‘Planned Parenthood’: Finding the Right Pet
Author: Linda S. Hopkins
Owning a pet comes with many advantages, including companionship and comfort as well as numerous health and social benefits. But there can be some disadvantages, too, especially if you choose an animal that is not well-suited to your personality, lifestyle and budget.
Committing to pet ownership is like committing to parenthood, with one major difference: This baby is not going to grow up and move into its own apartment. Much like a newborn human, the animal you bring into your life will be completely dependent on you. Although your pet may mature and mellow a bit with age, unlike a child, it will never make its own breakfast, get a job or drive a car. You are responsible for the pet’s health and happiness for its lifetime, so you will want to make a careful selection based on how much time, energy and money you are willing to invest in an animal’s well-being. The Internet is a fantastic source of information, of course, as is your local veterinarian’s office, animal shelter or rescue organization. But here’s what I’ve learned from experience.
Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve had the honor of knowing and caring for an assortment of animals, including dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pigs, turtles, fish and a talking myna bird. The most exotic pet I ever owned was a monkey, who showed up in our backyard when I was about eight years old. After a few failed attempts to find its rightful owner, we captured and kept him as a pet. He was fun to watch but never tame or affectionate. We did our best to provide food, shelter and entertainment…until we accidentally poisoned him by dousing him with flea powder. Who knew that what worked for the dog would kill the monkey?
Today, I define myself as a cat person; I’ve lived with a variety of them, from starving strays and grateful rescues to persnickety purebreds. In 1999, I went on a quest to find a white Persian kitten—purely an aesthetic choice. I did my research, found reputable breeders, met, held and interacted with multiple bundles of marshmallow-white fluff. I ultimately came home with the girl of my dreams, along with a cream tabby male who seduced me with his loud purr during the selection process. The owners gave us a “deal” for taking two, but it was still a chunk of change, and I had no idea what I was in for.
I quickly learned that owning two kittens is twice as expensive as owning one. Duh! I also found out the hard way that Peke-faced (or flat-faced) Persians require tons of extra maintenance. In addition to daily combing and brushing, they need special eye care to prevent staining and bacterial overgrowth on their faces from their tears. Did I mention the challenge of keeping a furry white face white in a world of brown and yellow food? Although it probably wouldn’t have changed my choice, some extra homework might have prepared me.
I lost my boy four years ago to a sudden cardiac event. My white sugar baby will be 17 in May. She is a source of great beauty and joy … and when she knocks on heaven’s door, it will be a devastating loss. I am prepared to open my heart and home to another cat, but knowing what I know now, I will think long and hard before falling in love with a white Peke-faced Persian.
What kind of pet is right for you?
Each type of pet is different in terms of care, feeding, grooming, behavior, cost, housing and demands on your time. Some animal breeds are also susceptible to specific health problems, which you would be wise to understand.
Whether you are looking for a puppy or a pot-bellied pig, it’s important to think about what you want in a pet. What do you envision or expect from the relationship? Are you looking for a running partner, a Frisbee chaser, or a snuggle buddy? Are you after companionship, affection, playfulness, something pretty to look at or some combination of the aforementioned? Is pedigree important or not? Would you enjoy a high-energy animal, or do you prefer a more sedate mate? How will your new pet fit in with the rest of the family? Are there children or other pets to consider? Just as people sometimes fall in “love” at first sight, your pet’s external appearance may matter, but personality and temperament will ultimately count most.
Next you will want to make sure that you are prepared to provide for the pet’s needs as it grows. Baby animals are adorable, but before you bring home a cute little ball of fuzz, you are wise to research the average size of the adult animal, which will affect the cost of its food as well as arrangements for its safe shelter and accommodations necessary for play and proper exercise.
Will the animal live indoors with you? Can you tolerate pet hair or any additional wear and tear on your floors and/or furnishings? If you rent, do you have permission from the property owner? Will you need a fenced yard, an outdoor enclosure or other special equipment?
