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Ontario Veterinary Medical Association

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Choosing a Pet 


Pet owner handbooks

These handbooks contain the basic information you need to successfully integrate a new pet into your family, and ensure that it lives a happy and healthy life. Read about nutrition, exercise, vaccinations, spaying and neutering, common parasites and preventing dental disease.

Read our Dog Owner's Handbook or Cat Owner's Handbook.


Benefits of pet ownership

The data is in, and it confirms what animal lovers have long known – pets are good for your health.

  • A study by the U.S. Department of Health found that having pets can lead to a lower risk of heart attack. When someone did suffer a heart attack, 28 per cent percent of patients with pets survived, compared to only six per cent of those without pets.

  • Having an animal companion provides psychological benefits. In a survey of pet owners, almost 90 per cent of seniors felt that having a pet positively impacted their health and 70 per cent said their pet reduces stress.

  • Children who had a dog present during medical examinations had lower heart rates and blood pressure. Children with pets were also better at understanding non-verbal communication.

  • Parents know that pet ownership helps teach children about responsibility, caring and unconditional love. And these benefits continue into adulthood. A U.S. study of 394 university students found that those who had owned pets as a child were more self-confident.

A pet can bring warmth and love to a home, but a pet is also a financial, emotional and time commitment that can last 15 years or more. Never adopt a pet impulsively or give one as a gift.

Everyone should agree on the decision to adopt a pet, since it will affect everyone in your family. Also think about how a new pet will affect your current pets.

Choosing a dog

Time commitment

  • Dogs should be walked two to three times a day. Just letting them out in the backyard doesn't provide enough exercise, stimulation or fun.

  • Obedience classes are the best way to make sure your dog has adequate training. They usually require an hour of class time per week for an eight-week period. Plus, set aside 20-30 minutes a day to practice skills during your dog’s first year.

  • Dogs require regular ear and teeth cleaning, nail clipping and grooming to keep their coats clean and healthy. You can do this yourself or you can go to a groomer.

  • You will also need to clean your home more often, especially if you get a long-haired breed.

Living conditions

  • Dogs need a lot of indoor space and a safe outdoor space to exercise like a fenced backyard. If you have a small house, you might not have enough space for a large dog.

  • Some breeds bark more than others and might not be suited to living in urban areas. Large dogs can scale short fences, while hounds and terriers might try to dig under. Water dogs, like retrievers and spaniels, should have access to freshwater swimming areas.

  • If you've ever had an allergic reaction near a dog, you might want to have an allergy test before adopting. Some breeds such poodles are better for allergy sufferers.


In addition to the cost of buying or adopting your new dog or puppy, you should also consider the cost of:

  • food
  • veterinary care
  • training
  • licensing
  • toys

See the annual cost of owning a puppy/dog (PDF).

Puppy vs. adult dog 



Puppies: Until it's housetrained (usually at about months old) a puppy can soil your house or cause damage, as puppies sometimes play bite or chew furniture. If you have young children, you’ll need to make sure they play safely together. Rough treatment can damage a puppy's fragile bones or result in nipping. Don't leave a young child alone with a puppy or dog.

Puppies should be eight to 12 weeks old to give it time with its mother and siblings. This will help your puppy socialize better with other dogs. Puppies that aren't socialized by 14 weeks may become fearful or aggressive around people.


Adult dogs: Adult dogs are often housebroken and usually have some training. How it adapts to your house depends on its past living situations, and how well it was socialized as a puppy. You might have to work harder to establish a bond if it was abandoned or mistreated.

Ask shelter staff if they know anything about the dog's previous home. Maintaining a similar routine can help to ease the transition. A good obedience class will speed-up bonding and help correct any inappropriate behaviour.

Choosing a breed

  • The breed you choose depends on how you plan to spend time with your dog. If you like camping or hiking, a retriever or spaniel might be a good choice. If you like running, consider a high-energy, long-legged breed.

  • Consider the climate you live in. Dogs with thick coats may overheat during runs in hot weather. Some dogs aren't suited to cold weather and may not get enough exercise during harsh Canadian winters.

  • Certain breeds were created for specific jobs, and it may be hard to train away those behaviours. Mixed-breed dogs and those of unknown parentage are usually problem-free family pets, though it can be more difficult to predict their character or potential health issues.

