Some 69% of Americans own at least one pet, according to YouGov America. Most animal-owning households have a dog or cat—or both—and 88% of the 1,275 people surveyed consider their pet a member of the family.
If you’re one of them, you’ll know how your pet expresses affection. They jump on you, wiggle their tail, lick your face and follow you around the house. But how can you show your pet you love them back?
You might be convinced that your pet understands you when you talk—especially if the topic is a treat—but there are plenty of non-verbal ways to demonstrate devotion and affection.
Give Them Quality Time and Plenty of Attention
Pets—like people—just want to hang out with their loved ones, so the best way to show you care is to spend quality time together, according to Dr. Carly Fox, a senior veterinarian at Schwarzman Animal Medical Center in New York City.
You can take your pet for a walk, teach them a new trick or play their favorite game, or simply make some time to cuddle on the couch.
You can even include your pet in your workout routine. “Overweight pets typically have a shorter lifespan than pets in good body condition, so if your dog is able, take them on a jog or a hike, or do yoga with your cat,” Fox told Newsweek.
Dr. Christian Broadhurst, from nonprofit vet clinic Clay Humane in Orange Park, Florida, told Newsweek that, more than anything else, pets want your attention and companionship. “That’s the single driving factor for dogs,” he said, adding that cats also like attention—but only when they ask for it.
Should You Hug and Kiss Them?
This depends on the pet, Broadhurst said. While some dogs may like this kind of affection, cats probably won’t. “Some dogs do like hugs and kisses, some don’t. Don’t hug or kiss them if you don’t know your pet well.
“Cats don’t really like hugs and kisses. They are inherently solitary creatures—they do want contact but on their own terms.”
Take Good Care of Their Health
Take care of your pets’ health just as you would for any other member of your family.
Minimize risks to their safety, provide them with routine veterinary care and schedule their annual visits. Preventing an illness is easier and less expensive than curing one, and early detection of common cat ailments such as chronic kidney disease, hyperthyroidism and diabetes can be life saving.
Don’t forget to keep up with vaccinations too. Check with your veterinarian when your pet may need a jab and perform blood work as recommended.
Provide High-Quality Food, Made for Their Species
A high-quality commercial pet food will keep your animals happy and healthy. “A lot of love and science went into making sure that diet was properly formulated for your best friend,” said Fox.
Although cooking a special homemade meal for family members is usually perceived as an act of love, it’s better to give your pet food that was made for their species. You should avoid cooking your pet’s meals, except in “very specialized circumstances under the guidance of a veterinary nutritionist,” she added.
Do Pets Understand the Meaning of a Gift?
It depends on the gift, according to Broadhurst. “They understand the meaning of food. Your dog will love you forever if you give him a milk bone but he won’t care about a designer collar.”
Pets would much rather get attention from their humans than gifts. If you do want to treat them, a food gift is probably best so they can really appreciate it, although you should be wary of giving them too many unhealthy snacks.
Do Not Overfeed Them
Almost every dog and cat owner knows this scenario: your pet is begging for a snack, following you around, staring at you with sad eyes, whining as though they haven’t eaten in days … and you give in.
But as Fox points out, “food does not equal love when it comes to our pets.” Her advice is to “avoid feeding them constant treats [and] high-fat foods and keep ‘people food’ to a minimum—less than 10% of diet.”
She also points to research that has found overweight dogs live on average two-and-a-half years less than those that are not overweight, so be cautious and stick to the portions recommended by the food producer.
Minimize the Risk of Accidents
Your pet can be agile and an enthusiastic chaser of sticks or balls, but animals can be quite clumsy, especially as they get older. It’s your responsibility to keep them safe from harm.
Whether your dog is a Great Dane or a tiny terrier, you should avoid allowing them to walk off leash outside—unless you’re in a designated area such as a dog park. Fox said: “In my experience as an ER doctor, it can lead to very serious accidents and even death. Not to mention it’s illegal in many places. So, if you love your pet, keep them safe with proper restraint.”
If you own a cat, be mindful of open windows. As the weather warms up, vets are recording an increase in high rise syndrome, where animals fall from open windows or terraces.
You shouldn’t let your cat outside without supervision either. “If you think your cat would love fresh air, you can accommodate that by placing them in an enclosed pet stroller and going on a walk or building an enclosed ‘catio,'” Fox added.
Do Cats Perceive Love in the Same Way as Dogs?
Cats appreciate quality time with their humans just as much as dogs, according to Fox. However, cats also love alone time, so you should respect their choice to keep their stress levels low.
Because cats are more independent than dogs, owners might be more inclined to forget or delay routine care, but remember that cats need just as much love.