You’ll also need to be realistic about how much time and energy you have. Are you willing to commit to training your pet? What is your activity level? Are you sedentary or physically active? Do you have someone who can take care of your pet if you are away from home? If not, how will you provide for your pet when you are at work or when you travel? You will need to figure daycare, boarding costs and/or pet sitting fees into your budget.
Which brings us to one of the most overlooked questions: the financial piece. It’s easy to rush into an emotional decision without thinking about the long-term cost of owning and caring for the pet. What is the average life expectancy of the pet you have chosen? Do you have the financial resources to keep it fed and groomed throughout its lifetime? Can you afford to provide routine medical care and to seek emergency or long-term intervention in case of a medical crisis or chronic condition? You will want to set aside funds for your pet’s care, which is likely to increase in cost as the animal ages. You might also consider purchasing pet insurance to cover a portion of its routine care and any special medical needs that may arise. For financial facts and other key information, visit petfinder.com.
Narrowing down the choices
The most common household pets, of course, are dogs and cats. But you may want to keep an open mind when considering which animal best suits your lifestyle. Note the average lifespan of the animal and be sure you are willing to make that commitment.
Dogs are social creatures and loyal companions who, in addition to food, water and shelter, require love, attention and interaction. Don’t even dream of getting a dog if you plan to leave it alone in the backyard or keep it on a chain all day. Different breeds of dogs have different characteristics, and you will want to research and select with care. Learn about the traits of the dog you’re thinking about getting, even if he or she is a mixed breed, to see if you are compatible. (Dogmatch.com and pawslikeme.com are good matchmaking sources.) Costs associated with dog care include food, toys, leashes, a crate, training, grooming, spay/neuter surgery, routine vet care and, sometimes, emergency vet care.
Average lifespan: 6-15 years
Cats typically don’t require as much attention as dogs, but they do need daily play time and petting. Cats have different personalities and some special breeds (particularly long-haired breeds) require more maintenance than others. Some like to be held and snuggled; others are more aloof and don’t like to be picked up. If you go to a shelter or contact a local rescue group to adopt a cat, they will be able to advise you on the personalities of the cats in their care and help you choose just the right one. If you have children under the age of three in your home, an adult cat might be a better choice than a kitten. You’ll also have to make a decision about whether to have an indoor or outdoor cat. Indoor kitties live longer and are generally healthier. The cost of caring for a cat includes food, toys, litter box and litter box supplies, spay/neuter surgery, scratching posts, grooming tools and, of course, routine veterinary care.
Average lifespan: indoor cat, 12-15 years
Birds are fascinating and beautiful, intelligent and social, but they are not easy-care pets. Also, in the wild, birds are flock animals; so, if you’re thinking about getting a bird, you might consider getting two. Make sure you’re willing to spend time with your feathered friends each day and that you are willing to commit to constant and thorough cage cleaning. At minimum, a bird’s cage should be large enough so that it can spread its wings fully and “fly” from one side to the other (a width of at least four wing spans). Even better is if you have a room in your house where your birds can safely be let out for a period of time each day.
Parrots and cockatoos, parakeets and cockatiels are the most affectionate of all birds that are commonly kept as pets. Generally, the larger the bird species, the longer they live, with some types of parrots pushing 50 year or more. To learn more about bird care and adoption, visit the Avian Welfare Coalition website at avianwelfare.org.
Average lifespan: 10-50 years, depending on the species
Rabbits are intelligent, social animals and can become delightful companions when given a chance to interact with humans. However, if not handled gently and often, they may not be comfortable being picked up and cuddled. They have a fairly delicate digestive system and must be fed a varied diet. Rabbits prefer quiet environments, so they may not fit in well with a hectic family life or other rowdy pets. To control the temperature of their environment and to keep them safe from predators, rabbits should be kept inside. They can be taught to use a litter box, especially if they are spayed or neutered. As with any family pet, your bunny will need routine veterinary care. For more information, visit the House Rabbit Society website at rabbit.org.
