Dogs and cats are likely the most misunderstood family members among us. Having no easy way to communicate, we project human qualities onto them in an effort to understand. We trade internet memes of frowning cats (see feline celebrity “Grumpy Cat”), imagining them frustrated by premature holiday decorations, bad traffic, or overly cheerful coworkers. We laugh at YouTube compilations of dogs standing over shredded couches earnestly looking up at their owner (Google “Guilty Dogs”). We Facebook our cats stretching across the keyboards as we type, thinking “Penny doesn’t want me to write this paper either.”
Do we really know what our pets need? Interpreting their actions in human terms yields adorable social media, yet it’s important to question our assumptions when it comes to caring for them. We talked to Sue Hunter, who co-owns bad dog frida with her partner Carmen Alcalde, to review common dog and cat myths, and provide dependable suggestions for improved care.
Myth #1: Dry food is good for dogs’ and cats’ teeth.
“Dry kibble is no better for a dog or cat’s teeth than eating granola is for ours,” says Sue. Similar to granola, dry food collects between teeth, increasing the buildup of tartar and plaque, which causes tooth decay. Wet food tends to keep teeth slightly cleaner than dry food. Carnivorous animals in the wild chew on bones while eating their prey, and the mechanical abrasion of chomping on a bone prevents tartar build-up. Household pets’ teeth benefit from chewing on raw bones, from food or water additives that contain plaque-fighting enzymes, and from regular brushings.
Myth #2: Cats or dogs should eat the same food every day.
Here’s an example of a way in which dogs and cats are like us. They benefit from a change in routine just as we do. Feeding pets an assortment of foods over their lifetime can prevent allergies, strengthen their digestive systems, and keep their interest. Your pet will benefit if you change the food flavors every few months. Choosing a different brand entirely introduces both a new protein and new base ingredients, which is great.
Rotating foods from an early age works best. Introduce changes gradually and watch for adverse reactions. This is especially important if your dog or cat is older or has a sensitive stomach. Cats demonstrate less interest in food changes, especially if introduced to the concept when mature. Cats can still benefit from variety, though, even if all they accept is a new kind of treat.
Myth #3: Human food is bad for dogs.
This is partly true. Most people know some human foods are toxic for dogs, and can even be fatal. These include onions, macadamia nuts, chocolate, grapes and raisins, xylitol (an artificial sweetener), and alcohol. However, the fact that pet food ingredient lists include meats, veggies, and fruits tells us that our diets overlap.
Allow your cat or dog to sample the foods you prepare for your human family and you’ll be widening your pet’s diet and providing added nutrients. Roasted chicken, for example, is a great meat to share, as long as you avoid serving cooked bones. Be aware that cooked bones become dry and can splinter and harm your pet during digestion.
Myth #4: Cats should be able to roam outdoors.
In Dane County, allowing cats to roam free outside unattended is against the law—both to protect small birds and rodents likely to be their prey, and for your cats’ own safety. “An outdoor cat is exposed to more risks and is likely to live a shorter life,” says Sue. If cats show an interest in the outdoors, they can still enjoy fresh air and exploration. “Accomplish this with a harness or leash, let them out on an enclosed porch, or give them potted cat grass to munch on,” Sue suggests.
Myth #5: Multiply a dog’s age by seven for the equivalent in human years.
As with humans, many individual factors contribute to lifespan including genetics, nutrition, and environment. According to Sue, the strongest indicator of lifespan is the breed of the dog. Giant breeds, including St. Bernards, Great Danes, and Bernese Mountain Dogs, have average life spans of around eight or nine years, while smaller dogs like Chihuahuas can live for more than 15 years. Hunter and Alcade share their home with a miniature poodle, Joe, who is now 17 years old. A breed’s average is a better guide in determining lifespan than multiplying by seven.
Myth #6: Nothing can be done about aging in cats and dogs.
People may accept that an older cat can no longer jump up on the bed or that an aging dog rarely goes upstairs. However, Hunter emphasizes that many products and resources can help slow the effects of aging. For mature cats and dogs that have trouble moving around, glucosamine chews, as well as treats and oils specifically developed for pain relief and joint support, can make a visible difference, allowing for longer walks and easier movement. For decreased appetites, consider adding food toppers to help prevent calorie deficiencies that lead to unwanted weight and muscle loss. Chiropractic and acupuncture services can also provide relief to aging pets.
Myth #7: Dogs and cats are just like us.
We instinctively use our frame of reference to interpret our pets’ needs, wants, likes, and dislikes. While projecting human feelings onto our pets is usually harmless, it is important to remember that dogs and cats don’t always think like us. When something does go wrong, they tend to react stoically. Their natural instinct is to protect themselves by not showing vulnerability, so you may need to watch for subtle behavior changes. Dogs and cats do grieve loss and experience depression; however, they do not have a strong sense of time. They live in the moment, while we measure time and anticipate loss, meaning their shorter life spans are harder on us than on them. We can’t always understand their reactions and they don’t necessarily understand ours, but we can all cherish the time we have together.
Cara Lombardo grew up in Madison where her family included cats. She is a writer and a CPA.