What it means to be a responsible pet owner

What it means to be a responsible pet owner

It’s easy and relatively cheap to acquire a pet, but it takes a lot more than simply owning a dog, cat, bird, rodent or reptile to be a responsible pet owner. We derive pleasure and a whole host of benefits from pet ownership – physical exercise, emotional stimulation, social fulfilment, and security – but responsible pet ownership makes this a two-way street. There is a lot we need to give, and it’s not just bowls of food and water.

As a responsible pet owner, you aim to take care of your pet’s (or pets’) every need – not just their basic needs, but also their mental and emotional needs, and their need for safety and belonging. You are also 100% responsible for your pet in public, as you would be of yourself or your human children. Responsible pet ownership means recognising the privilege of caring for an animal and ensuring you give them the best quality of life you can afford, while enjoying the benefits of the human-animal bond.

1. Research the breed before adopting

The first step in responsible pet ownership is educating yourself on the breed of animal you want to adopt. They are not just an object you want today and can discard tomorrow. A pet is a long-living animal whose daily, annual and lifelong needs must be considered before you bring them home. Their life experience depends entirely on your awareness and empathy.

Considerations of the responsible pet owner before you bring a pet home:

  • Can you afford the monthly, quarterly, annual and emergency costs of pet ownership?
  • Do you fully understand the needs and characteristics of the breed of animal you want to adopt?
  • Does this potential pet align with your lifestyle? For instance, are you active enough to adopt a border collie or a Labrador? Are you at home for long enough periods of time to own an indoor cat? Do you have the space indoors to house a bird (who needs daily flying experiences)?
  • Can you comfortably and hygienically accommodate your desired pet?
    • Are your home and yard large enough for a dog?
    • Do you have the space and resources to build a cattio for your indoor cat to experience the outdoors, instead of letting her roam?
    • Do you have the space for a rabbit hutch or rodent enclosure? A tiny cage is not sufficient.
    • Do you have a dedicated space in your home to allow your pet bird to fly safely, without risk of escape? A bird is not meant to live in a cage 24/7.
  • Do your long-term future plans include your pet? Can you picture yourself with this pet in 15 years’ time?

2. Ensure you can meet your pet’s basic needs

The most basic pet needs include:

  • the best quality pet food you can afford
  • constant supply of fresh water
  • assurance of safety from harm, neglect and abuse
  • being kept clean and hygienically groomed
  • a clean and sanitary pet environment – which includes picking up dog poop, scooping the litterbox, regularly changing a small pet/rodent’s bedding, cleaning your bird’s cage and putting down fresh paper
  • adequate shelter – a comfortable bed or space they can retreat to
  • adequate physical exercise for their breed, age, and energy levels
  • adequate mental stimulation to exercise their mind and protect them from boredom and emotional distress
  • access to healthcare (especially emergency care) when they are hurt, injured or sick
  • dedication to offering your pet a satisfying life experience

3. Build the relationship between your pet and the vet

The vet is essentially your pet’s GP, which means they are not only there for emergencies, but to attend to your pet’s long-term wellbeing. It’s your responsibility as pet owner to foster a relationship between your beloved pet and the person who will know their health, inside and out. Your approach towards veterinary care needs to be a proactive one, which means:

  • registering your pet with the vet as soon as possible, and taking them for their first check-up
  • giving the vet the opportunity to establish a health baseline for your pet
  • keeping your pet’s vaccinations up to date
  • having a microchip implanted, to ensure your pet can easily find their way home, should they get lost
  • providing preventative treatment such as dewormer, and tick and flea medication at the correct intervals
  • spaying or neutering your pet to prevent unwanted reproduction
  • taking your pet for an annual check-up
  • being kind enough to euthanise your pet if they are suffering (whether from incurable disease or at the end of their life)

As a responsible pet owner, you understand the need to sterilise your pets – both to prevent certain types of cancers, and in the context of the huge pet overpopulation problem we have in South Africa. Wanting your children to ‘witness the miracle of life’, thinking your pet should have at least one litter or that you can make a quick buck off puppies or kittens, are no longer suitable reasons to breed your pet. Why? Because it’s impossible to ignore the numbers: approximately one million dogs and cats are unnecessarily euthanised in our country every year (that’s around 2700 pets killed per day) because shelters are full. There are too many animals and not enough good homes. As a responsible pet owner, you may have nothing to do with the source of the pet overpopulation problem, but you do not have to contribute to it.

4. Understand your pet’s safety and social needs

Pets can experience severe anxiety if they feel unsafe or threatened in their home environment, so it’s your responsibility to socialise your pets. Socialisation teaches your pets to have confidence in the face of new experiences – with people and with other pets. This confidence can help them to find their place in their ‘pack’ at home, as well as to feel self-confident and unthreatened out in public.

