Twice when I was a child, my parents surprised my brother and me with a pet. When I was 8, it was a puppy at Christmas. And when I was 13, a kitten, several months after a beloved cat had died.
We always had a dog or a cat, or both, in the house, and those pets were completely woven into the fabric of our family life. The dogs went on vacations with us; the cats were a fixture at the foot of my bed, or firmly planted between my face and whatever book I was reading. We were devastated when they died.
Of all of the pets that came and went, though, the two I remember most were the ones Mum and Dad sprung on us when we weren’t expecting it. Being a kid, I figured they had stopped somewhere on a whim and picked up the new animal on the way home.
Now I know better.
My husband and I surprised our own children with a kitten a few years ago, much to their delight. Just as my brother and I didn’t know how much planning went into my parents’ surprises, our kids didn’t know that we spent many evenings weighing the pros and cons of getting a cat. I had lived with cats my entire life, but I read “Cats for Dummies” and found out how much I didn’t know. (Cats have a pattern on their noses that is unique, just like a human fingerprint!)
We visited the shelter and played with several animals before choosing one. Then we waited a week for our application to be approved, and for her to get spayed. There was a lot that went into her popping her little head out of a picnic basket one Saturday morning and worming her way into all of our hearts.
The right pet in the right home can be one of the best experiences you can give your child. Pet ownership can teach a child about responsibility and unconditional love. But the wrong pet at the wrong time can lead to a heartbreaking disaster for everyone, including the animal.
“We always suggest that a family fill in the blank to this question: ‘It’s most important to me that my dog/cat …’ – not what he looks like, but how he behaves, his interactions with you, how he loves you, does he sit on your lap, or that he doesn’t pull on his leash,” said Emily Weiss, the vice president for shelter research and development for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “It’s always love at first sight, but knowing your expectations can help assure that that love at first sight stays a lasting love.”
Weiss said research shows that owners and their pets bond best when the owner has a clear idea of what he wants from his pet and keeps that in mind when choosing an animal. The people at the adopting agency, whether it’s a shelter or a rescue organisation, know a lot about the animals in their care, Weiss said.
Lisa LaFontaine, chief executive of the Washington Humane Society, agreed that it is crucial to have that conversation with the adopting agency before bringing a new pet home.
“The first question is why are you looking for a pet and what’s important to you about the role they play in your life and what things do you want to do with them,” LaFontaine said.
For us, those expectations were more of a hope: We wanted our new cat to bond with our children and be a family pet. Our previous cat was one I’d had for years before I got married or had kids, and she was my cat. When we decided we were ready to adopt again, it was important to us that the animal was not only playful but patient and loving and comfortable with children as well.
Scout, now 4, is definitely a family girl. She is always right in the middle of everything and loves to curl up with the kids while they are watching television or sleeping. So even though she has some frustrating habits (chewing on things and the usual furniture-scratching), we knew those risks going in because we had done our homework on cat behavior, and we were prepared to live with them.
Pets are not good impulse purchases, said Chris Miller, a veterinarian with AtlasVet in Washington. Miller once had a client who saw an English bulldog on TV late at night and, on a whim, ordered one from Russia online. When the dog arrived, the man knew nothing about the breed – or dogs – and didn’t know where to start.
“The key is to put some thought into it,” he said. “Look at your environment and financial status to make sure you have a budget in mind. It doesn’t mean you can’t have a pet, but take into account what each species or breed brings with it as far as dietary and medical needs and hereditary conditions.”
One of my colleagues has had a menagerie of pets over the past few years, including a hamster, guinea pigs and a betta fish. At least half of them were hand-me-downs from neighbours whose kids were tired of them.
It’s important to research the type of animal you’re considering and to make sure you’re getting information from a reputable source, said Gregory Costanzo, a veterinarian with Stahl Exotic Animal Veterinary Service in Fairfax, Va.
If you are searching on the Internet, make sure the information you are getting comes from a veterinarian or legitimate rescue or shelter, he said. Better yet, look at books or published articles on the animal you have in mind. Particularly if you are considering something other than a cat or dog, gather as much good information as you can.
“A lot of these [exotic] animals require very different kinds of care,” Costanzo said. “They are a separate entity from dogs and cats when it comes to feeding them, the diseases that we can get from them or give them, and appropriate housing or care.”
Costanzo suggests making an appointment to talk to a veterinarian before you adopt – possibly one who specialises in the kind of animal you’re considering. The vet can advise you on everything from medical care your pet will need to the appropriate diet to what you need to do at home to keep it healthy and happy.
Many rescue organisations offer classes on caring for specific animals, Costanzo said, and that is a great way to familiarise yourself with a breed or species before adopting.
Finally, before you bring your new pet home, have a family plan in place for caring for it. That needs to include everything from where you will take it for routine or emergency medical care to who is going to feed it, clean up after it and make sure it gets the appropriate exercise.
Weiss said the entire family should visit the pet before adoption day, particularly if there are young children in the home.
“Watch the behavior of the dog or cat,” Weiss said. “If it’s choosing to approach your child and engage in a safe way, that’s a great sign. Observe the interaction. Do they seem relaxed and comfortable around each other?”
Once you’ve done the research, created your budget and chosen the right pet, go for it, Miller said, adding that people who own pets are generally healthier and happier than non-pet owners.
“We are naturally drawn to animals, whether it’s a rat or a cat or a Great Dane,” Miller said. “It’s something that is healthy and good for people, animals and the community.”