A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

20 Things You’re Probably Doing That Veterinarians Wouldn’t

Updated: Jun. 02, 2024

Vets went to school to learn the dos and don'ts of animal care. Here are the mistakes they're not making with their own pets that you likely are.

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Love is not enough

If you suspect that your vet’s pet is better disciplined or healthier than yours, you’re probably right. Even the most loving pet parents can make mistakes with their furry, feathered, or finned friends. Not sure what you’re doing wrong? We’ve got a few ideas—or more accurately, the veterinarians and other pet experts we interviewed do. While veterinarians may not tell you some of their secrets, they are more than happy to divulge this information so that you and your pet live a long, happy life together. Whether you’re killing Fido with kindness or over-disciplining Cuddles, here’s what you may be doing wrong—and how to fix it.

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two Jack Russell Terrier puppy at home interior

You don’t train your pet right away

Parents don’t wait until their kids need to read to start teaching them their ABCs. It’s the same with dogs. Training them early not only gives them guidelines for appropriate behavior—it also provides them with the comfort and stability that comes with living within boundaries. “The biggest mistake pet owners make is not putting enough priority in their pet’s training until a problem arises,” says Eleasha Gall, a certified professional dog trainer at Wallis Annenberg PetSpace in Playa Vista, California. “Training isn’t just about tricks or obedience. It’s also critical for developing communication tools between a pet parent and their companion animal.”

In fact, the ideal time to learn how to train your pet—or to find a trainer—is before adopting. “Learn what to do in advance, to avoid being overwhelmed when welcoming a new pet to the home,” says Gall. “Even previous dog owners who think they have enough experience could do well with classes for their pet. One of the most common attendees of training sessions are other trainers. There’s always opportunity for more learning and bonding.” Also, don’t believe these dog training myths that can hurt your puppy.

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You think your pet is too old to be trained

Even an old dog can learn new tricks, so don’t hesitate to take home that older shelter dog—or to start training a beloved pet who was never taught in the first place. “Even dogs that initially seem unadoptable or untrainable can be taught proper behaviors and set up for success in a home environment,” says Gall. The important thing is to practice positive-reinforcement training methods rather than punishment-based ones. “If a dog is kept busy with positive tasks and rewards, they won’t have time to act out negatively,” she adds. “Giving that type of encouraging response to a pet will establish communication tools while helping them feel loved and enabled to continue their good habits. Soon enough, those trained actions will become the routine, resulting in a stronger bond and happier household.” And if you want to get fancy, here are some easy dog tricks you could start teaching today.

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Beautiful tabby cat sitting next to a food bowl, placed on the floor next to the living room window, and eating. Selective focus
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You overfeed your pet

This is an incredibly common mistake—and one that many pet owners don’t even realize they’re making. “Nearly 60 percent of dogs and cats in the United States are overweight, and most pet parents don’t even realize it,” says Rob Jackson, co-founder and CEO of Healthy Paws Pet Insurance. “They simply don’t know how much their pets should weigh or the warning signs that indicate a pet is overweight, like difficulty feeling their ribs or the lack of a distinct waist.”

Just like it does in people, obesity can cause or exacerbate health issues in pets. It can also shorten their lifespan. “Pet parents should make a point to talk to their vets about their pet’s weight and create a weight-management plan, which should include a more balanced diet and exercise,” Jackson adds. “Taking these steps now can make a big difference in a pet’s health in the long run.”

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puppy nibbling on hand
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You let your puppy or kitten bite you

Puppy and kitten nibbles may not hurt very much, but this behavior needs to be addressed so that your cute little furball doesn’t morph into a full-grown, biting animal. “It’s important to address this behavior and to train your puppy not to bite you,” stresses Jennifer Coates, DVM, an advisory board member for Pet Life Today. One way to do that is by making sure you have lots of chew toys on hand so your pup can nibble on that instead of your fingers. Kittens also respond to anti-biting training. The Santa Barbara Humane Society suggests includes using toys as playthings instead of fingers, encouraging vigorous playtime, and never using physical punishment to address biting.

