How to Decide If You’re Ready for a Pet

It can be easy to add a dog, cat, or other animal to the family without truly knowing how to decide if you’re ready for a pet — or thoroughly considering the typical pros and cons. For example, living with cats has helped my son learn about pet care and has led him to love cats like we do, but it brings frustrations, too — for one, I can’t think how many times I’ve reminded him not to leave anything lying around that could be dangerous if the cats eat it (including toys with string or wires, craft supplies, and so on). My son wears velcro shoes, but I’m not looking forward to the switch to shoelaces — one of our cats, Diego, loves to eat them (which is why we can never leave sneakers out). He also likes to drink my son’s milk and steal his toast, pizza, etc., so I can’t leave those things on the table unsupervised. I also don’t like to think about how much we spend on their premium food and cat litter.

Pets can add almost as much frustration to the household as the love they bring, so here are some tips on how to decide if you’re ready for a pet: 

1. Are you in the midst of a particularly challenging time in your child’s development, or another transitional time? You probably don’t want to house train a new puppy when you’re potty training your toddler, for example — and if you have a baby at home, be aware that a dog may consider her dirty diapers fascinating and may gleefully grab them during a diaper change … or every diaper change. If your child is learning to walk, it might not be a good time to add an active puppy or dog to the mix, especially if the dog hasn’t yet learned basic commands or acceptable doggie manners. If you’re pregnant, or if you’re on maternity leave and soon returning to work, it’s probably better to wait until things have calmed down a bit and your family has established a good routine. (If you’re pregnant and already have a pet, here are some tips to prepare your dog or cat.)

2. Are you counting on your kid to manage your new pet’s care? Everyone’s heard of kids who promise to walk, feed, brush, and clean up after a hypothetical dog and then end up not so enthusiastic about the idea when reality hits. Even if you have older kids, you should still be prepared to be in charge of most of your new pet’s care. (By the way, giving a child a pet as a gift has a bad rap among many animal shelter workers, but it can work out well as long as you’re sure that your child really wants a pet.)

3. Have you ever had a pet yourself? Consider petsitting for a friend or family member — either at their house or yours — or volunteering to foster a pet for a shelter or rescue group. (If you choose the latter, be aware that that animal may end up as a “foster failure” … which isn’t really a bad thing.)

4. Have you watched your kids for signs of allergies when they’re around pets? Dozens of breeds, such as poodles and poodle mixes, are said to be hypoallergenic, but there’s really no such thing as a hypoallergenic dog (and allergy symptoms are caused by a dog’s dander, not fur). If you’re really concerned, you can ask an allergist to perform allergy tests. (My husband’s allergy tests — done because he kept getting hives — revealed that he has an allergy to cats, but we’ve never seen evidence of this and we have four, including one who sleeps on our bed. YMMV.)

5. If your new dog misbehaves or is fearful, or your cat has litterbox issues, will you have the time to address the problem? What about taking a dog to obedience classes, working on his behavior problems at home, and maybe even enlisting an animal behaviorist or animal trainer? Whether  you’re buying from a breeder or adopting from a shelter or rescue group (I strongly recommend the latter), research which breeds of dogs are more likely to be kid-friendly and easygoing, such as Labrador retrievers. If you’re adopting, it can be helpful to choose either a shelter pet who’s in foster care or a pet living with a rescue group volunteer — that way, you can get specific details about the animal’s behavior in a home instead of only relying on the intake form from the previous owner.

6. Have you calculated the costs of caring for a pet? If spending money on your pets isn’t a concern for you, I would still consider veterinary care costs. I strongly recommend pet insurance — and right from the beginning, so that new health issues don’t get labeled as preexisting conditions. Pet insurance isn’t cheap, but you can choose levels of coinsurance and deductibles, and there are potential discounts. It’s been worth it for us — for example, when one of our cats (why yes, the aforementioned Diego) somehow found string and ate some, he had to have tests, surgery, and a couple of days’ stay at the vet, which totaled more than $4,000. With pet insurance, we paid much less.

