Anyone can be a pet owner – all you need is a pet and… voila! Pet owner. However, it takes a compassionate, generous, empathic and mature person to be a responsible pet owner, since this is a multi-faceted and resource-intensive role that requires 10 to 15, even 20+ years of your life and the requisite financial investment. In this article, we’ll explore what it means to be a responsible pet owner – see if you check all the boxes with your pets and where there’s room for improvement.

It’s such a privilege to own and care for a dog, cat, small pet, bird or reptile – knowing you are giving them the best quality of life while reaping the benefits from pet parenting.

1. You do your research before you adopt the pet

A responsible pet owner understands that a pet is not just an object or possession that you desire today and are incompatible with tomorrow. This animal is a living, breathing, feeling individual whose experience of life depends on your awareness of their wellbeing. If you want to be a pet owner, some research and conscious planning will go a long way.

The responsible pet owner:

  • ensures they can afford the monthly, quarterly and annual costs of pet ownership
  • thoroughly researches the breed of animal they want to adopt
  • ensures their lifestyle aligns with the pet they want to adopt (e.g. they are active enough outdoors to meet the needs of a high-energy dog, or choose a lower-energy pet if their lifestyle is more laid back)
  • can accommodate the pet they want to adopt – for instance:
    • their home and yard are large enough for a dog;
    • they can build a catio if their cat needs access to the outdoors without supervised roaming;
    • they have enough space for an adequate hutch or rodent cage;
    • their home is secure enough to allow their pet bird to fly around in (as a bird cage is not supposed to house a bird 24/7)
  • has a relatively long-term view of their future – one that includes the pet they want to adopt as a lifetime commitment

2. You can meet your pet’s basic needs

The basics of pet care include:

  • feeding your pet the best quality pet food you can afford
  • ensuring your pet always has access to fresh water
  • keeping your pet safe from harm
  • keeping your pet clean and groomed
  • keeping your pet’s environment clean and sanitary:
    • picking up dog poop
    • scooping the cat’s litterbox
    • changing your small pet’s bedding
    • cleaning your bird’s cage and placing fresh paper
  • giving your pet adequate shelter (including their own bed; place they can retreat to)
  • meeting your pet’s need for physical exercise
  • ensuring your pet has adequate mental stimulation; protection against boredom
  • dedicating enough time towards giving your pet a fulfilling life experience
  • ensuring your pet suffers no neglect or abuse
  • giving your pet access to healthcare when they are hurt or injured

3. You foster a relationship between pet and vet

Many pet owners view the veterinarian as ‘emergency only’. The responsible pet owner fosters a relationship between their vet and their pet from the very beginning to the very end. The responsible pet owner ensures that their pet’s veterinary needs are taken care of timeously, which include:

  • registration with the vet and first check-up to establish a health baseline
  • vaccinations (initial, boosters, and annual vaccinations)
  • microchipping
  • preventative care like deworming, and tick & flea prevention
  • sterilisation (spay or neutering)
  • annual check-up as part of your preventative healthcare regimen
  • the kindness of euthanasia when your pet is suffering

The responsible pet owner understands the context of the need to sterilise their pets. We cannot ignore the overflowing animal shelters and the unnecessary euthanasia of approximately one million dogs and cats per year (that’s more than 2700 pets killed PER DAY in South Africa) and continue to breed pets because ‘our children need to witness the miracle of life’ or ‘Trixie would make such a good mommy and needs to have at least one litter’. The responsible pet owner understands that they may have nothing to do with the source of the pet overpopulation problem, but they do not have to contribute to it.

4. You make your home your pet’s home

The responsible pet owner ensures their pet is comfortable and safe, but also socially accepted. Dogs and cats, birds, rats, mice, rabbits and guinea pigs are social animals, while hamsters are more solitary. Whatever their pet’s individual social needs are, the responsible pet owner understands and meets them.

The responsible pet owner also understands that sometimes pets enjoy a one-on-one relationship with their owner and don’t enjoy the presence of other animals. Not all dogs like other dogs, irrespective of their socialisation and training. The responsible pet owner makes the effort to understand their pet’s needs and meets them as best they can.

