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 had to remind him not to leave anything lying around that could be dangerous if the cats eat it, such as toys with string or wires. One of our cats likes to drink my son’s milk and steal his toast, pizza, and so on, so we can’t leave them on the table unsupervised. I also don’t like to think about how much we spend on premium cat food and 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 in another transitional period? You probably don’t want to housetrain 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 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 markedly less enthusiastic about the idea when reality hits. Even if you have older kids, you should still be prepared to take 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 your child really wants a pet.)
3. Have you ever had a pet yourself? If not, 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 tests. (My husband found out that he is allergic 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 adoption), research which breeds of dogs are more likely to be kid-friendly and easygoing, such as the Labrador retriever. 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 the impact of veterinary care costs. I strongly recommend pet insurance — and you should enroll your pet as soon as possible so that post-adoption health issues don’t get labeled as preexisting conditions. Pet insurance isn’t cheap, but you can adjust your coinsurance and deductibles, and there are potential discounts (such as a rate reduction for spayed and neutered pets). It’s been worth it for us — for example, when one of our cats somehow found some string and ate it, he had to have tests, surgery, and a two-day vet stay, 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 an animal 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, did you know that rabbits can be litterbox trained?) Be aware that certain pets can spread salmonella to humans, such as reptiles and amphibians, which 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 the capture of wild animals.)
Does your family have a pet, and if so, what kind? 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: To write this post, I drew on both my years as a pet owner and my experience working for the Humane Society of the United States, the ASPCA, and a local animal shelter for a total of almost 10 years. –Kate
- 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.