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Young Asian couple or family feeling happy relaxing and play with their cat after moving to new house or apartment.
Cat Box/Shutterstock

You don’t provide enough structure

Pets, like people, need to know what their role is in their family, as well as what’s expected of them. “Many new pet parents don’t realize pets need structure,” says Amanda Landis-Hanna, DVM, senior manager of veterinary outreach at PetSmart Charities. “In a new family, an adopted pet will look for where they fit in and what are the rules of the house. Dogs, especially, crave routine, boundaries, and rules. Cats like to know what to expect, too.” Structure, in the form of sensible rules, assures your pets of stability and safety. When they don’t get that, they feel uncertain and might even hide out until they feel more comfortable. “Being consistent with training, helping pets understand what behavior you want, and providing a solid routine is good from a pet’s point of view,” she adds. These are some more things your dog wishes you knew.

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Dog and cat together. Dog hugs a cat under the rug at home. Friendship of pets
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You don’t keep your pet warm in the cold

If you live in a cold-weather climate, it is imperative that you help your pets avoid hypothermia by keeping them warm. Pets feel the cold well before temperatures hit the freezing level. And that fur coat of theirs? It’s not always enough. In fact, animal fur loses its ability to protect if it’s wet or matted. “Animals tell us they are cold by shivering, but only once they have been too cold for a bit of time,” says Dr. Landis-Hanna. “It’s better to be cautious and not wait for your pet to shiver before you make the decision to get them warm.” She recommends snow boots as well as sweaters or dog coats when animals are in temperatures under 30 degrees Fahrenheit for more than 20 minutes. Here are 10 important tips for keeping your pet safe this winter.

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cropped image of man holding beagle while veterinarian doing injection by syringe to it
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You’re late with their vaccines

When that little card comes in the mail letting you know that your pet is due for a vaccination or booster shot, don’t ignore it. Vaccines keep your pet safe from diseases and illnesses that they can contract at home or outdoors.

And this doesn’t just apply to dogs and cats. Rabbit owners in the United States do not routinely get vaccinations the way they do in many other parts of the world, including Europe and Australia. However, cases of rabbit viral hemorrhagic disease occasionally occur in stateside, according to Rabbit.org. Talk to your veterinarian about the potential need for this vaccine.

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cream colored maine coon cat getting teeth brushed by owner
Nils Jacobi/Shutterstock

You ignore their pearly whites

If your dog or cat has stinky breath, they may also have plaque buildup or periodontal disease. Brushing your pet’s teeth can ward off tooth decay, as well as infections that can spread to other parts of the body. You can bet your vet is brushing her dog’s or cat’s teeth. Not only is this part of an animal’s necessary health care, but it can also help to prevent the need for expensive surgical cleaning later on.

If you get your pet into the habit of having their teeth brushed when they are young, you’ll be able to scratch this worry off your list. One important note: Make sure to get a toothbrush and toothpaste made specifically for pets. Never use toothpaste made for people on pets, as these can harm them.

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Little girl with wallet and her fingers
Grzegorz Placzek/Shutterstock

You didn’t consider the financial reality of owning a pet

It’s easy to look into those big, gorgeous eyes, fall in love immediately, and adopt a pet on impulse. But if you don’t first figure out whether or not you can afford to take care of a pet for life, you’re making a big mistake—and a very common one, at that. So how much will a pet cost you? According to the ASPCA, new pet owners can expect to spend between $1,000 and $2,000 annually on their dog or cat. This estimate, however, may be low if you have an aging pet or one with special needs or a medical condition.

“Dogs need vaccinations, flea treatment, and heartworm medication, which can all be budgeted for, but the unexpected emergency care, such as when the dog eats something he shouldn’t or the cat gets a urinary tract infection, can catch a pet parent off guard,” says Jackson. “Certain purebred dogs—such as pugs, bulldogs, and German shepherds—are also more prone to medical problems than others. Pet insurance can help offset a big portion of these unexpected veterinary costs for accidents and illnesses and help make sure that you can afford the necessary care. This way, pet parents won’t be faced with having to make a difficult decision between their wallet and their pet’s health.”

Dr. Landis-Hanna adds that getting pet insurance right away means your pet won’t have any “pre-existing” conditions that will be excluded from your insurance plan. Plus, it’s a good idea to save some money for unexpected emergencies. “If you want to ensure you have an emergency fund saved for your pet, you can also consider a pet savings account with your bank,” she suggests. “Consider an automatic deposit of 5 percent of your pay to hold in case of an emergency. Generally, young pets (puppies and kittens) and senior pets (over age 7) are more expensive than adults (aged 1 to 6).”

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owner's hand holding clippers nail and cat's paw.Trimming cat's nails.