  • While each breed has certain personality traits, not every dog of that breed will exhibit them. Be sure to get to know any dog or puppy before adopting.

Where to get a dog

Animal shelters are a great option and often have a variety of dogs. Ask the shelter staff whether they have noticed anything about the animal's behaviour.

No matter where you purchase your dog or puppy, make sure you have an agreement about returning the pet. You should be given time to take the animal to a veterinarian for examination.

Breeders – If you've decided on a purebred dog, buy directly from a reputable breeder. You can find one through your veterinarian, the Dogs in Canada Annual directory or a kennel club.

Always inspect the breeder's facilities yourself and ask for references from satisfied buyers. Don't buy from a breeder who won't allow you to see their kennel and at least one parent of the puppy, or who have many different breeds. A breeder should talk openly about the nature of the puppy you're interested in, and should have clean facilities, knowledgeable staff and healthy-looking animals.

A good breeder will ask you questions to make sure you're able to provide a good home. Puppies from a breeder should have at least one set of vaccinations, a non-breeding agreement and a guarantee against genetic disorders.

Pet stores – Some pet stores act as adoption agencies for local shelters. If the animal you're interested in isn't from a shelter, ask the pet store staff where the puppies were purchased. While they may have come from a breeder, they may also have been purchased from a puppy mill, which can result in sick, unsociable animals. Conditions in mills are often unhealthy and unhappy places for both the breeding dogs and puppies. Don't buy from anyone who can't or won't show where a puppy was born and raised.

Tips for choosing a dog

Place the puppy on the ground out of the sight and hearing of the other pups. Step away from it and crouch down. Observe the puppy's reactions when you clap your hands and call to it. 

  • Puppies that come quickly with its tail level or down will probably respond well to training.
  • Puppies that come quickly and bite at you may be excessively dominant and difficult to handle for first-time dog owners.
  • Puppies that come slowly, crawl, or don't come at all could turn into overly submissive or anti-social dogs.

Pet the puppy on his head, neck, shoulders and back. Touch its ears, muzzle and feet.

  • Dominant puppies will growl, jump at you or attempt to bite your hands.
  • Adaptable, easily-trained puppies will wiggle and lick at your hands.
  • Submissive puppies will roll over, bare their bellies, turn their heads away and possibly urinate.
  • Fearful or shy puppies may ignore you or struggle and walk away when released.

Roll the puppy on its side or back and hold it gently until it calms down.

  • Dominant, aggressive puppies will struggle violently, bite, cry or growl.
  • Adaptable puppies will struggle, but should quickly calm down without any biting.
  • Submissive puppies will calm down without struggling.

First-time dog owners should try to find an adaptable, easily trained puppy. Dominant, aggressive or fearful pups can be difficult to train and aren't suitable for families with young children or inexperienced dog owners. Similarly, an overly submissive puppy will need to be protected from rough handling and may also be unsuitable for families with young children.

Puppies who sneeze, have runny eyes, cough or vomit, have diarrhea, scratch excessively or look very thin should be examined by a veterinarian. The runt of a litter may also have more health problems that its littermates.


Other sources of information on choosing a dog

Visit the Future Pet Parent Guide.

Ask a veterinarian, the SPCA or your local Humane Society to help you select the right pet. Satisfied neighbours and friends are also a good resource. Ask them how they selected their dog and what makes their relationship with their dog successful. Kennel clubs and dog trainers may have good information about dogs.

Tips courtesy of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association


Choosing a cat

Kittens are cute and playful, and it can be tempting to accept the first one offered to you, especially if it's free. However, these kittens are often the result of a careless owner who allowed an unsterilized cat to roam outside. The resulting kittens often go to new homes without being checked by a veterinarian, sterilized, or given proper vaccinations. Prospective cat owners should consider whether these "free" kittens are really cheaper than one adopted from an animal shelter, where vaccinations, a medical exam, permanent identification, and sterilization are often included.

While cats are more self-sufficient than dogs, they still need daily care. They need to be fed daily, given a constant supply of fresh water, and regularly groomed including nail trimming. Cats groom themselves, but they can develop hairballs and matting if they clean themselves excessively. Litter boxes should also be cleaned daily, as a cat in a clean area will be less prone to health and behaviour problems.



