Pets are more than just animals. Our furry, feathered, and finned friends require time, attention, and as safe and comfortable a home as we do. "Most people don't think about pets when buying or building houses—not even the pet owners themselves," says David Beart of professorshouse.com, a Canadian company that will start building "the world's most pet-friendly house" at the end of this year. "Over half of all homes have pets living in them, but animals are still an afterthought when it comes to home improvements," says Beart. "What I really want to get across is much more than just creating the world's most pet-friendly house," Beart adds. "It's about making people think of pets with importance rather than as possessions, or even disposable."
When you're planning a home for both you and your pets, consider their particular needs. Think about whether you're putting your door-dashing dog on a high-traffic street. Will your protective pup go postal on guests? How can you make your multi-story home comfortable for your elderly dog? What common household items are hazardous to pets and not humans? (Last year, the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) handled more than 140,000 cases of pets exposed to toxic substances and hazardous things in their own homes.) Keep reading to learn what you should be looking for, and how a little planning can go a long way to help you streamline your daily routine and keep your pet safe and happy.
Try to think like your pet to get a sense of what might be dangerous to them. The pros at Purina suggest that the best way to start is by taking "a puppy's eye-view" of things. You have to put yourself in your pet's place—and get down on all fours—to take a look around. Make sure you inspect areas that your pet can access by way of climbing or jumping. You'd be surprised at the dangers a periodic inspection of your home can reveal. Here are some hazards to look for (although they may not be all you find):
•Look for choking, strangulation, electrocution, and suffocation hazards. Keep window treatment cords short and cut through any loops, and unplug or cover wires and electrical cords.
•Don't leave human foods and medications where pets can access them. Eliminate "ladders" that curious pets can climb to access elevated areas like countertops and tabletops. Discard perishable trash daily to keep pets from rummaging through it. Between trips to the curb, keep trash odors (and pet temptation) low with baking soda and a tight-fitting lid. One pet-owner favorite is the stainless steel and rubber Vipp Trash Can with foot-pedal.
If pets get into the trash, they can chew chicken bones into shards, get to choking hazards like fruit seeds and cores—and your house is going to be a mess. Note that many fruit seeds contain natural contaminants that can result in potentially fatal cyanide poisoning in dogs: Grapes and raisins can cause kidney failure, caffeine in coffee grinds and chocolate are also toxic, sugar-free foods and gums containing Xylitol can cause liver failure, and nutmeg can cause tremors, seizures, and central nervous system damage. See the ASPCA's list of Foods to Avoid Feeding Your Pet. If you think your pet has ingested something hazardous, call the ASPCA Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435 right away.
•Make sure indoor plants are varieties that are pet-safe. Lilies can cause kidney failure in cats. Other common, but toxic, plants include amaryllis, poinsettia, mums, and aloe vera. See the ASPCA's database of Toxic and Non-Toxic Plants before bringing a new plant home.
•Pets can often maneuver cupboards open to access home cleaning products, pesticides, fertilizers, and other hazardous items. Consider latching them shut. Keep rooms where you set out rodenticides and traps off limits to your pet.
•Not letting your pet ingest antifreeze seems like a no-brainer. But, the smell and taste of the stuff is especially appealing to both cats and dogs. In fact, approximately 10,000 pets die every year as a result of antifreeze poisoning from as little as a drop. Keep it stored in a latched cabinet or on a high shelf, and use it carefully, cleaning up any drips or spills immediately.
•Keep your toilet lid down, especially if you use automatic bowl cleaners, to eliminate risk of poisoning. Keeping the lid down also eliminates a drowning hazard.
•The number of cats that fall out of windows is so high, that the veterinary profession has coined the term High-Rise Syndrome. If you must open windows, make sure that screens are sturdy and properly installed. Window guards are not adequate protection for cats, who can easily fit through the bars.
Carving Out a Space
Kittens and pups will sneak into an opened dryer (or other small, dangerous places) the first chance they get. Give them their own space and you won't have to worry about them seeking refuge where they don't belong. A hazard-free zone, with a cozy bed, water source, and safe toys will do the trick. Other convenient features include a sink to wash feeding bowls, and adequate storage for accessories. Remember that well-exercised pets are less likely to get into trouble, and more likely to rest well at night instead of barking or whining for attention. If it's possible, create a pet area in a mudroom with cat or doggy door access to a fenced-in yard, corral, or dog run so that they can head outdoors at their leisure.