You don’t trim your pet’s nails regularly

If you don’t love getting scratched by your cat during playtime, you probably already understand the value of trimming your feline’s nails. Dogs need this care, too. Too-long nails can make it hard for them to walk on certain surfaces. And sometimes, nails can grow in a curved fashion, going full circle and breaking skin. This leaves your furry friend prone to infection. “Start giving your puppy or kitten nail trims early in life, so they get used to it,” says Elizabeth Welch, DVM, Medical Director at Stand for Animals Veterinary Clinic. “It makes it so much easier for the groomer, veterinary technician, or doctor to trim toes when the animals are used to having their paws touched.” This also happens to be one of the secrets pet groomers wish they could tell you.

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A woman with long hair sits with a cup of coffee and uses the application on the phone. Next to her is a laptop, and in the background is a large Malamute dog.
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You listen to Dr. Google instead of your vet

The Internet is a treasure trove of information—and misinformation. It’s OK to use trusted websites for information on pets, but it’s not a great idea to follow a website’s advice without consulting your vet. “Oftentimes, pet parents jump to a solution they find online, and it might not be best for their pet,” says Travis Arndt, DVM, Director of the Humane Society of Missouri’s Animal Medical Center of Mid-America. “We see this quite often when it comes to pet diets and supplements. Before you change pet foods or give your pet dietary supplements, put in a quick call to your veterinarian. Some diets and supplements can be harmful for some pets. Your veterinarian knows your pet’s health history and can offer more individualized advice.” That said, you may want to ask about these dog food brands veterinarians feed their own pets.

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Striped, gray cat and dog sitting on the window

You didn’t safety-proof your home

Before you bring a new pet home, take some time to examine your dwelling for hidden dangers. Things to look out for include:

  • Open windows that animals can jump onto or reach
  • Downed areas of fencing they can escape through
  • Pools or bodies of water they can fall into
  • Stacked objects that can fall on your animal
  • Edible hazards they can gulp down before you know it, such as sugarless gum, chocolate, alcohol, raw meat or chicken, and chicken or fish bones
  • Medications
  • Fertilizer
  • Antifreeze
  • Batteries
  • Poisonous houseplants, such as aloe vera and poinsettias
  • Hidden chemicals, such as flame retardants

Don’t forget: Animals are just as curious as kids, and they need to be protected from danger just as much.

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Two cute American cat kittens playing

You don’t socialize them with other animals

While your pet needs you more than anything and loves spending time with you, social time with other animals is also important. This is especially true for very young kittens and puppies. “Puppies and kittens are like sponges, just like toddlers, in their young lives before six months of age,” says Dr. Welch. “They need to be socialized with other animals that have been safely vaccinated so they can learn how to have fun with others and not feel threatened or put in the position of always trying to protect their owner.”

If you have a dog, let them get used to other dogs that are on leashes and friendly. If you have a cat and will be bringing a new, furry pal into your home, try acclimating them to each other’s scent before they make contact. Of course, not all animals like each other. These are the pet combinations that are most likely to not get along.

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New little friend in the company. Group of people have picnic on the beach. Having fun at weekend time.

You don’t socialize them with other people

The more you acclimate your pet to other people, places, and things, the more they will enjoy life and feel safe in a variety of situations. This will make it easier for you to leave them with others, like when you want to go on vacation. Try to introduce your pet to lots of different types of noises, experiences, and types of touch. Of course, don’t push them past their comfort point or let them be roughly handled by a stranger or well-meaning child in any way. While any dog can feel uncomfortable around little ones, these 18 dog breeds tend to be best around kids.

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cute small dog sitting and eating his bowl of dog food. Pets indoors. Concept

You switch their food for no good reason

You may get bored eating the same-old, same-old, but your pet doesn’t. “As humans, we try to put feelings and thoughts into our pets’ heads about being bored with food. This is actually not the case,” explains Dr. Welch. “There are times when a food change is necessary for health reasons, but dogs and cats do not care that they eat the same thing every day. It’s actually beneficial for their gut to digest the same things consistently. This helps to prevent diarrhea and/or vomiting from something they aren’t used to digesting/eating.” By the way, this is the very best diet for dogs, according to vets, and this is the best one for cats.