Living conditions

Cats are good apartment pets, as most can adapt to small living quarters. Make sure you have enough space to set up a litter box away from where your cat eats.

While cats can live in smaller homes, they still need exercise. It's a misconception that cats need to roam free outside. In fact, they should be kept inside, as they can be injured or killed by cars or other animals, exposed to diseases and hazards, or become lost if allowed to roam. To keep your cat safe, it should be leashed and supervised outdoors unless it's in an enclosed area.

Most cats won't scratch furniture or curtains if they have scratching posts. If scratching furniture is still a problem, your veterinarian can help you resolve it through training or plastic nail caps.

If you're thinking of getting a cat, it's important to make sure that you're not allergic to cats.




A domestic or mixed-breed cat is usually cheaper than a purebred. While some people get their cat for free, you still have to pay for: 

  • veterinary care
  • sterilization
  • food
  • toys

See a breakdown of the annual cost of owning a kitten/cat (PDF).


Types of cats

Most owners aren't interested in whether or not their cat is purebred. You can get a domestic or mixed-breed cat for cheaper than a purebred.

Many owners love adopting a kitten and watching it mature into a well-behaved, affectionate cat. Some kittens can grow up to be anti-social, but this can usually be avoided by providing stimulation and socialization.

Mature cats have established personalities, which can be great when you finds a cat whose habits suit you. Don't choose an adult cat whose personality is radically different from what you're looking for in a pet. If a cat has been allowed to roam outdoors, it may be hard to break them of the habit.



Where to get your cat

Shelters – Canada currently has a cat overpopulation crisis. The Canadian Federation of Humane Societies estimates that 600,000 cats in shelters failed to find new homes in 2011. They also found that only 44% of cats that enter shelters are adopted. 

As shelters continue to face an overwhelming number of cats and kittens at their doors, adopting is a great option. Shelters usually have both cats and kittens to choose from. The cost of adopting a cat from a shelter is reasonable, and it includes a veterinary exam, vaccinations, and sometimes sterilization.

Veterinary clinics – Sometimes veterinary clinics will advertise available cats and kitten on their notice boards.

Breeders – There are cat breeders that offer purebreds for those who either want to enter cat shows or are looking for specific breed characteristics. However, purchasing a cat from a breeder can be expensive. If you want a specific breed but aren't interested in showing your cat, ask the breeder if they have any "pet quality" cats. These animals retain most of the breed characteristics but lack some elements that make them suitable for showing. A good breeder should have a spacious, clean living area for its cats, knowledgeable staff, and playful, well-fed kittens.

Pet stores – Some pet stores act as adoption agencies for local shelters, while others sell mixed-breed and purebred cats. Ask the store where the cats or kittens were purchased. A quality pet store should also have clean living areas, knowledgeable staff and playful, well-fed kittens.  


What to look for

If you decide to get a kitten, look for one that's 8 to 12 weeks old and has a playful, but gentle temperament. Kittens that are this old should weigh 2 to 3 pounds. Major deviations from that weight could indicate health problems.

It should be neither too shy nor too aggressive and should stand straight and walk with a bouncy step. A kitten that limps, seems lethargic, or has any nasal or eye discharge is sick and should be avoided.

You should also check a kitten's fur. It should be soft and lustrous without any clumps, and the skin should be free of scaly areas or sores. Salt and pepper patterns on a kitten's fur can indicate flea eggs, and bare patches of skin can be a sign of mange. Dark ear wax is often caused by mites.

Kittens can suffer from chronic diarrhea, which can be caused by the stress of leaving its mother or being in a new environment. Feces stains on the kitten’s hindquarters can be a sign of this problem.

Some kittens are naturally more aloof and might take time to grow accustomed to each person. Ask the shelter staff, breeder, or store employees about the behaviour of the animal you're interested in. A kitten that cowers or tries to get away from you may be abnormally shy, which can be hard to change. However, a kitten that seems shy may also just be sleepy, as they tire quickly.



Other sources of information on choosing a cat

Visit the Future Pet Parent Guide

Ask a veterinarian, the SPCA or your local Humane Society for help choosing the right pet. Satisfied neighbours and friends can also be a good resource. Ask them how they chose their cat and what makes their relationship with their cat successful. The Cat Fancier's Association will also have information about cats and kittens.



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