for check-ups. Special considerations need to be addressed as well. Their different physiology and intelligence lend them to unique health problems that aren’t found in the previously mentioned species. As always, have an emergency fund set up for unexpected veterinary care. Prior to acquiring a bird, find a veterinarian in the area that will be able to provide quality veterinary care.
Bottom line for our bird buddies: They have special considerations, from companionship and housing to longevity and mental stimulation, that are just as important as those needed by dogs and cats. Like fish, an expert should be consulted prior to obtaining a bird due to their specialized needs. The expert you contact can help you navigate the various marketing and urban myth pitfalls that surround owning a bird. There is also the consideration that some species are best left to be maintained by more experienced individuals, if they should even be kept as pets at all.
There is a theme here, and the reptile pets are sticking to it. Reptiles are thought to be some of the “easiest” pets for students to handle. However, they are no easier than any dog or cat, and can be more challenging.
Just like fish, reptiles require specific equipment, such as a heat source (NOT a heat rock), a UV source (depending on the species), a humidity source (depending on the species), a hide, and an easily cleaned environment. A safe heat source is vital as reptiles are ectotherms and require specific ambient temperatures that vary depending on if your companion is a box turtle, a skink, a boa, or a lizard. These items are integral to the welfare of the reptile. They must be well maintained as the health of the reptile is directly linked to its environment.
Reptiles also require specific food sources, preferably not live, which vary from herbivorous to carnivorous depending on the species. They can suffer dietary deficiencies similar to birds due when the diet is not properly balanced. Most well known is “metabolic bone disease”.
Just like all the previous members of our pets list, reptiles require mental and physical stimulation. Reptiles that are not regularly handled can “lose” their domesticity and become aggressive. Like birds, reptiles can have significant lifespans. Some species live for five years, while some live over a 100 (tortoises). Their lifespan also needs to be planned for when bringing a reptile into your home.
Sizes vary. Some stay small and others grow quite large. Iguanas and snakes can reach 6 feet or more, and some tortoises weigh more than I do. Size factors should be heavily considered when picking out a reptile to bring home. You will be responsible for the housing and feeding of a large reptile.
Veterinary care is especially important in these species. They can progress extremely far in a disease prior to showing any symptoms. Yearly veterinary check-ups will help prevent massive problems down the road, such as metabolic disorders that commonly afflict reptiles. Prior to acquiring a reptile, find a veterinarian that will be able to medically support your needs.
The bottom line with our reptile roommates: They are no easier to care for than any dog, cat, bird, or fish. Their care is extensive and can be extremely long term. A reptile expert should be consulted when obtaining a reptile as a pet. Being knowledgeable of the specifics of each species is imperative as not all reptiles are created equal. There is also the consideration that some species are best left to be maintained by more experienced individuals, if they should even be kept as pets at all.
This is the catch-all category that includes everything from rabbits to hamsters to guinea pigs to mice to rats to more obscure and harder to care for animals. Though small, these animals have strong welfare considerations, same as the other creatures on the pet list. A sufficiently sized cage, appropriate food, water, bedding, hides, and toys are all a necessity. Different species have different dietary considerations. Much like birds and reptiles, some commercial diets are simply junk food in colorful wrapping. Different types of bedding exist. Some species need more of it due to waste while others need more to exhibit natural behaviors, such as burrowing. Some species such as ferrets, rabbits, and rats, can be trained to do tricks and even be potty trained.
Like all the previously listed species, veterinary check-ups at least once a year are a necessity. Health considerations are just as important in these species as the others. Before getting a small mammal, find a veterinarian that you can use for their medical care for yearly check-ups and emergency services. Though not as long-lived as our birds or reptiles, some small mammals, such as rabbits and guinea pigs, can live for five to 10 years. Some species, such as sugar gliders, take a lot more care than the average person is able to provide and so should be avoided by busy students.
The mental health of these species is also on the same level of consideration as our dogs and cats. As mentioned, many of these species are intelligent and trainable. Therefore, when bored and unstimulated, they can develop harmful negative behaviors against themselves, their environment, or you. Small mammals should be handled every day by their owners to keep the human-animal bond strong.
Bottom line for our small mammal sidekicks: They, just like the other animals previously listed, require specific considerations unique to them. Their welfare is just as important as any dog or cat. They require daily handling and interaction to maintain strong mental health. The right diet is necessary. Being in contact with someone that specializes in small mammal care, husbandry, and welfare would be beneficial in getting beyond urban myths about these critters. Always consider whether or not the long-term care of a small mammal will be too extensive. There is also the consideration that some species are best left to be maintained by more experienced individuals, if they should even be kept as pets at all.
The welfare of the animal is ultimately more important than the benefit the student gains from owning that animal. The animal’s welfare should not be compromised due to the student’s schedule or lifestyle. The pet depends entirely on that student for their life.
Animals are not disposable. When you are picking out a pet to have during professional school, you should also consider that the animal will be with you anywhere from two years to 80 years depending on the species chosen. The animal you choose as a pet will be with you through the thick and thin of professional school and deserves to stay once graduation has come and gone. The husbandry, veterinary care, and companionship that your animal gains from you all contribute to its welfare. Husbandry should be the best you can offer. Veterinary care includes yearly check-ups and an emergency fund. Companionship means daily interaction with the humans in that animal’s life. You as their owner will have to sacrifice time away from extracurriculars, social settings, and even the library to make sure these animals are getting the care and companionship they deserve.
Having pets can be incredibly fun, but make sure your situation will support the best life you can give them.
This article was contributed by Veterinary Students and Veterinarians of the SDN Veterinary Forum.