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english bulldog puppy lies by the fireplace - 8 weeks old
Inna Taran/Shutterstock

You poo-shame your pet

Your dog or cat wants to please you more than just about anything, and yes, they do feel emotions such as sadness when they don’t. So don’t shame your new pet if they have a potty accident in the house. This technique is not recommended and does nothing to bond your animal to you. Instead, it’s better to use positive reinforcement techniques, says pet expert Lisa Tenzin-Dolma, author of The Supposedly Enlightened Person’s Guide to Raising a Dog. “Dogs need to be trained with positive reinforcement for their good behavior, and never punished for negative behavior,” she says. “You do this by ignoring unwanted behavior and praising them for the good behavior you want to see.”

Plus, when dogs have to go potty, they go. It’s up to you to train them to go in the proper place. To do this, Tenzin-Dolma suggests waiting about 20 to 30 minutes after mealtime and then bringing them to the spot. Just keep in mind that dogs may not always want you to watch them do their thing. In this case, give them a little space but stay close by so you can praise them when they get it right.

“Dogs want to please their caregiver, so shaming them or spanking them or using any kind of punishment doesn’t make any sense to a dog. They only associate mean, painful and negative behavior with the person administering it,” she adds. “Dogs respond to positive reinforcement, praise, and kindness. If the new pet parent does not know how to do this, there are plenty of non-violent training books on the market as well as the Internet. Negative methods result in a fearful and untrusting dog.” Here’s what veterinarians wish you knew about potty training a puppy.

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Cat litter box in a dutch house
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You assume that your cat knows how to use a litter box

It’s true that most cats are trained by their birth mothers to void appropriately. However, if your kitten was abandoned or separated from its mother prematurely for any reason, it may not understand what to do. “If your cat or kitten does not know where or how to potty, you will have to become their trainer. As with dogs, praise and reinforcement of the desired behavior is the best way,” says Tenzin-Dolma.

Start by placing your kitten in the kitty-litter box and waiting to see what happens. If they don’t dig and void, take their front paws and gently dig for them. Kittens typically start to understand this behavior when they are about one month old.

And don’t chastise them for accidents. “A cat has a delicate set of emotions, and any harsh treatment can cause them to retreat and not trust their caregiver,” explains Tenzin-Dolma. “The best way to train a cat is to always use positive reinforcement. If you remain neutral when a cat does something unwanted, you will consciously not be reinforcing the undesired behavior.” Once you’ve got the litter-box thing down, here’s how you can train your cat to do 5 life-changing things.

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dog buckled in car

You don’t buckle them in

Animals require safety measures when they’re riding in cars and trucks, just like people do. It’s not cute or funny to have your cat or dog in your lap while you’re driving: This behavior is downright dangerous, not only to your pet but also to you and to other people on the road. Animals can and do jump out of car windows, leaving them vulnerable to being injured, or hit by other cars.

So when you travel with an animal in a car, make sure they are buckled in with a seat belt or other type of restraint. Some dogs enjoy being strapped into booster seats that allow them a good view of the great outdoors. Animals can also be crated in vehicles, but make sure that the crate is tied down and held securely in place before you hit the road.

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cute domestic kitten lying on white towel. suitable for animal, pet and wildlife themes

You don’t know the warning signs for sickness or disease

Young and old animals can become ill. Before you choose a pet, become familiar with the maladies and illnesses that typically befall the breed. Also, be on the lookout for telltale signs that your furry honey isn’t feeling well. These include:

  • A change in toileting habits
  • A change in the consistency or color of stool
  • Blood in the stool
  • Lethargy
  • Not eating
  • Not drinking
  • Weight loss
  • Loss of balance
  • Collapsing
  • Coughing
  • Nosebleeds
  • Lumps
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea

If your animal has any of these symptoms, seems sick, and does not rally within a day or two, don’t delay. Get medical help ASAP. As with people, early treatment can often help avoid the worst outcomes. Just so you know, these are the warning signs of cancer in dogs.

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Young Fawn Mixed Breed Puppy Laying on Striped Bed
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You let your dog rule the house

Can you imagine if you gave your kids unlimited amounts of candy and no bedtime? They’d love you to pieces—for about one day until they became screaming maniacs. It’s the same with dogs. Dogs have pack mentalities, and every pack has a leader. If you don’t fill this role, your dog will feel the need to do so, and that can lead to all sorts of issues in your relationship and home. Pack leadership requires that you set boundaries, establish rules, and remain calm yet assertive in your dealings with your dog. These strategies will give him the comfort he needs to relax and simply be your dog, rather than the ruler of your domain. And that’s just one of the things your dog really wants from you.