How to be perfectly beastly

Owning an animal may give you a warm fuzzy feeling, but what's good for you isn't always what's best for your furry friend. Hester Lacey learns the best route to feline (and canine) fulfilment

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The gentle touch of a cold, wet, friendly canine nose, the rumbling purr of a contented cat, the endearing tumbling of a hamster on its wheel, the elegant shimmer of a sleek angel fish: pet animals give their owners much pleasure and satisfaction. Some serve humans even more devotedly: dogs that have been trained to assist the disabled or who visit and comfort the sick in hospitals, for example. There's plenty of research that shows pets contribute to their owners' health. This goes above and beyond the physical fitness that comes with walking a lively dog. Keeping a pet reduces stress and unhappiness and there is evidence to show that pet owners are less likely to have heart attacks and that children who grow up with pets are less likely to develop asthma or allergies.

The gentle touch of a cold, wet, friendly canine nose, the rumbling purr of a contented cat, the endearing tumbling of a hamster on its wheel, the elegant shimmer of a sleek angel fish: pet animals give their owners much pleasure and satisfaction. Some serve humans even more devotedly: dogs that have been trained to assist the disabled or who visit and comfort the sick in hospitals, for example. There's plenty of research that shows pets contribute to their owners' health. This goes above and beyond the physical fitness that comes with walking a lively dog. Keeping a pet reduces stress and unhappiness and there is evidence to show that pet owners are less likely to have heart attacks and that children who grow up with pets are less likely to develop asthma or allergies.

But what's in it for the animals? Is it possible to justify keeping another living being simply for amusement and pleasure? The obvious answer is that pets receive food, shelter and love, but the only reason that they need these from humans is because they have been domesticated and can't fend for themselves.

The British have an international reputation as a nation of animal lovers, but 69,956 unwanted pets were found new homes in 2003 by RSPCA animal centres alone. Some animals that cannot be rehoused have to be put down. The philosopher Roger Scruton, in his book Animal Rights and Wrongs, argues that animals cannot have "rights" as they have no moral code, but also that we have a duty to care for them whether we keep them for meat or as pets. This "duty of care" is also central to the pet policy of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta). "The most important thing is for animals to live their lives on their own terms," says Andrew Butler, campaign co-ordinator at Peta. "Ideally, animals shouldn't be kept as pets, but we are faced with the existence of a massive number of domesticated animals and we have to maximise the fulfilment they get from their lives."

The pet industry, he says, has become a huge international business. Puppy mills breed for profit, the desire for exaggerated looks means animals are being bred with health problems caused by their appearance, many unwanted animals are put down each week and others whose chances of adoption are slim or non-existent may languish for years in shelters with "no-kill" policies. National animal welfare organisations support neutering and spaying programmes. Peta would say that no pet should be acquired from anywhere other than a rescue centre.

Butler says: "No matter what breed, size, temperament or age of animal companion you are looking for, you will find what you want in a shelter. Shelters are bursting at the seams with animals in desperate need."

Films that feature animals, such as 101 Dalmatians, Finding Nemo, can trigger pet fads. When Finding Nemo came out, the RSPCA had to issue stern warnings about the inadvisability of "freeing" fish by flushing them down the lavatory. The film led to a huge increase in demand for clownfish. Most tropical marine fish are taken from the wild and anything from 10 to 30 per cent die before they reach the market.

David Grant, an RSPCA vet, says: "Something that is really bugging me at the moment is pets used as status symbols. Some of the exotics such as snakes or bearded dragons look good when you first see them but they need a fantastic amount of expert care."

This is probably all starting to sound a little depressing. But responsible owners can and do develop happy relationships with their animals. "With a good level of care, I would envy a dog's life," says Grant. "They love human company and, as far as you can ascertain what goes on in their heads, they enjoy life. A purring cat that likes people, is given good food and has the run of a nice large garden, is a happy cat." An ethical pet owner, he says, should offer their animal, whatever it is, an enriched environment over and above its basic shelter and food needs.

"If you provide the best possible environment for your animal and enrich its life, it will enrich yours in turn and that is a good partnership. It's owners who don't know how to look after their pets, don't bother to find out and couldn't care less, who are unethical, in my view. Sadly I see a lot."

When it comes to health, pets can even be better off then their wild equivalents. "Veterinary science has come on in leaps and bounds in the last 30 years and the facilities we have available are as good as those for humans," says Grant. "In fact, with a caring owner and good vet care, the level of preventative care for animals is better than for humans."

Janet Nunn, chief executive of the Pet Care Trust, shares her office with Elsa and Amber, two dandie dinmont terriers. The Pet Care Trust is a charity responsible for the Pet Care Charter, a code of conduct that sets out best practice. "The notion of enrichment has changed the whole pet world in the last few years," she says. "Animals today are not just cared for and nurtured, but mentally stimulated as well. Behaviourists such as Jan Fennell, the author of The Dog Listener, have made a lot of people stop and think about how they relate to their pets."