In order for animals that live indoors to behave appropriately in their social pack, the responsible pet owner will:

  • house-train and litterbox-train their dogs and cats
  • socialise their pets (with adults, children, and other pets – where relevant)
  • ensure their pets are socially enriched; not bullied, dominated, teased or ostracised
  • meet their pets’ needs for a routine (mealtimes, toilet times, playtime, naptime and training time, etc. happening at more or less the same time every day)

A routine makes pets’ lives predictable and stable, and they thrive on stability, which builds confidence and reduces anxiety. Even if there is upheaval in your life (moving house, a new job, a family member coming to stay), as long as you maintain a basic routine with your pet, it can help to keep them (and you) calm and confident.

5. You meet your pet’s need for physical activity

All pets need exercise, but some need a lot more or a lot less than others. The responsible pet owner will get to know their pet’s exercise needs and ensure they are consistently and comfortably met. This is why it’s important to research the exercise needs of the pet you’re interested in before you adopt them. In as much as a border collie is not the right fit for a couch potato, so too is a bulldog not the right running buddy for a marathoner.

Your individual dog may not enjoy fetching a ball as much as he enjoys going for a walk or playing tug, so it’s your responsibility to give him more of what he enjoys and less of what he doesn’t. Cats also have varying levels of energy, which manifest as felines who need plenty of toys and playtime activity and those who prefer playing with their other pet friends.

Pet birds should never be cooped up in a cage all day long. By nature, birds need to spread their wings and fly. Having those perfectly good wings and not being able to use them is as good as a human having working legs and being restrained in a chair. A responsible pet owner understands that birds live long, emotionally complex lives and need adequate exercise and mental stimulation in order to thrive as pets.

6. You meet your pet’s need for mental stimulation

Just as pets need adequate physical exercise, so too do they need adequate mental stimulation. Dogs and cats are intelligent animals that can benefit from problem-solving games, being given a ‘job’ (such as service or therapy animals), or performing in agility competitions or competitive sports.

Most bird species are exceptionally intelligent and can learn mimicry, play games, and solve puzzles. They thrive in social environments and enjoy doing everyday things with their owners, such as taking a shower or performing dances or doing training exercises. Most rodents are also a lot more intelligent than we give them credit for. Rats, for example, are sociable and highly trainable small pets. Positive reinforcement, enthusiasm and consistent training can build a wonderful repertoire of tricks for a rat, as well as a great bond between pet and owner. The responsible pet owner will identify their pet’s mental health needs and ensure they are met – this contributes greatly towards their pet’s quality of life.

7. You are responsible for training your pet

The responsible pet owner is responsible for their pet’s experience of the world around them. This includes the communication between you and your pet – letting them know what you want them to do and making the effort to understand how they communicate with you (e.g. a dog that digs in the garden, destroys your shoes and barks obsessively is probably communicating that he’s bored and needs a lot more physical and mental stimulation. He doesn’t need a time-out; he needs a long walk and some engaging playtime!).

Training your pet gives you the opportunity to let your pet know what you expect from them – training is also very mentally stimulating and improves your bond with your pet. Training is best done consistently throughout your pet’s life… and with plenty of positive reinforcement and treats!

8. You are responsible for your pet in public

The responsible pet owner takes full responsibility for their pets in public. It is every pet owner’s responsibility to:

  • keep your pets under control in public
  • keep your pets off other people’s property – pets must not be allowed to roam freely
  • not impose your pets on other people and animals – always ask permission before you allow your dog to simply approach another dog and their owner
  • adhere to municipal bylaws in terms of picking up your dog’s poop, keeping your dog on a leash, and not creating a noise disturbance with a barking dog

The responsible pet owner takes full responsibility for their pet’s behaviour and its consequences.


Nobody is perfect – the responsible pet owner understands that this journey with your pet is a learning experience that can teach you as much about yourself as it does about your pet. As a responsible pet owner, you do your best with what you have, and if you need assistance, contact your vet for advice on the health and wellbeing of your pet.

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