Litter boxes should be placed away from feeding areas and in a place that's private, but not too isolated. If your pet doesn't feel safe or comfortable using a litter box, he won't. Elderly pets should be given an area on the ground level, and weepads should be accessible. Consider placement of ramps to furniture if you allow your elderly pet that kind of access. If you're not home for most of the day, you're presented with a special set of concerns: Consider a pet fountain so that fresh water is readily available. Leave your pet with sturdy toys that won't break to reveal small parts. Interactive treat toys made of high-impact plastic, like the Buster Cube from Doctors Foster and Smith, will keep your pets occupied and stay in one piece. If your pet is especially curious, consider crate training him or blocking off a small, safe area with a baby gate.
Paw-Safe Flooring and Fabrics
Go with fabrics and flooring materials that'll make less work for you. Stylish, easy-care leather or ultrasuede can be wiped clean and won't be dramatically affected by wear. Crypton Super Fabric is a synthetic germ- and stain-resistant option made with pet owners in mind. It's available in a variety of custom colors and patterns and the Crypton online store offers couture pet beds, "Throver" furniture covers, and decorative pillows.
Carpet isn't the best choice for pet owners, but if you must go wall-to-wall, choose a color that matches your pet (it'll mask pet hair) with a performance rating of 3.5 or higher. For lightweight dogs, hardwood with adequate urethane finish is a common and easy-clean choice. For heavier dogs, ceramic tile or another nonporous hard surface flooring would be best. See Pet-Friendly Flooring for more ideas.
Clean Pet, Clean House
Groom your pet yourself, and you'll save up to $100 per visit to pros. You'll also spend less time cleaning house. Regular nail clipping keeps scratch damage down, while regular brushing keeps hair in the brush instead of, well, everywhere else. Brush before and after a wash to keep drain-clogging hair to a minimum. Vacuum twice a week with a machine like the DC17 Animal Vac by Dyson designed especially for homes with pets. It features a mini turbine head to lift hair and dirt from upholstery, stairs, and vehicles. The design allows for hygienic bin emptying and includes a lifetime HEPA filter. For a quick clean up, pass strips of packing tape or a wet plastic kitchen glove over clothing and surfaces to pick up stray hairs.
If your pet inherits furniture and flooring that isn't ideal, then you'll have to become a master at stain removal and disinfecting. Monitor your pet so accidents can be handled promptly. The longer a stain sits, the harder it'll be to remove, and your pet will be more likely to sniff out the same spot for a repeat offense. Look for special cleaning products with natural enzymes to break down stains and odors. Pros recommend OdorLogic CleanAway and OdorLogic OxyQuick (for fresh stains). Finally, pay attention to flea and tick prevention and control. If the pests are on your pet, then odds are flea eggs, pupae, and larvae are in your carpeting, bedding, and yard.
Petscaping Your Yard
If you let your pets out into the yard, flea and tick prevention isn't your only concern. You'll have to determine whether you need to build or add structures, install invisible fences, and identify toxic plants in your landscape. The ASPCA keeps an extensive database of plants that are hazardous to dogs, cats, and even horses. Some such plants are azaleas, some ferns and ivies, daffodils, and daylilies. Pet-friendly plants include bamboo and, of course, catnip. Search the ASPCA Toxic and Non-Toxic Plants database before you put something in the ground. Insecticides and fertilizers were among the ASPCA's top 10 pet poisons in 2008, so consider organic gardening.
Buying bulk to save on pet food? Then you have to store it appropriately to avoid contamination and slow the vitamin and nutrient degradation process. Check for tears in food packages before you buy them. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) advises against using feeding dishes to scoop food out of packages. Assign a clean spoon or small container for scooping. FDA guidelines for food storage call for leftover wet food to be refrigerated at 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and dry food to be stored in its original bag, then placed in a clean, food-grade plastic container, and stored at 80 degrees Fahrenheit or less. Placing the bag in a container will also keep unwanted insects and rodents away. Note that dry foods are more nutritious and less susceptible to contamination or spoilage than wet foods are.
Storing bulk food in large trash cans in the garage is a fairly common practice, but this exposes food to temperature extremes in a container that can leach dyes and additives into food over time. Make sure you purchase a special food storage container, or visit a local food establishment to claim a food-grade plastic bucket that'll soon be headed for the trash heap.