Responsible owners, she says, are becoming more aware of their pets' needs for company and mental exercise; for example, about 15 per cent of rabbits are now kept as "house rabbits" rather than in outdoor hutches. "Vets are realising it's not just about treating sick animals but about getting the messages out about keeping animals healthy and happy," she says. "Pet keeping may not even be the right description for what we do. You never really own an animal, you share your life with it. It's a relationship which enhances your life and theirs too."

Basic principles have changed, agrees Howard Jones, a canine behaviour specialist. "Trainers are more compassionate now and there are better ways of exploring opportunities and maximising the potential of your dog. Thankfully, punitive methods of teaching, such as choke chains and electric collars, are being phased out." Many problems arise simply because owners fail to do their homework before bringing their new dog home, he says. "Prevention is better than cure, and a reputable dog-training organisation can teach owners positive methods. I liken people's dogs to their bank accounts; ultimately they only get out as much as they put in."

There is more information available to owners than ever before, says Grant - and thus no excuse not to be knowledgeable. "A lot of animals are better kept than ever, but the flip side is those people who haven't got a clue. Much cruelty or neglect is down to ignorance and lack of education."

The rescue chicken must be one of the most ethically sound pets. These birds are saved from death by Jane Howorth, who runs the West Country Retirement Home and Rehoming Centre for Battery Hens. She works, in contact with battery farmers, to rescue as many birds as she can find homes for. "They go from one extreme to another, from being an egg machine to a family pet that can do all the things a chicken does naturally," says Howorth. "Chickens are responsive, communicative pets. They are treated so poorly, but reward us by being so endearing when they are properly looked after. It's quite an irony."

Cats

* A cat typically lives for 14 or 15 years, and the RSPCA estimates the likely costs at nearly £9,500 for that period. Cats are more independent than dogs but still need play, grooming and companionship. Cats should never be picked up by the scruff of the neck. Scratching posts and toys should be provided for entertainment (and to deflect attention from the furniture). And they should not be shut out of the house at night. It's mean to boot them out into the cold, and most cat road deaths happen in the dark.

Dogs

* Most need lots of exercise. Some take a lot of grooming and all must be socialised and trained. Dogs shouldn't be left alone all day; those that are lonely and bored are more likely to bark and become destructive. They should be spayed or neutered and fitted with a chip, as well as getting regular vaccinations and wormings. You do have to pick up a lot of poo over the years.

Reptiles & 'exotic' pets

* Poorly kept reptiles are at risk of malnutrition, rickets, osteoporosis, respiratory disease and skin problems. They need a highly specialised diet. These are pets to look at, not to cuddle because they find handling stressful. Even zoos find it hard to look after species such as the chameleon. Tortoises do not make suitable pets; nine out of 10 die within four years of captivity.

Guinea pigs

* Guinea pigs like company and should always be kept in single-sex pairs or small groups. They like to go outside, in a securely-covered run. Like humans, guinea pigs can't synthesise their own vitamin C so they need lots of fresh vegetables, or vitamin tablets or drops.

Rabbits

* Rabbits are social animals and can live for 10 years, and need company, grooming, an outside run, and toys. They should be neutered, or females can have health problems and males can be bolshie. They should be vaccinated. They can be trained as "house rabbits".

Stick insects

* Stick insects need enough space to be able to move around, in a vivarium or a specially designed, mesh, insect cage. If they are kept in crowded conditions, they may damage themselves. They need to be kept warm and should be misted with water regularly.

Hamsters

* Syrian hamsters are solitary, though dwarf hamsters can be kept in single-sex pairs. Hamsters don't see well when they have just woken and shouldn't be swooped on from above because this makes them stressed. In the wild, they cover huge distances and like to burrow and run through tubes; a wheel alone is not enough.

Fish

* Cold-water goldfish are the easiest to keep. You need a basic tank with an oxygenator. Even goldfish need TLC in the form of occasional partial water changes. The next step up is freshwater tropical fish, while marine tropical fish are for the very experienced, as maintaining correct salinity levels is tricky.

Parrots & birds

* Buy as big a cage as you can; a proper aviary is preferable for many species. Birds should be able to fly around. Small birds should be kept in single-sex pairs or small flocks. Parakeets and parrots need companionship and stimulation. Parrots can live for 50 years, and budgerigars and cockatiels achieve double figures.

Cats Protection 08702 099 099 www.cats.org.uk; Dogs Trust 020-7837 0006 www.dogstrust.org; Howard Jones 01952 261051 www.dogdayz.co.uk (this site features a free e-mail advice service); Peta 020-7357 9229 www.peta.org.uk; Pet Care Trust 08700 624400 www.petcare.org.uk; RSPCA 0870 5555 999 www.rspca.org.uk; West Country Retirement Home and Rehoming Centre for Battery Hens 07773 596927 www.thehenshouse.co.uk. 'The Dog Listener' by Jan Fennell, £14.99, HarperCollins; 'Animal Rights and Wrongs' by Roger Scruton, £7.95, Demos/Metro Publishing

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