When Erica Galligan’s children were young, her family tried adopting a dog. But allergy issues forced her family to return their pet to the breeder. Over time they found other alternatives, starting with a saltwater aquarium for their whole family and gradually adding freshwater fish and a tree frog for their sons. “I figured an aquarium was easy, low-maintenance, and fun to look at,” Galligan explains about their next step into pet ownership.
According to the America Veterinary Medical Association., 56% of U.S. households include a pet. But if yours isn’t among them yet, how do you find the right pet? Here are five factors to consider and a few tips for easing into pet ownership:
Amount of care and energy
Different types of pets require varying levels of commitment. Consider how much time you have available each day to care for a pet. Are you willing to walk a dog? Do you want to be regularly cleaning a hamster cage? Can you give a younger pet the extra attention they will require? How will you manage that puppy when it’s full-grown?
Sarah Collins, Adoption Team Leader for the Wisconsin Humane Society, advises, “Be honest about what you can handle. And remember that responsibilities will ultimately fall on the parents.” Aquarium pets, such as fish and dwarf frogs, require the least care. Next come tank- or cage-kept pets: snails, hermit crabs, birds, reptiles, rodents and rabbits. And then cats.
Aside from horses, dogs can be the most time-consuming pets, with some breeds needing large amounts of exercise. Recognizing the energy level of a dog before bringing it home can prevent any surprises related to care and exercise. Puppies particularly require attention, even if they have been housebroken. “The rule of thumb is to allow one hour for their age in months, plus one,” Collins says, explaining how long a puppy can wait before being let out. For example, a two-month old puppy would have to be walked every three hours, day and night. Knowing how much time you can invest in a pet may help to narrow your options.
Ages of kids and level of responsibility
Introducing a new pet into a home with very young children can be a challenge – for both the pet and the child. Toddlers don’t have the capacity to understand appropriate handling of animals and their quick motions can startle or scare pets. If you’re ready to bring home an animal while your children are young, make sure to consult pet store or humane society staff to find a pet whose personality melds well with active youngsters.
If your children are older, taking responsibility becomes more of an issue. Often kids want a pet without understanding the care involved. Discuss how much work they’re willing to assume and explain what is necessary for different pets.
Bridget Cahill drafted a contract with her three daughters before allowing them to purchase a tortoise. Then each girl signed the contract, agreeing to the responsibilities and consequences they’d outlined together. “It did say on the contract, ‘I will not throw a fit when you ask me to feed Nelly. I will do it lovingly and happily,’” she says.
It’s easy to think a dog or cat would be fun to own – until you’re planning a trip and need to find a place for the pet to stay while you’re gone. If you travel often, this can quickly become a hassle. “It’s pretty easy to put a 10-day feeder in an aquarium,” notes Galligan. which makes fish a terrific option for families who are away from home frequently. For a busy family on the go, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs or other independent pets work well.
It’s not necessary to have a fenced back yard – or any yard at all – to own a dog. But you should have in mind places to walk the dog and play with it. A small aquarium can go in a bedroom, like the freshwater fish tank one of Galligan’s sons keeps in his room. A litterbox can be kept in a laundry room or basement, as long as the cat has access.
Collins says, “If you have a small house or yard, you just have to be able to accommodate your pet’s needs.” It helps to think through placement of cages and other equipment before bringing a pet home. If you live in an apartment or condo, it is also important to check any rules that apply to pet ownership before bringing home any animal.
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People can be allergic to dogs, cats, birds, and even guinea pigs. Reactions such as itchy eyes, runny noses, rashes and asthma, come from a protein in pet dander and saliva, and occur in 15 to 30 percent of allergy sufferers (according to The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America). Because the allergens stick to surfaces, such as clothing and walls, it’s important for those with pet allergies to avoid having the animals in their home, if possible.
But this doesn’t mean families with allergies can’t have a pet. Reptiles and amphibians don’t create the allergy-causing protein and should be safe. Or choose a pet requiring more regular grooming, such as a poodle or poodle-mix dog. Also note that the smaller the pet, the less dander is created to activate allergies. Ask your allergist or a veterinarian for recommended pet breeds. Collins advises, “If you’re not sure, get allergy tested by your doctor.”
Whatever animal your family chooses, you will find many benefits and rewards from being pet owners. It’s a lot of fun,” says Galligan. “It’s great for kids to grow up with the responsibility of someone other than themselves.” And given so many breeds and varieties out there, you’re sure to find a pet to fit your family.
Tips to Easing Into Ownership
If you’ve thought through these five factors but still need more reassurances to be confident in choosing a pet, consider trying one or more of the following:
Galligan’s son developed an interest in freshwater fish before having his own aquarium. He read books from the library. He visited the pet store to investigate varieties. He learned all he could before convincing his parents to buy a freshwater aquarium.
Besides books and store staff, it can help to also speak to someone who owns a pet like the one you are considering. Cahill talked with a friend who owns a turtle before letting her daughters buy the tortoise.
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The Cahills also had extensive experience caring for a variety of animals before they brought home their own pet. They watched friends’ fish, hamsters, several cats, hermit crabs and a number of dogs. And they used each of those experiences as an opportunity to talk about pet ownership.
“It’s totally different to have the animal every day,” Cahill notes. “It makes them see that it’s constant. There are certain things you have to do everyday.” She recommends having a child take on a pet sitting responsibility, even if it means simply going to a house to feed a pet or let a dog out for one day.
Not all pets are created equal. Which means you can choose to start with a low-maintenance pet to allow your children to learn responsibility before moving up to a bigger commitment. Cahill agrees. “I thought the tortoise would be great to ease in. The girls still clean, feed, and walk her in the summer.” Collins also recommends guinea pigs for families new to pet ownership. “They’re easy to hold and not as hard to take care of.”
By Lara Krupicka, a freelance writer and mom to three girls and one dog (and at various times, several beta fish and dwarf frogs).