"Too often parents buy small pets and fish for their children as learning tools, but those pets are even more fragile than cats and dogs," Beart explains. "The average lifespan of a hamster, for example, is about 3 years. In many homes, the pet hardly ever lasts more than a few months." Here are some helpful tips that'll ensure the safety and longevity of your small pets:
•They tend to be active at night and asleep during the day. For that reason, you'll want make sure your pet's exercise wheel isn't a squeaky one.
•Provide at least 2 inches of bedding to allow for normal burrowing behavior. Use shredded tissue or paper, or clean processed corncob. Commonly used cedar chips are associated with respiratory and live disease in rodents. Clean cages and refresh bedding at least once a week.
•Many hamsters must be kept in cages by themselves after the age of 10 weeks. Adult females are especially hostile to one another, so do your homework before you consider grouping.
•Their bodies cannot produce Vitamin C, so you'll have to supplement it with an appropriate product from your pet supply store.
•Guinea pig's teeth grow constantly, so chew toys are essential.
•They actually learn litter box habits quickly and easily. Keep in mind that they like to chew and may hide in small, dark spaces. When you allow your pet time out of his cage for exercise, consider cord protectors, securely cover ducts and vents, and always locate your pet before sitting down and opening and closing recliners.
•Cage placement is very important: Keep the cage away from windows and radiators to protect your bird from drafts and direct exposure to heat. Many birds prefer to have a safe corner to back into, and if a cage is placed away from walls or toward the center of a room, it can make your pet feel insecure. Cage placement away from windows also means your bird won't always be anxiously guarding itself from "predators" like your neighbors dog and other passing animals.
•They perch and take cover in the wild, so provide these opportunities in their cages. Your bird's foot should wrap around approximately 2/3 of each perch and toes should never meet and overlap. Irritation, injury, and infection may result if perches are too small.
•Kitchens are a common place for pet-owners to keep their bird cages. Be aware that birds have very sensitive respiratory systems, and fumes emitted from overheated nonstick cookware could be fatal.
•Do your homework when looking for pet birds: Some species, like social finches, require companionship while others will do fine on their own.
•Though fish are widely considered the most "disposable" of pets, you can greatly reduce tank mortality by creating the ideal water conditions for the type of fish you have. Required temperatures and pH levels depend upon the kind of fish you have. Research the requirements of your breed and monitor their conditions periodically.
•When adding new swimmers to your tank, consider the types of fish you already have. Some species may be aggressive or even attempt to eat other fish. Tell a pro at the pet store what's already in your tank, and ask if the fish you want to group are compatible.
Reptiles & Amphibians
Reptiles tend to have very long life spans, but 90% of them die within their first year. Mostly, that's because of the misconception that they are easy-care pets that don't require much attention. The truth is, their habitats require constant monitoring, and they are among the most hazardous pets to keep in a home. Some things to keep in mind:
•Salmonella is present in 90% of all exotic reptiles, and they shed it in their feces. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling your pet or cleaning its habitat.
•Do your homework to discover your reptile's temperature requirements. You'll need primary (undertank heaters) and secondary heating sources (basking lamps) to meet those requirements, and you'll need to check tank temperature and humidity regularly. Be careful not to overheat your pet. Signs you should adjust your habitat temperature include your pet staying in shaded areas and, in lizards, visible panting.
•The most common habitat for frogs is semi-terrestrial, i.e. half land, half water. Do not use tap water in your habitat, as frogs are very sensitive to chemicals. Dechlorinate tap water by letting it sit for at least 24 hours before adding it to the tank.
•Don't house multiple frogs unless they are the same species and are similar in size. Otherwise, you risk exposing the animals to toxic counterparts, or species that may attempt to eat the others in your tank.
•These can live 25 years or more, and depending on the species, turtles can range in size from 4 inches to 80 inches. Make sure you know how big your species can get, and plan the habitat accordingly.
•Turtles like hiding places, so make sure you include them in the habitat. You can purchase materials from a pet store, or use plants or driftwood.
•Snake owners may get a kick out of giving their pets live prey, but pre-killed or frozen prey is safer. Prey shouldn't be wider than the widest part of your snake's body.
•State permits may be required to keep a snake in your home. State law in Florida, where a recent pet escape in one home resulted in a fatality, dictates that pythons are to be kept under lock. Check your local laws before you bring a snake home.