7 Tips for First-Time Pet Owners Bringing Home a Dog or a Cat

CR's advice for gear, food, vet care, insurance, and more can make the transition easier for your new pet and your family

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During the pandemic, Americans have found all kinds of new ways to occupy their time, like doing jigsaw puzzles, baking sourdough bread, and taking online yoga classes.

And many people added a cat or dog to their household. Americans cleared out animal shelters in March and April, according to Lindsay Hamrick, director of policy for companion animals for the Humane Society. The ASPCA saw an almost 70 percent increase in animals going to foster homes through its New York City and Los Angeles foster programs in the first few weeks of stay-at-home orders, says Kelly DiCicco, manager of adoptions promotions at the ASPCA Adoption Center.

Purebred pets have been in high demand, too. Breeders are reporting both a jump in buyers and long wait lists, says Brandi Hunter, vice president of public relations and communications at the American Kennel Club.

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If you plan to get a new pet, remember that those critters come with a supply of love and companionship, and ongoing expenses. In addition to adoption fees, dog owners will spend an average of $1,459 on a medium-sized dog in the first year alone; cat owners will shell out $1,174. Those expenses will cover food, gear, vet visits, and much more.

Your household transition will be easier if you’re ready for your addition before your new critter comes home. We spoke with animal experts to find out what you need to have on hand to be ready for the arrival of your new household member.

1. Get the Necessary Gear

Dogs and cats require a lot of stuff you should have on hand when they arrive, including food and water bowls, beds, and treats. Brushes are a necessity for long-haired breeds, says Teresa Keiger, a Russian Blue cat breeder in Greensboro, N.C.

Dogs need a leash and a collar with an ID, as well as potty training pads and poop bags. Have a scratching post, litter box, and litter on hand for cats. Get the same litter your kitty used at the shelter or a breeder’s home, suggests Allene Tartaglia, executive director of the Cat Fanciers’ Association. “Some cats are picky about the feel of the litter, while other cats could care less, but you don’t want to take a chance they won’t use the litter box,” she says.

Pet toy shopping is fun, but make sure toys are the appropriate size. Toys that are too small can easily be swallowed or become lodged in your pet’s throat, says Hamrick. Dog toys often come with size recommendations on the label. Cut off strings, ribbons, rubber bands, feathers, eyes, or other parts that could be chewed off and ingested, Keiger says.

Comparison shopping is key to finding the best deals on pet gear. First, check prices online (factor in any shipping costs) on Amazon and Chewy; respondents in a recent nationally representative Consumer Reports survey named them the most popular online pet supply retailers.

Compare their deals with the prices on pet chain sites, like Petco and PetSmart, and big-box stores that sell pet goods, like Target and Walmart. If you like a particular site, see whether it has a free loyalty program for additional discounts. If you have a Costco or Sam’s Club membership, check its pet stock and prices as well.

If you have a local pet store, you can stop by to compare its deals. In most states pet stores have been considered essential businesses, so they have remained open during the pandemic, says Hamrick.

2. Find a Good Vet

You should bring your new pet to a vet for a checkup within the first couple of weeks after you bring him or her home, or sooner if you have specific concerns, DiCicco says.

To find a vet in your area, you can do a ZIP code search on the site of the American Animal Hospital Association, suggests Louise Murray, an animal internist in Westchester, N.Y., and author of "Vet Confidential: An Insider's Guide to Protecting Your Pet's Health" (Ballantine Books, 2008). The organization has a strict accreditation process that includes onsite evaluations and a checklist of more than 900 standards of veterinary care.

Ask a clinic you are considering whether it provides technician-supervised overnight care, which can be key if your pet needs surgery or other treatment that will require them to stay in the hospital in the future. You can also ask nearby family and friends for their vet recommendations and check out online reviews.

Although single practitioner vet clinics can be wonderful, Murray notes, also consider multi-vet practices that allow you to take advantage of a variety of skills and experience levels. Find the name, address, and phone number of the nearest 24/7 emergency animal hospital, too, just in case.

3. Determine Which Vaccines and Meds Your Pet Needs

Vaccinating your pet has long been considered one of the easiest ways to help them live a long, healthy life, says DiCicco. “Some vaccines are considered vital to all pets based on risk of exposure, severity of the disease, or transmissibility to humans,” she says. Ask a shelter or breeder to document what vaccines, if any, your pet has already received before you take them home so that your vet can administer any needed additional vaccines or boosters.

When you meet with your vet for that first appointment, ask what preventive medicines he or she recommends. Flea and tick treatments, for example, can help prevent minor skin irritations as well as life-threatening diseases. Heartworm medicine can prevent damage to the heart, lungs, and arteries.

