This is the time of year when we focus on shedding bad habits and starting anew. It’s also the time when plenty of newly adopted pets are settling into their new homes. Recently I asked experts to reveal the things new pet owners really need. After years interviewing professional dog walkers, trainers, specialists and veterinarians, I’ve also learned a few strategies to keep those new additions happy and healthy for years to come.

fat cat1. Maintain a healthy weight

Yes, this familiar advice applies to pets and people. With proper care and nutrition, cats and some dogs can live well into their late teens. But obesity can rob pets of years by inviting the risk for heart disease or lead to behavioral issues such as missing the litter box. Set a strong foundation by purchasing high-quality pet food. Look for brands that list a protein such as chicken or fish among the first ingredients, and avoid giving pets table food. Remember that you control what goes into their bowl each day. Also keep in mind that pets — including adorably tubular dachshunds — should have a noticeable waistline. The American Kennel Club website offers photos that help identify breed standards for purebreds. Your veterinarian can provide guidance on how much to feed furry companions based on age, breed and lifestyle. If your cat or dog’s waistline is a distant memory, try interactive toys to burn calories.

2. Invest in training

Most dog trainers will admit that classes primarily benefit the owner, while pets gain valuable socialization skills. Take advantage of obedience training courses in your area.  Petco recently launched a series of free seminars for new pet owners, with classes scheduled throughout the month. Some animal shelters offer free training classes as well. It’s a great opportunity for pets to interact with people, particularly kids, as well as other pets. Learning basic commands such as “leave it,” “stay,” and how to come when called could be lifesavers for dogs. Proper socialization also makes it easier for pets to travel with their people, including trips to the beach or other pet-friendly destinations. It’s much more fun and much less stressful than keeping them cooped up at a boarding facility. To see the benefits of socializing pets, check out this sweet video of a rescue helping a foster pup named Daisy tackle the stairs:

3. Take time for dental care

Save those old toothbrushes and put them to use on a pet’s pearly whites (dogs and cats). Proper dental care helps reduce “dog breath” as well as gum disease, which can lead to bigger health issues. Finger brushes, water additives and dental chews make the task a little easier. A product called Orabrush tackles bad breath by scraping plaque buildup from the tongue. Originally designed for people, the line now includes a clever little brush that dogs lick to remove tongue gunk. February is Pet Dental Health Month, so look for deep discounts on cleaning services at your vet’s office and schedule an appointment. Veterinary dental cleanings take at-home maintenance a step further by removing hardened plaque buildup that accumulates over time.

cat drinking from sink spigot4. Keep cats hydrated

Urinary tract infections rank high among the list of expensive yet preventable cat health issues. Make sure your feline companions stay properly hydrated by adding wet food to their diets and providing plenty of clean water to their bowl or even a stylish fountain.

5. Maintain flea, tick and heartworm preventatives

In a column about why dogs lick so much, Dr. Annie Price of Ormewood Animal Hospital in Atlanta said that fleas are the No. 1 culprit. Resist the urge to cut flea and tick preventatives from your shopping list, even during cooler months, because pets run the risk of exposure anytime they go outside. Uncharacteristically warm weather means that mosquitoes will, once again, have a longer season to wreak havoc and pose a risk for deadly heartworm.

6. Don’t underestimate the value of mental stimulation

boxer dog running with toyThere really is some truth to the saying, “A tired dog is a happy dog.” I know from experience that bored pets lead to chewed iPod cases, gnawed shoes and other crimes that my dog Lulu has committed but I have yet to discover. Cats, particularly those who spend their lives indoors, also benefit from mental stimulation. Invest in some interactive toys such as puzzles or a fun laser pointer to exercise those brain cells and bond with your pet. Frolicat’s high-tech Twitch toy even has a timer so you can keep felines occupied while you are away. Dogs tend to have relatively low-tech standards. Check out Planet Dog’s fun new Mazee treat puzzles ($16.95) that can keep pups occupied on carpeted areas or flat surfaces.

7. Buy pet insurance or start an emergency savings account

I know how it feels to sit in an emergency veterinary hospital, half-listening to a doctor outline his treatment plan — along with the long list of expensive procedures required to treat a pet. Accidents or unexpected illness can lead to costly veterinary bills that drain savings. Don’t wait for a medical issue to arise before discussing finances with your family, and consider starting an emergency fund — or investing in pet insurance. Plans vary widely based on the pet’s age and the amount of coverage you select. Many of the larger pet insurance companies also set age limits that range from 10 to 14 years old, so it pays to start early. Even if you pick a plan that solely covers major accidents, that added precaution could save thousands. I would much rather spend that hard-earned cash on toys, trips to pet-friendly destinations or new shoes to replace the ones that Lulu ate!

— Morieka Johnson

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Photo credits:

Fat cat:

Drinking cat: monkeywing/Flickr

Running dog: fj40troutbum/Flickr

7 strategies for healthy and happy pets
Investing in training and healthcare now can help prevent big problems later on.