By Dr. Becker
Have you been feeling the itch to add a pet to your family? In the U.S., 68 percent of households own a pet,1 and there's a reason why it's the majority. Whether your pet is a dog (the most popular pet), cat (the second most popular), fish, bird, small animal, reptile or horse, animals bring unconditional love, humor and companionship to a home in a way that's unparalleled by much else.
But while it may be tempting to bring home a pet on a whim, this isn't a decision to take lightly. Your pet will depend on you for its lifetime, and with the cuddles and kisses will come extra responsibility, both financially and demanding of your time.
Further, according to Emily Weiss, Ph.D., vice president for shelter research and development for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), owners and their pets tend to bond more when the owners know what they're looking for in a pet ahead of time, and keep it in mind when choosing a pet.
"It's always love at first sight, but knowing your expectations can help assure that that love at first sight stays a lasting love," Weiss told The Washington Post.2 Indeed, unmet expectations (yours, not your pets) are a leading reason why pets end up abandoned or returned to animal shelters, and asking yourself, and your family, a few key questions can go a long way toward making sure you're all on the same page and choose the right pet for your household.
What to Ask Yourself Before Deciding on a Pet
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has compiled a list of questions that everyone should answer prior to adding a pet to their family. "Your pet-owning experience will be most enjoyable if you consider carefully what type of pet best suits your family, home, and lifestyle … so invest the time and effort to make an informed decision and ensure the years with your future pet are happy ones," they note.3 Indeed, here's what you and your family should consider:
How will your other pets react? If you already have a pet, consider whether they will mesh well with a new pet, whether from the same or a different species.
What are you looking for in a pet? Do you want a pet to be your jogging buddy or one that will cuddle on your lap? Are you interested in a pet that requires a considerable amount of care, like a bird, or one that is easier to care for? Along with your wishes, consider how well your lifestyle can meet the needs of the pet you're considering.
Can you have your desired pet where you live? Depending on your living situation, you may be limited in the type or number of pets you can have. Be sure to find out restrictions from your landlord or condominium/townhome association, if that applies. If you're considering a more unusual pet, like a pot-bellied pig, you should check local ordinances to find out whether they're allowed.
Can you give the animal the attention and care it requires? You'll need to consider all aspects of care, from the practical — who will walk the dog or feed the cat? — to the emotional — will you be able to provide your pet with a safe, loving and nurturing environment?
Think about your work hours, financial situation, health status and free time. Are these factors conducive to caring for an animal? And, if you're considering an exotic pet, have you done enough research to provide the animal a proper home?
Who will care for your pet when you're away? Whether you work long hours or travel frequently, you'll need someone to feed, exercise and socialize with your dog when you're away. You should have a good idea of who this person will be and be sure you're financially able to arrange for their services.
Will future changes affect the life of your pet? Think about your ability to care for your pet now as well as 10 and 20 years down the road. If you're planning to get married, have children, move or start a new job, will you still be prepared and willing to care for your pet?
Only after you have a firm grasp on these basic questions should you move forward with choosing a pet, as well as deciding on what type of pet would be best. If you're looking for a family pet to bond with your children, a cat or dog may be a good fit, for instance, while certain reptiles may not be the best choice for a family with young children.
Especially when it comes to exotic pets, be aware that they require specialized diets and habitats. Speaking with a veterinarian who specializes in exotic pets is a good idea prior to bringing one home.
Even if you've decided to adopt a dog or cat, keep in mind that different breeds and animals have different personalities and needs. Staff members at animal shelters and rescue groups are often skilled at helping to match families with animals. Rather than making breed type your deciding factor, rely heavily on descriptions of the animal's personality and activity level from shelter workers and foster families.
In the case of dogs and cats, you can interact with them at the shelter and in some cases even have a "sleepover" to ensure you're a good fit. When it's time to bring your new pet home, you can find tips for bonding with your dog, cat or bird here.