To save the most on pet meds, compare the prices your vet charges with those at drugstores and big-box stores; many carry pet products and will fill prescriptions for your pet if they stock the same medications for humans. Some pet websites will also fill prescriptions for owners. You may have to upload a copy of a prescription, while others will call your vet’s office directly after you place an order.

Look for the .Pharmacy seal from the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy on a website’s homepage before you place an order. The NABP, a nonprofit organization, works with state boards of pharmacy to verify which websites are safe to use to buy medications. You can also find out whether a website has been approved by NABP by copying its URL into a search box on the NABP site; approved websites include 1-800-PetMeds, Chewy, and PetCareRx.

4. Stock Up on Food

Feeding your pet will be one of your largest ongoing expenses. Stock up on the food and treats your pet has been eating at the breeder or the shelter.

Then when you meet with your vet, you can talk about the food he or she recommends. Most canned pet foods have all the nutrition your pet needs, says Murray. Look for food labels stating that nutritional adequacy was validated by animal-feeding tests based on protocols from the American Association of Feed Control Officials, a regulatory group. The FDA says raw pet food diets can be dangerous, but if you’re considering it after learning the risks, be sure to discuss it with your vet.

Signing up for automatic shipments of pet food online can save you some money, generally about a 5 percent discount on each shipment. Your pet food will then be delivered at regular intervals, but you can adjust the delivery dates, update the delivery products, or cancel your subscription at any time. Amazon's service is called Subscribe & Save; Chewy's, Autoship; Petco’s, Repeat Delivery; and PetSmart's, Auto Ship.

If you’d prefer to buy your food at a locally owned walk-in pet store or pet chain store, ask whether it has a loyalty program that provides discounts on pet food. These programs are almost always free to join.

5. Consider Pet Insurance

If you think you would have trouble covering the cost of a large unexpected pet medical bill, pet insurance might help. When CR compared pet insurance coverage for a cat and a dog from three providers, we found that the cost could be worth it if your pet contracts a serious illness.

However, like people insurance, the plans are complicated and come with deductibles, copays, and premiums. And if your pet is relatively healthy, you may pay more for the insurance than it will pay out. Our detailed information about the plans can help you decide whether this coverage is right for you.

6. Address Behavior Problems

Expect your new pet to be a bit nervous adjusting to its new home at first, says Hamrick. But if he or she consistently exhibits behavior that concerns you after that, you may want some advice from an expert. Classic signs of anxiety include nervous pacing and panting, vocalizing, or trying to go with you as you try to leave the house, says DiCicco. While you’re gone, these pets may repeatedly soil the house or engage in destructive behavior, particularly of items that smell strongly of you.

“If you do think your pet is having a lot of trouble adjusting, consider contacting either a certified professional trainer, certified applied animal behaviorist, or veterinary behaviorist,” says DiCicco. “Many of them are offering services virtually during this time to address your pet’s needs.”

You can find certified trainers and behaviorists near you by doing a ZIP code search on the website of the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. “We like their members because they are required to utilize only positive reinforcement training methods, not punishment,” Hamrick says.

You'll find veterinary behaviorists, specialists who focus on animal behavior issues and medical treatments, on the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists website. The American Kennel Club also has a list of local clubs that provide training, including some classes geared for specific breeds.

7. Prepare Your Pet for Post-Pandemic Life

When our regular routines and activities begin again, your dog or cat may be left confused or lonely and wondering why everyone is rushing out the door instead of spending time at home. “A sudden decrease in time with the family can be difficult for pets, especially if they have become accustomed to having people with them all hours of the day,” DiCicco says.

To help your pet adjust, gradually begin to mimic what your pet's schedule will look like on a typical work or school day. “Even though you can spend most of the day with them now, start spending a couple of hours at a time in a separate room,” says Hamrick. You can gradually increase that time to reflect the hours you’ll be away from home on most days.

Also ask your neighbors and vet to recommend local dog-walking services and daycare options in your area. Before you travel for work or a vacation, call local boarding facilities to find out whether they are accepting new pets and what services they provide.

Someone in your vet’s office may also offer pet sitting and feeding services to take care of the needs of your dog or cat while you’re away.

Head shot image of Mandy Walker, freelance writer for Consumer Reports

Mandy L. Walker

Mandy Walker is a freelance personal finance and health journalist and is the co-host of the " Hot Shopping Tips: How to Get the Best Deals on Everything!" podcast. Previously, she was a senior editor in the money group at Consumer Reports and a company spokeswoman for 15 years.