This article was created in partnership with Instinct as part of A Better Way.
The bond we share with our pets can make us do silly things—like buy designer booties so our pup won’t have to get his paws wet or throw a raging second birthday party for our cat. Pets are family, so it’s OK to go a little overboard from time to time. But not everything that seems good for your pet actually is. We teamed up with Instinct, a high-quality raw pet food made with real meat, fruits, and vegetables, to uncover all the things you’re probably doing but shouldn’t be.
1. Giving your pet free rein in the backyard.
If you have a fenced-in yard, there’s nothing wrong with letting your dog out for bathroom breaks or to stretch his legs, says Carly Fox, DVM, a staff doctor at NYC Animal Medical Center. But lengthy, unsupervised time in the backyard isn’t recommended.
“Dogs are still dogs,” she says. “And they’re going to get into things. Taking them for a walk or being outside with them means you can regulate what they eat and monitor [bathroom habits], which is important medically so you can notice any potential health issues.”
Hang time in the backyard also isn’t a replacement for exercise. While needs differ by breed and age, Fox recommends a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise per day for most dogs and up to two hours per day for high-energy breeds such as Australian shepherds and heelers.
2. Buying pet food based on pretty packaging or price.
We’re suckers for good branding too, but don’t get mesmerized by a cool package, a fancy price tag, or a catchy commercial. Since most pet food labels are notoriously vague and difficult to understand, the best thing you can do is read up on a brand before purchasing, says Fox.
“You want a brand that has research behind it,” she says. “Look for words like balanced nutrition and brands that have veterinarians or pet nutritionists associated with it.”
Unlike many other pet food brands that use grain fillers and by-products and chemical preservatives, Instinct is made with real, raw whole foods. Rather than cooking those ingredients (and thus depleting them of important nutrients), Instinct uses cold-pressure technology to lock in all the vitamins, minerals, and enzymes your pet needs to thrive. It’s also the only raw diet scientifically substantiated by the Association of American Feed Control Officials Protocol Feeding Trials for being “complete and balanced” through all life stages.
3. Relying on teeth-cleaning treats and toys.
Some days it’s hard to remember to brush your own teeth, let alone your pet’s, but Fox says it’s crucial to scrub those pearly whites.
“It’s never too late to start,” she says. “Brushing gets beneath the gum line, which toys and treats can miss. And I know cats can be more difficult than dogs, but if they will let you, definitely brush their teeth too!”
If you don’t have time for daily upkeep, aim to brush your pet’s chompers at least once a week.
4. Using a one-size-fits-all grooming brush.
There’s a whole world of pet brushes out there: rubber, metal, de-shedders, slicker brushes, brushes shaped like a tongue so you can really bond with your cat at grooming time. But buying the first brush you see at the pet store can set you up for unnecessary discomfort on both ends, says Heather DePietro, a licensed veterinary technician at Banfield Pet Hospital.
To avoid skin irritation and a wrestling match with your pet, choose a brush that best fits their hair type. Shorter coats benefit from a bristled brush, DePietro says, while an edged style (also known as a “grooming rake”) is a good option for pets that shed.
5. Rewarding your pet with food for every. little. thing.
Don’t get us wrong: Good behavior should be rewarded—in moderation.
“As people, we’re taught [giving] food means we love someone, but unfortunately with our pets that can endanger them,” Fox says. “Overfeeding can lead to obesity, diabetes, arthritis, and chronic disease.”
Treats are also a common source of sneaky calories, which can lead to overfeeding. For a lighter treat, Fox suggests a small amount of regular food or kibble, or a couple pieces of air-popped popcorn (unsalted and unbuttered). Both are low calorie and pet friendly.
6. Letting your pet off-leash.
No matter how well trained your dog might be, letting him off-leash can lead to injuries and unpleasant run-ins with other dogs—or put you at risk of losing him.
“I know it’s a thing people like to do,” Fox says. “They might’ve gone off-leash a hundred times before, but the hundred-and-first time is the time something bad will happen.”
Even if it means having to walk farther than you’d prefer, keep them on the leash anytime you’re somewhere other than your fenced-in yard or a dog park.
7. Being clingy.
Sometimes you just want to hug your pet. For two hours while you binge-watch Netflix. Is that a crime?
We hate to say it but kinda. Cuddle time might be the best part of being a pet parent, but your dog (and oy, especially your cat) is an independent creature, even if he relies on you to take care of him.
You don’t have to be a pet whisperer to know when your four-legged friend wants to snooze in their own space, says DePietro. Ignoring those cues—like shaking, wide eyes, and pushed-back ears—can cause anxiety, frustration, and stress that leads to poor behavior (shoe chewing, table scratching, spraying). Read the room and respect their space.