Choosing the Right Pet

Many families consider getting a pet at one time or another. Owning a pet does require time, but there are many benefits in store if you and your family are ready and willing to put in the work.

Benefits of Pet Owning

Pets can bring a great deal of joy to many people by easing loneliness, providing comfort, and helping people feel needed. Concretely, researchers have recognized that pets can help children in typical transitions and can even help shy children become more outgoing. This happens because the pet makes them feel more secure with themselves and increases their comfort in interacting with others, says Robert H. Poresky, Ph.D., associate professor of family studies and human health at Kansas State University. In fact, research has shown that even adults find social comfort in pets: people walking with their dogs are more likely to interact with other walkers than those who walk alone.

Owning a pet may also give your family health benefits. People with active pets are more likely to go outdoors and exercise with their pets.

General Considerations

Educate yourself on the needs of the pet you are getting. Before buying, consider the amount of room you can afford to give a pet--for example, dogs require much more space to exercise and play than rodents, and bigger dogs will need even more room. Consider the time you and your family have to give toward a pet (some pets require more attention for their well-being than others). Life expectancy is also important to consider: are you ready to provide means for your parrot after you pass away (because they can live up to one hundred years)?

Your children also need to be ready. They need to understand their responsibilities with the new pet and the seriousness of caring for another life--let them know you are not willing to put the animal's well-being in danger because of neglect. Getting a pet means caring for them for a lifetime. Before choosing a pet, consider taking your children to a friend's house to let them play with an animal and learn about how it needs to be cared for; you may even arrange to animalsit for a friend and supervise your children as they care for the pet. When selecting an animal, remember that most children under twelve aren't prepared to become the primary caretaker of a pet.

You must also consider the cost of owning a pet. Look into the needs of the animal you are considering to predict your financial obligations for food, veterinary visits, and toys. Learning the animal's needs will also inform you about special considerations, like purchasing special types of vegetables for rabbits or heating lamps for reptiles.

Pros and Cons of Different Animals

You have many common types of pets to choose from: reptile, rabbit, rodent, bird, dog, and cat. Though each animal and breed has numerous important differences, here are some pros and cons to owning each type.

Reptiles
Find a reptile that works well in captivity, generally those bred and raised in captivity. The most common reptile pets are the African helmeted turtle, bearded dragon lizard, green iguana, marginated tortoise, and leopard gecko. Make time to observe the reptile before you buy it, and make sure your children know the animal's behavior to ensure they are not frightened by it (eating live animals, etc.). Also, check the animal's health with a veterinarian before you buy (ninety percent of reptiles do not show sound health).

Pros: Reptiles are generally very mellow creatures. They also don't need a lot of interaction, so they are a good option if you don't have much time to play with your pet.

Cons: Reptile care is demanding. You must create a healthy artificial habitat (correct temperature, heating lamps, rocks, etc.) so they remain happy and comfortable. Also, depending on what type of reptile you choose, you'll need to be prepared to feed it insects or rodents. Finally, behavior can vary, but generally reptiles are not very social.

Rabbits
Rabbits have become an increasingly popular pet option for families. Like most pets, make sure you know potential health problems; rabbits need regular check-ups. Also, make sure you can give them time to run around each day and can give daily attention for grooming, affection, and play. Make sure to neuter your rabbit to prevent territorial marking. You should also ensure you can provide your rabbits with adequate chew toys so they can release their energy and not chew up your things. Consider that their diet is also specialized to typically uncommon vegetables.

Pros: Since they are generally clean and can be trained to use a litter box, they make good household pets. They are interesting, cute, and generally docile, good at interacting with people, and can become very affectionate.

Cons: Rabbits can be difficult to handle; they may resist being picked up and, if you don't handle them correctly, can kick, bite, and scratch. They are generally not good for small children. They can require patience, so they may not be good first pets.

Rodents
When buying a rodent, go to a good breeder (rodents are bred for temperament). Among small rodents, hamsters are kept best in solitary environments, whereas gerbils, mice, and rats work well in pairs or groups.

Guinea pigs are also a good option. Though they are bigger and require more attention and space, they are very amiable creatures and live longer than smaller rodents. Health indications to look for when purchasing a rodent include even breathing, comfortable running, straight and clean teeth, no discharge around eyes and nose, and no stains near the rear.

Pros: Rodents have small financial obligations and require little space and time for interaction, so they are good for the cramped and busy family. They are very energetic and can take care of playing needs largely on their own, although they do need to be let out occasionally for attention and exercise.

Cons: Rodents can sometimes bite and scratch, though with regular handling can become very tame.

Birds
When considering a pet bird, species is almost everything. Novice bird owners are encouraged to start with a small or mediumsized bird because larger birds require more commitment. Different birds also require differing amounts of attention. Expenses also depend on species. The top three recommended birds for kids are finches and canaries (easy to care for, soothing "music," and minimal interaction), parakeets (beautiful colors, tolerate handling well, can learn to talk, can bond strongly with caretakers), and cockatiels (talk, whistle, do cute tricks, but require more time, care, and attention). Try birds.about.com for more information.

Pros: Birds can learn interesting tricks, are beautiful creatures, and can bond closely with their owners (depending on species).

Cons: Birds can require frequent cleanup. Some species are very dependent. Birds can also contribute to the noise component of the house.

Dogs
When considering a dog, remember that larger dogs are better with younger children, and that young children need a breed with a patient temperament. Larger dogs usually require backyard space for exercise, whereas small dogs can just run around the house. Consider the breed especially carefully if your family is prone to allergies or asthma.

Pros: Dogs are typically loving creatures because they depend so much on human company. They can be housetrained and can learn to do tricks. Generally, they become protective of their owners.

Cons: They must be emotionally tendered during their training, and training requires patience. They also bark, which can be distressing to both family and neighbors. Some dogs, particularly as puppies, may be chewers. The risk of biting is also always present.

Cats
Consider allergies when buying a cat. Unlike dogs, there is no cat breed that is safer for people with allergies. Cats are generally independent creatures, so they don't require doting attention. They are also very docile, so they fit calm, relaxed personalities and environments.

Pros: Intelligent, entertaining, small, tidy, and less dependent on their owners than other pets. They provide love and attention without persistently begging for attention. Cats are also relatively inexpensive.

Cons: They require daily feeding, grooming, and litter-box cleaning. They also shed and scratch. Cats may not be a good option for growing families, since cats commonly carry toxoplasmosis, a parasite that can cause birth defects if a pregnant mother is infected. (Proper sanitation can prevent infection, though.)

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