Average lifespan: 8-12 years
Ferrets have distinctive personalities and a playful, active nature. They are nearly noiseless and can be fed a commercial diet of ferret or kitten chow. Ferrets are social, often affectionate creatures who bond closely with people, but they are not low-maintenance pets; they require constant cage cleaning as well as plenty of supervised play time outside their cages. If you aren’t home much, have young children, or have a busy lifestyle, then a ferret is probably not a good choice for you.
Average lifespan: 5-7 years
Guinea pigs are gentle affectionate pets. They are social creatures that form lifelong bonds with others. Guinea pigs are best kept in pairs, especially if you don’t have a lot of time to devote to keeping them company. They can live in small quarters. They are economical to feed and, when well-maintained, have little odor and produce very little dander.
Average lifespan: 5-8 years.
Gerbils make good pets and can be quite affectionate if handled early and often. They are economical to buy and maintain, but as with guinea pigs, they do not fare well alone. A gerbil with a companion can live significantly longer than a lone gerbil, although if you don’t want a whole family of gerbils, get two of the same gender. If you want a pet that is fun to watch, cute to look at, and fun to play with for short periods of time during the day, a pair of gerbils might be your best bet.
Average lifespan: 2-4 years
Hamsters only take up a small amount of room and are easy and inexpensive to care for. They are playful creatures and need to be handled as often as possible to break boredom and keep them healthy and active. Since they don’t need supervision during the day and they don’t need to be taken out for walks, they make good starter pets for kids or for adults who have never had a pet before. In addition to a cage and appropriate food, bedding and water, an exercise wheel/ball is a hamster’s greatest need. Hamsters are nocturnal animals, and wheels are known for being noisy at night, so plan on keeping the hamster away from your sleeping area. Weekly cage cleaning is a must.
Average lifespan: 2-3 years
Turtles, tortoises, snakes and lizards are essentially observational pets. You can watch them, handle them and pet them, but they do not generally return affection. All have long lives, which can pose a problem as life situations change.
Average lifespan: turtles, 10-20 years; tortoises, 50-60 years; snakes, 10-15 years; lizards, 5-30 years, depending on the species.
Fish are beautiful to look at and add an air of serenity to your home or office, but they need regular, methodical care to thrive. You will need to do some research regarding fish selection and aquarium setup and make sure you are willing to purchase the appropriate equipment and perform the necessary maintenance. While it is hard to develop a close relationship with fish, they will be happy to see you when you approach with food. Their lifespans vary greatly, depending on the species. Bettas, on average, live two years or less, whereas goldfish can live for decades. For more information, visit freshaquarium.about.com.
Average lifespan: 1-10 years
Horses are a source of enjoyment for many people. However, horses require a serious commitment of time, money and care. Costs include feed, bedding, training, boarding, stable tools, supplies and veterinary care. If you are thinking about getting a horse, you might want to try leasing or sharing one before committing to full ownership.
Average lifespan: 25-30 years.
Where to Find a Pet
Once you’ve decided which animal is right for you and your family, the key question is where to get your new pet. Please consider adopting. Many wonderful pets are available at area animal shelters. There are also rescue groups for many specific dog breeds and other types of pets. What’s more, the staff at your local animal shelter or rescue group will know the animals in their care and can help you find a good match for your personality and lifestyle. If you don’t find what you’re looking for locally, pettango.com is a real-time service that can connect you with thousands of animal welfare locations across North America to help you find your perfect pet match.
If you opt to purchase a purebred pet, look for a reputable and responsible breeder. Research the breed and visit shows to find out more about breeders and get more information about the breed. Avoid pet shops, commercial kennels or backyard breeders. Expect the breeder to question you regarding your home and lifestyle to determine if you are a fit owner for the pet. Beware of any breeder who is willing to sell you an animal with no reference checks or contract.
If you can’t own a pet or are not sure what pet is right for you, try fostering or volunteering at your local animal shelter.