You’ve decided that you have the time, space, and financial resources you need to become a pet parent. The perfect pair of eyes met yours at the animal shelter, breeder, or pet store, and you’ve found your furry soul mate. He gets his physical exam, vaccinations, and I.D. tag, and the two of you are headed home. Now what?
Pet-proofing your home
The first step is making sure your house is safe for your pet. If you have a highly mobile animal, like a dog or cat, this may take a little work. Just like with baby-proofing, you’ll need to make sure your pet can’t get to any toxic materials like antifreeze, household cleaners, or rat poison. You’ll also need to watch out for heavy objects that are high up or unstable, like a lamp on top of an unstable end table, or an iron perched on an ironing board. Unlike babies, pets have teeth, so they can do a lot of damage to electrical cords, furniture, and woodwork, particularly pocket pets like guinea pigs and rabbits. For guidelines on making your home safe for your animal family, see Keep Your Pet Healthy and Happy and Ten Tips for a Poison-Safe Household.
Whether you’re bringing home a baby animal or a full-grown adult, your pet is going to need a little time to adjust to new surroundings. Try to ease him into his new situation as gently as possible. Don’t have a crowd of noisy, exciting people meet your new pet at the front door, for example; that would make his first experience of his new home a frightening one! Instead, take him to a part of the house that will be his retreat and give him a little time there alone. Show a dog to his crate, for example, but don’t force him into it or lock the door. You could put a cat in an empty, quiet room. Pocket pets and exotics can be placed in their cage and left alone. The alone time will give your pet a chance to explore his new surroundings and learn that they’re safe.
As tempting as it might be, don’t pull your pet out of his retreat space for playtime just yet. Look in on your fuzzy friend every once in a while but, if possible, let him come out to meet you - with most animals this won’t take more than a few hours. This will be particularly hard if you have any kids in the house, because they’ll find it nearly impossible to resist the cute, furry thing that’s just in the other room. It’s important, though, because a group of laughing, yelling children can be nerve-wracking for an animal that’s already nervous. Talk to your children before you bring your new pet home, and explain that he may be a little scared for a while and that they’ll have to be very quiet and gentle with him at first. You’ll also want to supervise the kids as they interact with the pet at least in the beginning, to make sure they know how to treat the pet and vice versa.
If your new pet is joining other animals in your household, you’ll need to supervise the animals’ interaction for a while. Let your pets start off by sniffing each other through a closed door. Once they get used to the strange smells, open the door a crack and let them see each other. Gradually allow them more contact, and eventually let them meet face-to-face. As your animal family continues to adjust, you can ward off aggression by making sure your new pet stays away from the other animals’ food bowls and favorite toys.
If your new pet is a youngster, he may never have been alone overnight before, so his first few nights with you may be scary for him. Try leaving on a nightlight and a radio, turned down low - the background noise may reassure him. A hot water bottle filled with warm water and an old-fashioned, ticking clock wrapped in cloth also may soothe him by reminding him of sleeping near his mother. (As tempting as it is, don’t bring your new furry friend into bed with you, even if you think it’s just for one night. You’ll be creating a bad habit that will be a challenge to break in the long run.)
Build a routine
One way to make your pet feel more secure is to teach him that he can rely on a regular routine. Start feeding him at the same times every day, and let him exercise at the same times daily. Establish a regular "bed time" every night as well, whether you do it by covering your new bird’s cage, putting your new pup in his crate, or simply turning out the light on your pocket pet. As your pet learns to anticipate the activities of his daily life, he’ll come to feel confident in his new home.
Build a bond
Now that your newest family member is feeling calm and secure, you can concentrate on strengthening the bond between you. Take plenty of time for positive play, where your pet’s energy is focused on chasing, attacking, and batting around toys (rather than you). Also set aside some time for gentler pursuits like petting and ear scratching, or even pleasant grooming. Let your pet get used to the voices and hands of everyone in your family. When he seems nervous or gets tired of all the attention, let him retreat to the safe haven you gave him on his first day home.
If you adopted your new pet from a shelter or a breed rescue organization, your may have a little extra work to do as you try to bond. Your pet may have been mistreated by his former owners, or he may have been ignored and neglected. On the other end of the spectrum, he may have been spoiled rotten and learned that he need only make a ruckus to get whatever he wants. If he’s been in one of these situations, he’ll need some time to unlearn his bad habits. If your new pet is aggressive toward you, or if his behavior doesn’t improve over time, your veterinarian may be able to help you or to refer you to a veterinary behaviorist.
Visit your veterinarian
One of the most important things you can do with your new pet is make an appointment with your veterinarian. Your veterinarian can help prevent health and behavioral problems, vaccinate your pet against diseases, and catch potential problems before they become serious. For more information, see How to Choose a Veterinarian and Wellness Exams.