Things They Don't Tell You About Being a Pet Owner

Updated on July 1, 2018
Anne Ryefield profile image

Anne loves animals. They fill her thoughts about 70% of the time. Her dogs are life. Anne is an equal opportunity petter.

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With almost 144 million pet cats and dogs in the United States alone, pets are everywhere. Of course, that figure doesn't include the 4.8 million horses, 8.3 million birds, or the thousands of reptiles, amphibians, fish, and small mammals also kept as pets in the United States. We like to think that as pet owners, we can pretty much guess at all the things we must do for our pets. We feed, water, and play with them. We pick up their waste and take them to the vet to get their vaccinations. What could be simpler? Well, let's get acquainted with some of the lesser-known things pet owners may have to encounter while having pets.

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Anal Glands and Anal Sacs

Most pet owners know about anal glands on dogs even though we aren't sure as to the exact function of these smelly glands. Anal glands are sebaceous glands that are located on either side of the rectum of both dogs and cats (yes, cats have them too!). As scent glands, they produce an unforgettable foul smelling, gag-inducing signature that other animals use for identification and territory marking. All mammals have such sacs including humans, though ours may be vestigial.

For our furry friends, these glands are usually emptied when the cat or dog has a bowel movement. Unfortunately, they don’t always work as they should and that’s when we humans have to intervene. Dogs tend to have more issues than cats when it comes to compacted anal glands. Compaction results when the ducts that drain the glands become blocked. Usually, thicker than normal secretions are the cause of the blockage. Other times, infection or abscesses are the culprits. The glands become itchy, swollen, and painful.

A vet visit is generally required. A veterinarian will remove the blockage or abscess and your pet will receive a round of antibiotics. Sometimes, a topical ointment will also be prescribed, to be placed on the infected anal glands. This means that the lucky owner, you, gets to become intimate with your dog’s rear end for at least a week. The glands are likely to become reinfected or impacted in the future, so owning your pet means you will have to rub ointment on an area a pet owner generally doesn’t want to touch at all.

Dog and cat owners aren’t the only ones who have to deal with such things. Guinea pig owners, particularly owners of male guinea pigs, may find that their aging pets are no longer able to empty their anal sacs themselves. In guinea pigs, anal sacs also contain the perineal sac, which stores soft caecal pellets. Caecal pellets are specialized feces produced by coprophagic animals. These feces contain vital vitamins for the animal, which the animal will eat in order to gain those vitamins. Older male guinea pigs, called boars, often lose muscle strength in their anal sacs and can no longer push the pellets out on their own. While not technically the same as a dog’s anal glands, they do suffer from similar impaction. Any dedicated owner will then take control of the situation and remove the impacted pellets each day using mineral oil. It is often recommended to check the anal and perineal sacs of guinea pigs every day regardless of age.

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Horses: The Accumulation of Penile Debris

This brings us to the second thing guinea pig owners aren’t told when they purchase or adopt their little squeaking furry friends. Guinea pigs have short legs and will often drag their tiny round bottoms on the ground. This causes hair, dirt, and bedding to accumulate around the penis of the animal. Natural lubrication and occasionally ejaculate also accumulates on and around the penis. This all needs to be cleaned regularly to prevent infection and discomfort.

Horses owners don’t escape from this embarrassing and rarely talked about part of pet ownership. While guinea pig cleaning can be done in the privacy of your home, horses are very much out in the open. Male horses have a lot of room within their penile sheath to accumulate all sorts of debris. Like the guinea pig, it needs to be cleaned out annually on most male horses. With such a large animal, this is usually done in view of everyone.

The process is similar to what is done to a guinea pig. The debris is loosened and removed, then the area is thoroughly cleaned. The difference is the tools and method. The owner must coax the penis out of its sheath, use a gently running hose or a sponge to wet the penis and remove any accumulation of foreign material. It is also recommended to remove any hardened smegma, known as the bean, from the horse and to rinse out the sheath to clean any remaining hairs or dirt. This procedure is generally done once or twice a year. Female horses also receive similar treatment for their corresponding genitals.