7. If your kids are still young and want a dog, consider a pet that’s easier to care for as a first family pet. Fish are a good first pet for a child, as are guinea pigs. (Rabbits are often thought of as “starter pets,” but a guinea pig is easier to care for. However, you know that rabbits can be litterbox trained?) You should be aware that certain pets can spread salmonella to humans, such as reptiles and amphibians, which can also require complicated, specialized care. (These animals, along with other exotic pets, also present ethical issues that you may or may not find important — such as animals being taken from the wild.)

Does your family have a pet, and what is it? Did you have the same type of pet as a kid? If your child is old enough, does she help out with pet care? Did you have to move your pet down your priority list when you had a baby, and felt guilty about it? (No judgment here!) If you’re planning to get a pet, what are you considering? What’s your advice on how to decide if you’re ready for a pet? 

Note: I wrote this post while drawing on my experience not just of being a pet owner but having worked for the Humane Society of the United States, the ASPCA, and a local animal shelter (for a total of almost 10 years). –Kate

Further reading:

  • 10 Signs Your Family is Ready for A Pet [Care.com]
  • Pet Care for Kids: Age-Appropriate Ways for Kids to Help [FamilyEducation]
  • How to Pet Your Pet: 8 Books That Show Kids How to Treat Animals [Brightly]
  • Dog Bite Prevention [ASPCA]
  • Puppy Mills 101 [ASPCA]
  • I Rejected The Perfect Pet Adoption Family For The Wrong Reasons [The Dodo] — This illustrates how more and more shelters and rescue groups are realizing that their adoption requirements may be unnecessarily strict.

Picture via Stencil.how to know if your family is ready for a pet - image of a little girl and a dog

Working moms may already feel like they have a ton on their plate -- can they add a cat, dog, or other family pet to the mix? We rounded up some tips for how to decide if you're ready for a pet.

Comments

  1. considering a dog says:

    This is a timely post. We are interested in adopting a dog, baby is almost 1. Had a dog who died about 6 months before she was born. Other details…looking for an adult dog, our baby spends time in a house w/a dog already in her nanny share. Not sure there will ever be the perfect timing, but any advice?

    • mascot says:

      The toddler years were hard at times with the dogs. Kiddo was unsteady/unpredictable in movements and not good at following the directions regarding leaving the dogs alone. Dogs (both adults) weren’t angels either- we had one dog who was a little bit noisy and reactive and another dog who just wanted to lick kid from head to toe all.the.time. We were really careful about not leaving the dogs and kid alone in a room, always making sure the dogs had an escape route, and giving the dogs plenty of love and affection. We also didn’t let the kid do all those things to dogs that may look cute in pictures, but can be really dangerous in real life (lay on the dog, bother sleeping dog, put hands and face near dog’s bowl/food/toy). We still take precautions with our dogs and little people guests in our home. Everyone survived, they all love each other and I can’t imagine not having dogs in my kid’s life. We may have been more cautious than we needed to be, but we never wanted to put our dogs or kid in a situation where someone got hurt.

  2. Pickle says:

    Thanks for this! My husband and child are both dog people, but I’ve never had a pet and I am terrified about the extra work… there is already so much to do in the mornings before work. Is it reasonable to put off pet ownership until children are truly able to take responsibility?

    • Dog owner says says:

      Kids are never really able to take responsibility — well at least not until late middle school/ high school. How much work in the morning depends on your particular dog and housing situation. If you live in a house with a fenced yard its pretty easy to let dog out to take care of business. Dog food in a bowl even with a dog that takes medication and refill the water bowl takes less than 5 minutes and you’re done. An older or lower energy dog does not necessarily require a walk before work, especially if you have a dog walker come mid-day. You’ll likely need a longer walk at night if you are only doing 1 long walk a day (rather than 2).

