I had a pet emergency on my hands. My 6-month-old puppy had gnawed laundry room baseboards into tidy piles of sawdust and I needed gear — pronto. Staring down a wall of dog collars, leashes, toys and treats, I was willing to buy anything that would make her behave. Nearly a decade later, I can spot that dazed and confused expression as soon as newbies enter a pet store.

According to a survey conducted by Edge Research, Americans plan to spend more than $2.5 billion on their pets this holiday season, and a large chunk of that amount will go toward gear for furry new additions. First time pet owners: Resist the urge to download “Paint for Cats” on your iPad, and walk away from the doggie sweaters. Pet experts share what you really need to start things off on the right paw.

Invest in training tools, then use them early and often

woman training dog Shortly after Santa has finished delivering toys, dog trainer Amber Burckhalter’s phone begins to ring — and ring, and ring. Most clients need help housetraining their new additions. Each year, her message remains the same: Establish house rules from day one, before your new addition gets too comfy.

“Start as you mean to go,” said Burckhalter, a certified dog behavior consultant and owner of K-9 Coach training and boarding facility in Smyrna, Ga. “However you and the family have decided, you need to start the day that dog comes home.”

Pets adapt quickly. Start things off on the right paw by setting and following ground rules. Don’t want your pooch peeing on the petunias? Find an appropriate area and visit it consistently. If you want your dog to be crated during the day, Burckhalter recommends investing in a shiny new crate — immediately. Even if your new pooch models polite perfection during the early days, she recommends finding a reputable trainer in your area. Since some dogs already know basic obedience, try agility or canine nose work as a way to bond with the new addition.

Opt for high-quality pet food

Janene Zakrajsek’s upscale Pussy & Pooch pet stores in California carry plenty of fun gear, such as laser pointers and chic dog beds. But she gently redirects new owners to the basics, starting with mealtime.

“They want to look at the fun stuff first,” she says. “Focus on food and what’s appropriate for [the pet’s] age, breed, all of that. The No. 1 important essential is food.”

With options ranging from $10 for an 8-pound bag of grocery store kibble to $53 for a 6-pound bag of raw beef patties, it’s easy for pet owners to get overwhelmed. Zakrajsek recommends that pet owners make selections based on their budget and lifestyle. Kibble tends to be the most popular option, due to convenience. She carries super-premium brands such as Merrick’s classic blend, made with deboned chicken, brown rice and peas. More expensive options include grain-free formulas as well as freeze-dried kibble from a company called The Honest Kitchen and made with free-range turkey.

When pet owners do opt for kibble, Dr. Robert Foley of the South Bellmore Veterinary Group in Bellmore, N.Y., recommends brands labeled as “complete and balanced” by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).

puppy with Kong toy“If that is what you need to do financially — for convenience — there is nothing wrong with that,” he said. “If it’s what you can afford on your budget, don’t feel guilty. What’s better than that? First and foremost, what people are paranoid about is feeding people food. People food is healthier, particularly organic frozen. It’s better for the pet and for you. The next level would be a raw diet or a human-grade diet balanced by a veterinary nutritionist.”

Go interactive

Toys such as Kongs or interactive puzzles keep dogs mentally stimulated and far from your shoes, socks or other items. Adult dogs also benefit from about 45 minutes of walking each day, according to Burckhalter. Consider it a good way to bond, burn calories and help the dog socialize with others. Another benefit to those daily walks: If your dog ever gets lost, it knows a route back home. Puppies also benefit from daily exercise, but she recommends consulting your veterinarian for guidelines.

“I see people flat-out running with 6-month-old puppies, trying to get the dog exercised,” she said. “It’s bad for their growth plates. Talk to the vet about what is safe and what is not safe running with a dog that is under 1 year old.”

Purchase an ID tag and collar

With all the activity during the holidays, Burckhalter recommends getting a shiny new ID tag and collar for pets. It’s the first line of defense if they get lost. Microchips provide added insurance and can be inserted at your veterinarian’s office. Zakrajsek says that most customers opt for Gentle Leader or Easy Walk harnesses, which deter dogs from pulling or jumping.

cat playing with toyFelines need gear, too

Victoria Park of Park Pet Supply in Atlanta recommends ceramic and stainless dishes for finicky felines. They are easier to clean, and they help cats avoid rashes due to dyes in plastic bowls. She also suggests that cat owners opt for wide, flat bowls that won’t interfere with a cat’s sensitive whiskers.

“Otherwise, cats may avoid the bowl and people think it’s the food,” she said. “But it’s their whiskers rubbing against the dish.”

Cats also enjoy a good frolic on the floor. So Park advises new cat owners to stock up on catnip toys and laser pointers. Last but not least, be sure to pick up a litter box and a few bags of kitty litter. Park also shared that biodegradable corn cobs are the clumping matter du jour. Mother Nature will be pleased.

With time, patience and an early start, cats may be pleased to receive a little extra TLC in the form of grooming. Take advantage of kitty cuddle time by removing a few of those mats. As for bedding, well, cats get a little bit of a free pass for getting on the furniture, she said.

Make a financial plan

With proper care and nutrition, indoor cats and small-breed dogs have a life span of about 18 years. That adds up to a lot of kibble, toys — and veterinary visits — particularly if there is an emergency. Foley encourages pet owners to have a long-term financial plan in place. Also, consider pet insurance or start squirreling a few dollars away for the inevitable emergency visit.

“Understand that this pet of yours is a financial responsibility and you have to be prepared for medical emergencies, preventative care, trips to the vet, food and proper nutrition,” said Foley, who also launched a blog called AngryVet.com to help pet owners make informed decisions about common pet issues such as spay/neuter, vaccinations and nutrition. “Be a responsible owner and make sure you can take care of the animal.”

Remember, dogs and cats are not toys that can be returned after the holidays. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA.org) drives that point home with its latest video (below). As part of the “No Pet Store Puppies” campaign, the organization urges pet lovers not to shop at stores that sell pets.

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Click for photo credits

Photo credits:

MNN tease photo of Shih Tzu: Anne Kitzman/Shutterstock

Dog trainer: siamionau pavel/Shutterstock

Dog with Kong toy: ElleEmKay/Flickr

Kitten with toy: mdmmikle/Shutterstock

Here's what new pet owners really need
Forget the sweaters and dog bows. Now's the time to stock up on the basics and invest in training.