It should be noted, however, that there are some organizations who feel that this horsey procedure is unnecessary and possibly harmful to the horse. It is advised to talk with a qualified veterinarian about maintaining the health of your pet.

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Reptiles: Braining Food Items and Regurgitation

As reptiles become more popular, owners are learning some of the less publicized aspects of reptile care. Scaly pets can be finicky and stubborn when it comes to eating. Ball pythons are known offenders, often going off of feed for no apparent reason. Desperate owners will try anything to get their beloved pets to eat. A popular method is braining of food items. Done to frozen-thawed or pre-killed prey animals, it often entices a stubborn reptile to eat.

Braining a prey item is a simple procedure. All that needs to be done is to open the skull and expose the brain. Reptiles tend to love the smell. It's incredibly gross for us humans though and is usually used as a last resort before more extreme measures. Yes, there are more extreme measures. A reptile that isn't eating should see a vet if it is off food for more than a few weeks to rule out health issues.

Another fun thing about reptiles is regurgitation. In snakes and some lizards, regurgitation occurs when the animal is very stressed. It is thought that in the wild, getting rid of a large meal when in danger both distracts the danger and allows the reptile to make a more speedy escape. In captivity, stress is also usually a factor for regurgitation. Unlike dogs and cats who will throw up hours after eating, reptiles often hold their food for days before expelling it from their stomachs. Reptile stomachs are remarkably dry compared to mammal stomachs. The prey that comes up is often putrid, slimy, and altogether rather unpleasant. It's one of those things that you hope doesn't happen (remember regurgitation means the animal is stressed in most cases) and it's something you'll never forget the smell of if it does happen. It's another one of those things that you aren't usually told about when getting that adorable scaly friend.

Ball pythons are known to have a color preference for their food. Most often, they don't like white prey items as their natural prey are rarely white.

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Cats and Dogs: Litter and Dirt

A significant number of pet owners allow their cats and dogs on the furniture. Nothing really beats being able to snuggle up against a warm fuzzy who loves you unconditionally. While it's pretty hard to argue with the joy that comes with sharing a bed or a couch with your four-pawed critter, there is one significant thing that puts a damper on the experience - hair, dirt, and litter. Unfortunately, our pets shed. A lot. Not only do they release hair, but oils and skin cells are also unceremoniously shed onto furniture. In the case of dogs and outdoor cats, all sorts of dirt can wind up settling in your bed as well. With allergies being common in almost every household, it is easy to see how spending eight hours or more with your face pressed against all this discarded microscopic detritus can aggravate even the hardiest nose.

Cats are culprits as well. If I had a penny for every time I found a tiny ball of litter in places it should never be, I'd be able to afford many many expensive things. Despite vacuuming and cleaning daily, I often find stray litter several rooms away from the litter box. I've found litter in my bed. I'm sure I'm not the only one. Cat litter is a wonderful thing that allows our cats to stay safely indoors and not doing their business in the garden but it does have a slight tendency to stick between the toes of our strange little felines. They can track litter through the house with ease. It always makes me wonder if I'm finding clean litter or used litter. This is why it's important to not allow your cats on counters and other eating surfaces. Remember, our pets walk through their own leavings. It's not something you want on your eating surfaces.

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Birds: Respiratory Health and Poop Dust

Birds aren't safe pets either when it comes to contamination of your air and body. It is always recommended to clean bird cages daily, making sure to clean up all droppings. It's not uncommon for some owners to let it go a day or two between changing out the newspaper. In this time, droppings become dry and easily airborne. While incredibly rare (about a dozen cases each year since 2010), it is possible for humans to become infected with a bacteria called Chlamydia psittaci, which is found in bird droppings. The fine dust from dried bird droppings can be inhaled and cause Psittacosis, or parrot fever. It can happen with any bird, not just parrots. It can also be contracted by letting a bird kiss you and placing its beak against your mouth. The bird has to be infected with the bacteria in order to transfer it and birds don't always show symptoms of being infected.