      My dog is medium size / medium energy and a just getting out of puppyhood. Our routine is as follows: Wake up 7am, shower and dress, dog is sleeping. 7:30am or so talk dog on walk. Walk is typically 20 minutes but depending on the day it could be 10 minutes or 30 minutes. Dog does business on walk. Get back home. Feed dog, refill water. Give dog morning treat and leave for work. Typically I’m out the door around 8am and having a dog only adds about 30 minutes to my morning. Dog walker comes midday and takes dog on 30 min walk. Husband gets home before me and repeats morning process around 7pm or so. I get home around 8pm and typically play with the dog for 20-30 minutes (fetch, wrestle, training). Dog goes out for a potty break around 11:30pm or so when we go to bed. We have a small yard and dog may go out in the evenings to look for squirrels or rats or mice. If the weather is nice dog happily stays out all evening “hunting” and we have to drag dog to bed. Dog goes to daycare on Wednesdays to get the wiggles out. On the weekends dog gets typically gets the morning and evening walks and a trip to a local park for an hour or we might go on a hike. Sometimes on Friday dog is antsy and walks need to be a bit longer or if the weather is bad we do more training which is mentally exhausting.

      • Anonymous says:

        +1 to kids never taking responsibility. My parents got a dog when I was 7 because they thought I was finally old enough to take care of it. They quickly realized that it took more time to nag me to walk the dog than to just walk the dog themselves, and guess who ended up as the primary caretaker of the dog? Mom. Your husband can take responsibility if he wants one, though.

        I agree that adult dogs are pretty low maintenance if you have a fenced yard. My dog growing up only got one walk/day in the evenings. We give our current dog two walks/day (before and after work) but mainly because my husband wants to, she would be fine doing her morning business in the yard. We don’t have a dog walker and she’s fine alone all day while we work.

  3. I’m going to be honest. I love my cat to pieces and he was my first “baby,” but when he passes, we probably won’t have another pet until the kids are in high school, at least. Cats are much lower maintenance than dogs, obviously, and yet there are days when having another critter to take care of is hard.

    • Leatty says:

      +1

      When my daughter was born last year, we had 3 cats and a giant golden retriever. One of the cats was really high maintenance – he was diabetic and required insulin shots twice a day, began pulling out a lot of his hair, began losing weight, etc. It was SO hard to care for four animals plus a newborn. Our high maintenance cat passed away a few months ago, but we just found out our dog has cancer. Before our daughter was born, I paid a lot of attention to our pets. Now…it is harder. Our pets are very affectionate, and there are days when I get home from work that I just don’t have it in me to care for the baby and give them all of the attention they deserve. All of our pets are older (the youngest is 9 years old), and while I think we will always have a pet, we don’t plan to have as many.

  4. Pickle says:

    Thanks! I don’t think that dog ownership will be easy to juggle in a high-rise apartment building, even at ours that has a dog run in the backyard.

  5. Anonymous says:

    With the cat allergies…all of my children experienced cats coming home after they were born, and now that my oldest (independent young adult) and my youngest (now 10) experienced a prolonged departure from having a cat, the oldest has mild allergies, and my youngest reacted when he loaned a sweatshirt to a friend who took it home, and wore it 2 weeks later and started sneezing into an allergy response in our cat-free home. We figured the hoodie was the culprit – nothing else was new. The garment was otherwise clean – no fur or hairs.

    Stay with your cats, Kat! I’d love to get back into having them, but can’t, and am just not quite ready for a dog, but want SOME pet, soon.

    • OP, clarifying says:

      When youngest was 3, our last cat, who was amazing! was ~ 15, and took a turn toward failing health and passed within a week. I wanted a break, as we had a new round of starting formal schooling for middlest and pre-K…and discovered the allergy while visiting grandma. Grandma’s cats have passed on without replacement as well.

Speak Your Mind