If you were picking out one pet for each member of your family, you'd have an easy time. Your teenager who loves creepy crawlies would get a tarantula; your 5-year-old who craves cuddles would wind up with an armful of puppy. But when it comes to picking a pet for your whole family—with scheduling conflicts and diverse personalities—it's more of a challenge. Here are six things to consider before you decide on a pet.
Small children often want pets they can hug, but not every dog or cat is meant to join a family with little kids. Choose carefully, considering breed and individual temperament, before you commit. A lot comes down to the specific animal, but there are a few species and breeds of dogs that are famous for getting along well with small children, such as golden or labrador retrievers and beagles. "These breeds are big and strong enough to withstand the inadvertent grabs and falls by young children, and they often listen and train well with older children," says Janet Tobiassen Crosby, DVM, who runs the Veterinary Medicine site for About.com. But, Dr. Crosby adds, "General temperament, overall health and the training and socialization of the dog are more important than breed." Don't be afraid to ask for help from an expert. For example, if you're adopting a dog from a rescue organization, rely on the staff to match you with a pet whose temperament suits your family. "Many shelters are now trained to assist people in making a good 'lifestyle choice' in terms of how the dog accepts children [and] the type of busy-ness or quietness of the home," Dr. Crosby says.
If everyone in the family is on a tight schedule and the house is often empty, a dog is probably not the right pet for you. Dogs are social animals, and this means they are bred through generations to prefer the company of their pack members. Because domesticated dogs aren't with their packs, they look to a family to fulfill that role, and dogs that are left alone too long or too often may act out in unexpected (and unwanted) ways. Also, think twice before adopting a dog if you can't spare an hour a day to exercise it by walking, running in the park, or playing catch in the backyard, as lack of activity may lead to health and behavior issues. And if there's no one around to take them out for a walk, dogs will eventually relieve themselves wherever they happen to be (in the house, for example)—and neither you nor the dog will be very happy about it.
If your family is set on a cuddly animal, cats are a better choice for busy people. They're independent, happy to spend hours by themselves, and able to use the facilities, so to speak, without venturing outside. Just make sure the cat you adopt likes to cuddle (or there will be scratches), and that someone has time to clean its litter box regularly. If cuddliness isn't an issue, any caged or aquarium-based animal will be suitable for your family. Keep in mind that some caged animals—gerbils, hamsters, rabbits, etc.—can still be petted, depending on the animal's personality. If having a cool pet is a more important factor than fluffiness, fish, turtles, and birds might suffice.
Don't put yourself in the position of having to decide between your own needs and those of your pet. In addition to costing money to feed, dogs and cats can require huge medical bills—up to thousands of dollars—for seemingly small problems, some that require surgery. Ask anyone who has ever brought their dog in for a routine physical, only to find that the pet needed a couple hundred dollars' worth of dental work. Remember that expenses such as toys and accessories will add up. So if you're short on cash, consider pets that aren't as pricey to maintain, like reptiles, fish, or small rodents, which don't require as much care and have shorter life spans.
First and foremost, find out the specific animal that your child is allergic to. Someone who is allergic to cats might not be allergic to dogs, and an allergy to one breed of dog doesn't indicate that all dogs are off-limits. Get an allergy test at the pediatrician's office before getting a pet to find out how severe an allergy might be. Although some children do grow out of allergies, don't get a pet hoping that they'll "get used to" the animal. You could wind up having to get rid of the pet; worse, your child may have a serious medical reaction. Severe allergies can cause anaphylactic shock, a life-threatening condition that can lead to rapid or irregular heartbeat, low blood pressure, and impaired breathing.
Consider spending time with the specific animal you want to adopt; offer to pet-sit the breed of animal or visit a shelter. This will give you a solid idea of whether certain pets work for your family, in terms of allergies and day-to-day living.
Do you move a lot because of work? Are you unable to commit to the regular routine and financial needs of a furry creature? Consider tropical fish, lizards (geckos and anoles), or rodents (like rats, gerbils, or hamsters)—anything that lives in a cage or an aquarium and doesn't need regular walks. Just remember that even caged animals require regular medical checkups, attention, and day-to-day care. In other words, you may get stuck cleaning out those cages if you can't get anyone else in the household to do it. So either earmark that time or make that chore a prerequisite for one of the kids' allowances.
All dogs, big and small, need exercise. If your heart is set on a larger dog, but you don't have enough space for it to run around, pick a smaller one, like a miniature poodle or a toy breed (a chihuahua or Pomeranian, perhaps). Just make sure you can get to the park and walk it frequently. Otherwise, stick to cats, caged animals, lizards, or fish.