Are You the Pet for Me?: 5 Steps for Choosing the Right Pet

by Mary Jane Checchi

"Mom! Matt's gerbils had gerbils. He says I can have two. Okay? Please!"
"Dad! Hannah's got an iguana! It's soooo cool! Can we get one?"

Many a parent has heard such pleas and in a moment of weakness given in. Other animal lovers become pet owners on impulse, unable to resist the adorable ferret cavorting in the pet shop window (of course - that's why he's there), or a neighbor's offer of a Great Dane puppy.

The choice of a pet can have a bigger impact on a family or individual than almost any other acquisition. Pets are fun, a source of affection, comfort and companionship - and they need daily attention. For a cat that can mean 7,300 days (twenty years) of care. Some dogs live almost as long, and some birds will live even longer.

Yet choosing a pet is often a hit-or-miss proposition. While the chance encounter with the litter next door might lead to a long-lasting relationship, studies show that pets acquired on impulse are less likely to be kept throughout their lives.

With a little homework and planning, you can avoid common pitfalls and find the right pet for you.

1. Begin with an open mind. Choosing the right pet means putting old biases aside. Just because you grew up with a dog doesn't mean a dog is the right pet for you now, especially if the dog will be left alone all day and have little opportunity for exercise. You might be better off adopting two indoor cats who can entertain each other.

Keeping an open mind means not being swayed by a child's pleas for a boa constrictor because a friend or a celebrity has one. The pet that fits well in another household may not fit into yours at all. When the fad passes (as it almost certainly will) and children lose interest, Mom and Dad are left in charge of a pet they might not particularly like.

It means avoiding "pet du jour" purchases, such as the Dalmatians that become popular each time Disney releases a version of 101 Dalmatians. Although Dalmatians are lovely dogs, they shed constantly and have a high energy level - the right dog for a few people, but not for all.

It means thinking about types of pets you may not be familiar with: hamsters, birds, rabbits, guinea pigs, fish, and even "fancy" mice and rats, in addition to dogs and cats.

2. Consult Your Heart. A pet should be a loved family member, not a burden. Your pet's characteristics should be compatible with your personality and interests. Think about what animals you like and enjoy.

The ideal pet for Joan, who loves to curl up on the sofa and read, may be a quiet cat who will snuggle at her feet. Luke shudders at the thought of a cat and wants an active dog who will jog and play Frisbee with him.

While not every member of a family has to love the pet with equal fervor, everyone in the household must be accepting of, not hostile to or afraid of, the pet.

3. Add Information. Learn more about the pets that appeal to you. Do a little research on the internet or in the library, even if you think that you already know it all. You may be surprised to discover how much new information is available about companion animals, from understanding behavior to innovative training techniques and veterinary advances.

Find answers to at least a few basic questions: How long is this pet likely to live? How big will she grow? How much space indoors does she need, or how much outdoor exercise? How much time, each day, will you spend caring for her? What can you expect to spend, annually, on food, veterinary expenses, or other costs such as training or grooming? Does she shed a lot, or live in a cage or enclosed habitat that might smell? Is her personality sociable, aloof, noisy, quiet, shy or playful? If you have children, is she too frail for young children to handle, or too rough for them to play with?

4. Take an Inventory. Take a quick but realistic inventory of your resources and circumstances. How much time, each day, are you or family members able and willing to devote to caring for a pet? How much money are you prepared to spend, not merely to acquire a pet, but to provide equipment, veterinary care, a healthy diet? Do you have a fenced-in yard, proximity to a park, or is there adequate space for an indoor habitat?

Will your resources allow you to comfortably meet this pet's physical and social needs? If the answer is "no" or only a tentative yes, take a look at some other types of pets.

5. Consider Special Circumstances. Before you make a final decision, think carefully about special circumstances that would make it difficult or impossible for you to keep or properly care for the pet you want. Does your lease or condo agreement prohibit some pets? Are you or a family member allergic to certain pets? Who will care for your pet when you are working late or traveling?

If you have children, think about their ages, temperaments, interests, and physical abilities in relation to a pet. Children up to age five should not be left alone with a pet because of the risk of injury -- to your child, the pet, or both. Are you willing to take on this supervisory task?

Once you've completed a decision-making process, remember that you can select from many choices. For almost every individual or family, a good match is possible.

Cats have replaced dogs as America's most popular pets, no doubt because cats do not have to be walked outdoors and thus their care can more easily be fit into today's hectic lifestyles.

A dog may be the right choice if you or your children can spend a lot of time exercising and playing with a canine family member.

Small mammals include fancy mice and fancy rats, ferrets, gerbils, guinea pigs, hamsters, rabbits. These small creatures, residing in an indoor cage or vivarium, are increasingly popular. All of these pets need daily human attention and some need company of their own kind.

Birds can be charming, endearing companions. They are intelligent and sociable. Unless you get two lovebirds, two canaries, or several finches (who will then bond with one another, rather than with you), birds require substantial daily human interaction.

Fish may be right for you if your family is pressed for time, beset by allergies, or limited by prohibitions in a lease. An aquarium is a miniature ecosystem, often fascinating to both children and adults. Setting up an aquarium can be time-consuming, but daily feeding takes only a moment, and weekly maintenance can be accomplished in half an hour or less.

Exotic pets, including most reptiles and amphibians, often appeal to children, especially teens. But non-traditional pets of all kinds are harder, and generally more expensive, to care for. The transmission of salmonella bacteria from reptiles to humans is a serious health issue. Most individuals and families are wise to choose a more traditional pet.

Finally, don't forget to have fun. The process of choosing a pet can be fun for the whole family, and the rewards are many.