Think a dog or cat would make a nice addition to your home? Before you roll out the newspaper or litter box, ask yourself a few questions.
“Start with lifestyle,” said Brad Shear, director of the Mohawk-Hudson Humane Society in Menands. “Are you an active household? Are you couch potatoes? Do you come right home after work or do you have all kinds of things that you do? Are you willing to change anything to accommodate a new animal? Those are the kinds of questions that organizations like ours are going to ask you.”
The answers should help you decide if a pet is a good idea, and if so, what kind of pet. Dogs will need you home more often than cats will. You must be available to walk them, or at least let them into the backyard a few times a day or hire someone to do that for you. Dogs thrive on companionship, so if you have a busy life that precludes you from getting home at a reasonable hour, a dog is most likely not a good choice.
“When you consider a pet, you need to look at the time commitment and whether or not you are going to be able to continue with that time commitment for the life of the animal,” said Dr. Timothy Hunt, a Michigan veterinarian who earlier this year was voted “America’s Favorite Vet” in a contest conducted by the American Veterinary Medical Foundation. “I mean, some animals live to be 15. You have to be realistic.”
Since cats use litter boxes and are generally more independent than dogs, they take less of your time. But they still want you around.
“As independent as cats are, they still need attachment to people,” Shear said. “You still need to get home sometime. But they are on a little less of a firm schedule than a dog.”
Once you’ve settled on getting a pet, the next decision is the age of the animal.
“I think a lot of people just assume they want a puppy, but I always get adults,” Shear said. “I like dogs in the 1- to 3-year range for my household, because they are old enough that they can be pretty easily housetrained and they’ve calmed down a little bit. What I always tell people is, when you get an adult dog you may have one or two issues you need to work on with it. But when you start with a puppy, you have everything. You are starting from scratch. Every issue a dog might have is built into the puppy.”
But starting from scratch does have its advantages. Hunt noted, for example, that starting with a puppy or kitten is often preferable in a home with a young child, because you can establish a hierarchy as the animal and child age together.
Once you have made the basic decisions—dog or cat, baby or adult—it is time to pick the actual animal. Experts recommend keeping an open mind, and choosing a pet based on personality rather than appearance. It is a good idea to research the breed you are interested in, but be wary of the source.
“There are tons of information online, but a lot of it should be taken with a grain of salt,” Shear said. “Most of the breed guidelines are written by people who breed those dogs and are just in love with them.”
Things to keep in mind when selecting a breed include activity level—some cats and dogs are naturally more active than others—the age of children in the home and your financial status.
“Certain breeds have more health concerns and considerations than others,” said Hunt, who has been a vet for more than 25 years. He said that if vet bills could pose a problem for you, you may want to consider mixed breeds, which tend to have fewer health issues than purebreds.
If you have young children, certain breeds are likely to be better than others.
“You have to remember that a little kid, particularly one who is just learning to walk, is right in the face of the dog,” Hunt said. “Dogs consider small children much like a litter mate, so they can play with them sometimes a little too rough. Little kids might walk up to the dish and take the food away, so you have to be sure the dog in question is going to be OK with that.”
He said that if someone with a young child asks him to recommend a dog, he suggests a golden retriever or perhaps a lhasa apso.
“Something cuddly like that is a good breed to have around,” he said. “Or some mixed breeds, when they start off as puppies, could be quite good too.”
But with all of that said, it should be noted that breed does not tell you everything you need to know about a dog.
“You have to look at the individual dog, whether they are right for you,” Shear said. “And the same with cats. Cats have a huge variation in terms of their personalities. Just plan to spend some time with them and get to know what that personality is and whether it is going to work for you.”
Shear recommends having everyone in the family meet the animal before bringing it home. This could include other pets, if possible.
“Take as much time as you can to get to know what you are getting,” he said.
Now it is all about making your new pet a happy, healthy part of the family. Since animals thrive on routine, Shear recommends establishing that routine as quickly as possible. He reminds new pet owners that it is much more difficult to undo a negative behavior than to prevent it from happening in the first place.
“So, if you have rules of the house, like no dogs on the furniture or no cats on the counter, start from day one,” he said. “You have to think about what behaviors are acceptable to you and set them up from the beginning.”
It will take a little time to get a new pet acclimated to your home. Don’t be surprised, for example, if your kitten hides under the bed for a few days.
“Cats are very sensitive about their environment, it is very difficult for them to change,” Shear said. “So it takes time for them to get comfortable. Be patient and don’t force the issue. Just let them come around in their own time.”
If the new addition is a puppy, you may want to invest in a crate or use a baby gate to fence it into the kitchen while you are away. Plan on coming home at least once during the day for housetraining.
Both dogs and cats should be taken to the vet within about 10 days of coming home, to get vaccinated and to give the doctor a baseline reading of the animal’s health.
It also is important that you find time to socialize your puppy, once it has had all its shots. An obedience class is a good idea, as are walks in the neighborhood or visits to the park.
“First and foremost with a puppy is proper exposure to life,” Hunt said. “They need a lot of interaction. Often if someone has a shy dog it is a result of them not spending a lot of time with that dog when it was between the ages of 8 and 14 weeks. Those tend to be the dogs that back away from you.”
Exercise also is crucial.
“I will get calls from people saying ‘my dog is chewing the house to bits!’” Hunt said. “Usually dogs who have separation anxiety start to destroy things with their mouth because they aren’t using their energy up with their legs. They aren’t exercising enough so they misdirect their energy to chewing.”
Proper exercise and the right amount of nutritious food also are important in keeping both dogs and cats in shape. Overweight animals can develop the same types of health problems, including diabetes and arthritis, as overweight people.
Tips on selecting a pet
• Consider your lifestyle. Can you commit to a pet?
• Consider your finances. Can you afford the pet?
• Research the breeds you are interested in, but keep an open mind
• Select a pet based on personality, not appearance
• If possible, take time to get to know the animal
Tips for raising a pet
• See your vet soon after bringing the animal home
• Set a routine as early as possible
• Establish rules from day one
• Do not overfeed and choose high-quality, nutritious food
• Make sure your pet gets plenty of exercise
What should you consider when selecting a pet for your family
What is the energy and activity level of your family? You don’t want to bring home a high-energy Border Collie if a fish tank full of tetras or a gerbil will provide the companionship and entertainment you desire.
Do any of your family members have allergies to pet dander or fur? There are dog breeds that shed minimally and some that are even considered hypoallergenic. Cats can be more of an allergy issue.
Are all family members vested in caring for the new pets? If you have very young children you need to consider the ability level for assisting in the care of your new family member. Older children can take on more responsibilities than youngsters.
Does your family travel frequently? You will need to plan for boarding while you are away or investigate pet-friendly destinations.
A new pet can be a wonderful addition to your family. Careful consideration that matches the needs and responsibilities of a particular pet with your family will make for a successful choice. Call on us if we can be of any assistance during your search for a new pet!
Latham Animal Hospital Staff
Picking a family pet
Choosing a family pet should only be done after thoughtful consideration, family discussion and research…never on impulse.
Consider: time and financial commitments including training, food, housing, medical and grooming.
Family: lifestyle, mobility and allergies.
Research: dog, cat or other (rabbit, bird, fish), best dog breeds for families versus dangerous breeds, longevity of pet, visit adoption clinics and shelter, contact a rescue organization, consult a veterinarian. Pets today are considered family members and as such deserve both love and respect.
Dr. Michael Casler, Guilderland Animal Hospital