Dusty birds, such as cockatoos, cockatiels, Amazon parrots, and African Greys, produce a fine powder on their feathers. This dust is also easily airborne and can cause respiratory problems in humans. One thing a bird owner should learn quickly is that the cleaner you keep the bird's surroundings, the less likely it is to be a problem.

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Fish: Tank Hazards and Zoonotic Diseases

Fish tanks can also lead to health problems. Just this year, a family almost died while cleaning their fish tank. While cleaning a Pulsing Xenia coral, Chris Matthews of Oxfordshire, England caused the coral to release palytoxin in defense. An Australian family met a similar danger only a few months before. Palytoxin causes respiratory distress in mammals. Saltwater corals are often equipped with toxins, venoms, and stingers that can cause pain and damage to the unwitting fish keeper.

Freshwater tanks also carry a danger. There are many diseases that are transmissible from fish to humans. Fish tuberculosis and Mycobacterium marinum are the top two diseases that humans typically can contract from their pet fish. Luckily the transmission rate is less than 0.5%. It always pays to be aware of the possibility of contracting these two infections, however. Another thing to watch out for is ingesting fish tank water. Any fish keeper will quietly admit to accidentally getting a mouth full of water when sucking on the siphon tube to get the suction going (this is why we now have better options such as the Python siphon). While you typically spit this water out as soon as possible, the bacteria from the water can remain in the mouth. Usually, this is not a problem for healthy people. Any swallowed bacteria may cause a bit of an upset stomach that usually rights itself shortly. Those with weakened immune systems may find themselves feeling stronger effects of swallowing strange bacteria. Diarrhea can be one of the symptoms of ingesting fish tank water.

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Maggots, Parasites, and Elderly Dog Care

As our dogs get older, they have a harder time doing things they used to. Older dogs tend to have a harder time moving their bowels and sometimes cannot reach back to clean themselves due to obesity or arthritis. In long-haired dogs, this can cause a problem. Long-haired dogs may end up with poop stuck to the hair around the anus and with pee encrusted hair around their vulva or on the stomach (for boys). Both can cause multiple problems if an owner doesn't help with cleanliness.

One of the rarer possibilities is a maggot infestation centered around the damp and dirty areas of a dog. This condition is called myiasis, or flystrike, and is common in rabbits and sheep. In dogs, similar symptoms may occur including maggots feeding on the dying flesh under the matted and dirty fur. Though genital related myiasis is rare in dogs, it is a concern in places where flies are numerous.

The much more common problems caused by damp and dirty fur on dogs include sores, ulcers, rashes, and infections. Urine scald, as it's commonly called, is just like diaper rash in humans. Left unchecked, it can rashes lead to sores that ulcerate and become infected. The best way to combat this is by regularly cleaning and drying the affected areas.

Older dogs may also need assistance in going. Senior animals can suffer from constipation, loss of bladder and bowel control, and many other bathroom related problems. As a pet owner, you may find that you are making adjustments to help your pet. The physical stuff is frustrating but many owners learn to deal with it just fine. It's just something that you don't think about when you first welcome your new pet into your home. The golden years are golden in a whole different way.

Dogs who suffer from spinal injuries and paralysis are the most common victims of myiasis.

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In the End, We Still Love Our Pets

We've covered only a handful of things you may encounter as a pet owner. These are probably things you weren't aware of when you added a new member to your family. While most of these things are unpleasant, chances are that they won't stop you from loving your furry, feathery, and scaly friends. Just hope that you don't have to do too many things on this list!

Have you had to do any of the things listed in this article?

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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

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    © 2018 Anne Ryefield

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