Q: What should I do when my family dynamic changes and I can no longer keep a pet?
A: It’s been three years, but Ebony Stith still cringes when her daughter Erin asks about their beloved shih tzu. Every time the question arises, Stith patiently explains that Cookie has moved on to a better place — far, far away. A place called Flint, Mich.
After months of handling parenting duties for their new baby — not to mention poop duties for Cookie — Stith’s husband said out loud what she already been thinking: Their household had become too hectic, and the dog’s needs had taken a back seat.
“The priority was kids, job, husband, then Cookie,” admits Stith, editor of Tween Girl Style Magazine. “It just wasn’t working out. It’s like Cookie would ask, ‘How far do I have to kick my water bowl for you to see that I’m thirsty?’”
Life happens. Priorities change, finances change and, in some instances, pet owners must find new homes for their furry companions. Cookie is now the center of attention for her grandparents, Marcia and Eddie Watkins of Flint, Mich.
“She’s happier and gets more attention,” Stith says. “Of course, my daughter keeps asking, ‘When can I have my dog back?’”
If circumstances force you to find a new home for your pet — and if you are considering adopting a friend’s pet — here are a few important factors to consider:
Understand the financial commitment: In addition to food and basic dog gear, factor in the cost of regular veterinary care. In the 2011-12 survey for the American Pet Products Association, pet owners said they expected to spend $254 on dog food and $220 for cat food. Basic veterinary care, such as routine checkups and vaccinations, adds about $248 for dogs and $219 for cats. Of course, aging pets and emergency care bring additional expenses. For Cookie, surgery for kidney stones led to an unexpected $1,500 veterinary bill, but Watkins says that the companionship from Cookie more than makes up for the bill. If the original owner plans to help pay for pet care, avoid a conflict and work out a system up front.
There are no ‘loaner pets’: Marcia Watkins somewhat reluctantly agreed to take in Cookie, thinking the situation would be short-term. “I didn’t have a sense of whether this was permanent or temporary,” says the retired art professor. Former colleagues gave the retired art professor a reality check. They said, “Oh no, you have a dog,” she says. “After a year, that’s your dog now.” Both owners should go into the agreement with their eyes wide open on this point.
Share medical and behavioral history: Be honest about any medical or behavioral issues your pet has. Vaccination records are essential, especially if the pet has to travel as Cookie did. True confessions about behavior issues, such as a dislike for cats or a bit of incontinence, help ease a pet’s transition to its new digs.
“It’s just like having a child; they need love, attention from their owner — and medical attention,” Watkins says. “But they give so much back. In the quietness of the house, when it’s just me and Cookie, I am at peace because I have someone with a keen sense of hearing.”
Settling in takes time: Like people, pets must adjust to a new routine, especially if the new owner already has pets. Start by maintaining a schedule for walks, feedings and outdoor time. Also, take care when introducing the new addition to other animals and children. In previous columns, I offered tips on how to ensure a smooth transition for dog and cat additions to the family.
Avoid the issue by planning ahead: To avoid dealing with a “me or the dog,” conundrum, Atlantan Shawn McElroy weeds out pet lovers at the beginning of any relationship.
“I dated one guy who had cats,” she says. “I never understood why I had such bad allergies when I visited him, then we discovered that I was allergic to his cats. No matter how much he cleaned, it was still a problem.”
McElroy’s guy even tried to create a cat-free zone at his place, but eventually she called it quits. Now she weeds out pet lovers when reviewing online dating profiles. “It’s just easier,” she said.
Meanwhile back in Michigan, Cookie the dog is thriving — even though Watkins says the dog can return to Florida at any time. Occasionally, she reminds her granddaughter that she did not steal Cookie. But it’s clear that there is a strong love connection.
“If I’m sick or have the flu, she will lay across the floor,” Watkins says. “I value the sensitivity they [dogs] have and how they show their love to the people who take care of them.”
— Morieka Johnson
Photo: Family photo