As a responsible pet owner, you’ll also understand that not all pets are equally sociable, and sometimes they will just want to have a solo relationship with their owner. Being responsible is not simply about socialising your pet against their will, but about understanding your pet’s needs and meeting them where they are. Not all dogs enjoy other dogs; not all cats get along; and not all dogs and cats can accept each other. Get to know your pet’s own individual social needs and help them to feel at home in your home.

For indoor pets to live and behave socially appropriately in their pack (whether with you or other pets), you must ensure that:

  • dogs and cats are house-trained and litter trained
  • your pets are socialised as far as other adults, children and pets are concerned
  • your pets are socially enriched – not dominated, bullied, teased or ostracised
  • your pets’ needs are met by instilling a routine: make sure that meals, toileting, playtime, naptime, training and exercise happens more or less at the same time every day – this is a huge confidence booster

Introducing a routine helps your pets’ lives to feel stable and predictable, which builds their trust and confidence and helps them to thrive. So even in the face of upheaval – such as moving house, having a family member come to stay, or introducing a new pet to the household – if you maintain the basic routine, it gives them a sense of predictability and that life goes on as normal, even if there are changes in the environment.

5. Give your pet enough physical exercise

As a responsible pet owner, you understand that giving your pet ‘enough’ exercise means different things for different pets. You’ll need to determine how much exercise and activity your pet needs, and then give them enough to meet those needs and stay healthy. For some pets, too much exercise can injure them, while for others, not enough exercise can result in destructive boredom – in which your pet resorts to chewing, scratching, digging, or vocalising as a means to get rid of pent-up energy and to stimulate themselves mentally.

Different dogs will also enjoy different types of games – not all dogs desire a game of fetch, nor do all dogs enjoy swimming. Similarly, some cats love chasing fluffy toys, while others enjoy stimulating games with other cats.

If you insist on adopting a pet bird, understand that it needs to fly. A pet bird that does not get the opportunity to spread its wings is like a perfectly able human being confined to a chair all day. Physical and mental health consequences will follow. As a responsible pet owner, you understand the complex physical and emotional needs of your chosen pet, and will meet those needs in order to ensure their wellbeing.

6. Give your pet enough mental stimulation

Pets are intelligent creatures who need to have their brains exercised as much as their bodies. They need to engage in problem-solving activities such as games, or they need to be given a ‘job’. Some dogs derive huge pleasure and purpose from being service or therapy dogs, taking part in agility competitions and keeping their owners happy through obedience exercises.

Birds also rate highly on the intelligence scales and need nearly constant engagement and activity. They learn to mimic sounds, love playing games, and can learn to solve puzzles. Birds are active, social creatures who love to spend time doing the things their human is doing. Sitting in a cage all day is mental hell for them.

Rodents are also very intelligent – rats can be trained to perform tricks in the same way that dogs do: through positive reinforcement. Pet rats can be taught a whole routine of commands and tricks, which is just as good for building a bond with them as it is for their physical and mental health.

7. Understand the importance of training your pet

As a responsible pet owner, you understand how important it is to train your pet – that training encompasses:

  • learning the art of communication between you and your pet
  • building a bond of trust between you and your pet
  • an incredibly healthy blend of physical, mental and emotional stimulation, which is vital to your pet’s wellbeing

When your pet knows what you expect from them, they will do what they can to please you. The responsible pet owner never stops training their pet – it’s a lifelong activity that is reinforced daily when simply spending dedicated time with your pet, putting that training into action.

8. Be responsible for your pet in public at all times

As a responsible pet owner, you understand that you are responsible for your pet in public, at all times. Unless your dog has perfect recall, doesn’t bother strangers or charge at other animals, keep them leashed at all times, as this will help you to maintain control over your pet.

It is your responsibility to:

  • keep your pets under control in public
  • respect others’ property by keeping your pets off it – it’s unacceptable to allow your pets to roam freely
  • ensure your pets are not a nuisance to other people and animals. Don’t simply allow your dog to approach another dog or person because “she’s friendly”. You need to ask permission before your pet imposes herself on others
  • adhere to municipal bylaws: pick up your dog’s poop, keep them leashed, and don’t allow your dog to bark and bark, creating a noise disturbance

As a responsible pet owner, you need to take full responsibility for your pet’s behaviour and its consequences.


Pet ownership is a constant lifelong lesson with your pet – it’s not going to be a perfect experience from the start. As a responsible pet owner, you accept that you’re doing the best you can with what you have, and that there is always room to improve and grow. Whatever your experience with your pet is today, you can be a more well-rounded responsible pet owner again tomorrow. If you do need help with certain aspects of pet ownership, speak to the vet for advice on your pet’s health and wellbeing.