Choosing a Pet -- 11 Steps to a Good Match

A puppy waiting to go for a walk.

Are you ready to add a pet to your life?

I will never forget the year my brother-in-law arrived for Thanksgiving dinner with a puppy in his arms. Rog had recently lost his sweet Golden, Miranda, after many years of companionship; so we were pleased to see that he had so quickly opened his heart to a new pup. As we cradled her in our arms, Rog returned to his truck and reappeared with another puppy saying, “This one’s for you!” Gasp.

Clearly, Rog knew how we had loved Miranda; but at the time, we were renting a house, our lives were in transition, my husband and I were both working . . . so adding a puppy to our family was simply out of the question! His gesture was typical of his big-heartedness; but in the end, Rog returned home with two pups. We later adopted a pet more suited to our lifestyle, a lovely black cat who has helped to fill a void in our empty nest for the last 12 years.

There are many benefits to owning a pet, of course; but adding a pet to your family is a long-term commitment that should involve careful planning. A pet should not be an impulse purchase!  If you’re contemplating adding a pet to your family, it’s important that you and your family take the time to consider what it will mean for all of you. Here are some questions that will help you decide if you’re ready for a pet and, if so, which one is right for you.

1. Why do you want a pet?

What role do you want a pet to play in your life? Emily Weiss of the ASPCA recommends every family member complete this sentence: “It’s most important to me that my dog/cat . . .” focusing not on physical appearance but “how he behaves, his interactions with you, how he loves you, does he sit on your lap, or pull on his leash.” Whether you end up with a dog, a cat, a gerbil or a fish, working through everyone’s expectations will ensure that you choose well.

2.  Are you in it for the long haul?

A hamster might live for only a year, but most other pets will live far longer than that. Dogs and cats can live for 16 years or more, and some parrots as long as 60 years! Far too many pets are abandoned or left at shelters because their owners weren’t in it for the long haul.

3.  Are you willing to do some research?

To be sure you’re choosing the right pet, it’s really helpful to do some homework. Just be sure you’re using reputable sources, like a vet who specializes in the pet you have in mind. The ASPCA has a guide to choosing the right pet with good information (did you know rabbits should never be housed outside where they can literally be scared to death??) and advice (apparently hamsters are very social so should be bought in pairs).

There’s even a Cats for Dummies and Choosing a Dog for Dummies book, both of which Amazon calls ”educational, comprehensive and entertaining.”

4.  Do you have time to spend with a pet?

Adding a pet to your life involves more than putting a roof over their heads. Most pets need one-on-one time with their caretaker to build a relationship of trust and companionship. Some pets will need training; others will require regular grooming, bathing, nail trims, and exercise.  Even little guys like gerbils and hamsters need their habitat cleaned regularly, sometimes daily. If you work most days, a cat may be content to sleep away those lonely hours; but is it fair to leave a dog alone or crated for hours on end? Be prepared to invest time in your pet!

5.  Do you want an active pet?

Are you energetic? Do you envision going for long walks with your pet and playing frisbee in the back yard? Or are you more of the couch potato variety? If you don't have the energy for an active pet, choose one that will be happy sitting in your lap (a cat will do, of course, but why not try a rabbit?) or one you will be happy simply to watch (your best choice in that case would be some fish!).

6.  What about space?

Is your living space expansive or the size of a postage stamp? Does your yard have room to romp safely, i.e. is it protected by a fence? Gauge the space needs of your pet appropriately. Where will your pet be while you’re at work? Do you have enough space, and the right space, for a crate, a cage, a hutch, a terrarium?

7.  Can you afford to care for your pet?

Right up front, there may be vaccinations and neutering; and it’s inevitable you will eventually deal with fleas or allergies or some hereditary condition, not to mention the inevitable emergency. I can’t tell you how many pet owners I’ve met whose pets developed unforeseen health problems like food allergies or diabetes or chronic ear infections. If that should happen, are you ready to provide the care your pet needs? “In sickness and in health” should apply to pets as well as people!

In short, count the cost ahead of time. The ASPCA estimates that even a fish will cost you upwards of $235 the first year, a small bird a bit more. Rabbits and cats come in at just over $1,000 annually while dogs range from $1,300 to over $1,800, depending on size. And that doesn't include the cost of the unexpected crisis or health issue.

Once you have a pet, PurSpray Pet Care is a must for your pet supply closet! As a skin, eye and ear treatment, it's safe for all pets and its effectiveness is nearly unrivaled. As a general cleaner, PurSpray Pet Care is 100% non-toxic and safe to lick or inhale. Add it to your pet care regimen today!

8.  Have you thought about nutrition? 

Good nutrition is the foundation of good health, for people and for pets. You can always grab the cheapest can or bag of pet food on the shelf; but is that really fair to your pet? Poor nutrition is bound to lead to health problems down the road which can be costly and, of equal importance, can mean poor quality of life for your pet. For expert advice on healthy foods for your pet, check out Whole Dog Journal (for dogs, of course) and Dr. Jean Hofve (for cats). If you're considering a small or exotic animal, check with a veterinarian (we recommend holistic vets) or go online. Just be sure you're getting information from a reputable site!

9.  Are you prepared to pet-proof your home?

Do you know what houseplants are toxic to each pet? Do you know birds can die from scented candles and that cleaning products, deodorants, sugar-free gum and ADD medications can poison your pet? Even pet toys can be toxic!

If you’re considering a cat, make up your mind right now that you will not declaw. First of all, it’s barbaric; and second of all, it's barbaric. Get the idea? It also deprives your cat of a natural form of defense. Look into alternatives to declawing so you won’t freak out when she shreds your favorite sofa cushions. If you don’t want to take that risk, choose another pet.

10.  If you have children, are they ready for a pet?

If you still have very young children, it may be best to wait a few years to get a pet. Or you might consider adopting an older pet who is known to be gentle with children.

Older children can learn valuable lessons about responsibility and unconditional love from having a pet; but this takes some preparation. If given the chance, children can play an important role in choosing the right pet for your family. Here are a couple of great places to start: PBS Kids asks questions that get kids to think about what having a pet will mean (e.g. will you hate getting up early to feed or walk your pet? will you complain about it or just not do it? what if you want a rabbit and your brother wants a lizard?); Love Your Dog focuses on dog ownership but asks great questions and encourages kids to consider adoption. Both have several links to other helpful sites and articles. Definitely take a look!

11.  Consider adoption!

Far too many pets are abandoned every year and end up at rescue shelters or humane societies. Find one in your area and pay it a visit! Rescue staff know a lot about the animals in their care; so talk to them about why you want a pet (remember Question #1?) and what role you want her to play in your life. If you're attracted to a particular pet, go as a family to visit the shelter and watch his behavior -- does he approach you or your child and engage in a safe way? do pet and person feel comfortable and relaxed together?

Once again, the ASPCA can help. Meet Your Match is a fantastic program they designed to help you adopt the perfect pet. Their fun, color-coded programs, called Canine-ality, Puppy-ality and Feline-ality, are designed to make compatible matches. Try it out!

If you have a specific breed in mind, there are even purebred rescues!  The American Kennel Club can provide you with a list.

Are you considering a pet? Do you have any stories about adding a pet to your family? Any good advice?  Share it with our community!