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How to Choose a Pet

Getting our first pet, a puppy, was an easy call—we got him before we had a family. But getting our second dog when our youngest daughter, Katie, was 18 months old was a more tenuous proposition. There were times when our decision seemed like a stroke of brilliance—for the cost of some dog food and a few vet bills, we'd gotten Katie a loyal pal, just her age!

And then there were times, as we went from changing stinky diapers to cleaning up stinky puppy poop, when getting a dog seemed like the most idiotic thing we'd ever undertaken. What on earth were we thinking?

The truth is that we simply weren't thinking. The decision to get a pet is usually buoyed by the overwhelming emotions that take over when you remember your first dog, or watch your toddler lovingly cuddle a kitten, or see your baby transfixed by a colorful fish or tweeting bird.

You love them. And so you bring them home.

Whether that arrival is the start of something beautiful or a disaster depends on how prepared you are before you get your new pet, says Stephanie Shain, director of Companion Animals Outreach for the Humane Society of the United States. She recommends investigating different species—talk to a reputable breeder if you'd like to find out about a specific animal, for instance—and arranging visits between the pet and your child to see how they interact.

You also need to consider your child's temperament and abilities. A preschooler or an older child who loves to throw and play is a great match for an energetic dog; a shy youngster (whether 3 or 13) may find comfort in stroking a calm cat; a toddler who loves to watch—but who can keep her hands to herself—may be able to enjoy (and not tip over) a fishbowl.

To make sure both child and pet stay safe, it's also key that you enforce your rules for handling pets. But the most important thing to remember is that the final decision about a pet is yours alone, because the pet is ultimately, well, yours. "Don't get a pet for your child if you don't want the pet yourself," warns Shain.

Before you take that big step toward a new long-term relationship between human and creature, consider these success stories—and some cautionary tales—from families who have made the leap.

Dogs

Dog lovers know why dogs remain among the most popular family pets in America: They're affectionate, funny, loyal, and full of personality, and they're treated like children in many homes with and without kids. But like kids, they're labor-intensive, and this makes them more taxing to families who have human children too.

In a survey by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, parents with kids under 18 reported more drawbacks to dog ownership, including noise (barking and whining), cleaning up, fleas and ticks, and property damage, than childless dog owners.

That's no surprise to Laura Giantonio, a Hamburg, New Jersey, mom of Alexander, 9 months, and owner of Bailey, a golden retriever of the same age, and Oliver, a 4-year-old German shepherd mix. "After my husband spent the day with Bailey, Oliver, and Alexander, he was completely frazzled—and it was more the dogs than our son! They tear through the house, scratch up the floors, and get hair everywhere." Still, she says, "I wouldn't trade them for a million dollars! They make me laugh, and they're great company." She adds that she also looks forward to watching Bailey and Alexander grow up together. "They're going to be best friends," she says.

But as cute as puppies and babies are together, experts urge parents to also consider older dogs (over age 1) because they can be easier to care for than puppies. "And don't worry that you can't teach adult dogs or bond with them," says Shain. "That's one of the oldest myths in the book." Dogs, after all, are pack animals, and most of them will want to fit into the family.

Look to your local animal shelter for a dog—adoptions are low cost, there are lots of breeds to choose from, and shots and spaying/neutering are often included. You'll also be able to talk to people who know the specific animals and can educate you about their characteristics and the best ways to find the right pet for your household.

Perhaps the most critical factor to weigh should be how the dog's temperament matches your family's. "If you're at work or on the go all the time and you can't bring a dog, you don't want one with boundless energy sitting in your living room for eight hours a day," says Shain.

It's also important to be very careful with big dogs, such as pit bulls, Dobermans, rottweilers, German shepherds, Akitas, and Great Danes. They can physically do more damage if they bite and may be a better bet in households with older kids who can play more cautiously. Still, remember that any dog can bite, so monitoring your pet and children when they're together is essential.

Cats

Mary Ellen O'Brien admits she never wanted a cat until she moved into a converted farm field in Delafield, Wisconsin, and was afraid she'd get mice. Now Sassie and Trixie (she's since gotten a second cat) are adored members of the family. Her 8-year-old daughter, Barbara, picks them up so often that eventually the cats disappear for a respite. "But every night, once she's asleep, they climb up and snuggle with her," says O'Brien.

Cats can be ideal for busy families. They're much more independent and don't necessarily crave as much attention as puppies. And cleaning the litter box every few days is nothing compared with walking a dog. But cat owners can have their problems. "My leather chair and ottoman have claw marks everywhere," says O'Brien. As for shedding, one of the main problems cat (and dog) owners mention, O'Brien jokes, "There's no reason someone wouldn't want to have a cat, unless they don't like vacuuming constantly."

Cats are also natural predators, which can lead them to roam (and return with unwanted visitors, including ticks, fleas, and small prey) unless they're kept indoors, as animal associations recommend.

The biggest cautionary note when considering a cat is that they can be more easily goaded into bad interactions with kids, which can become a serious problem, particularly if the cat strikes out with its claws. Unlike those from dogs, cat scratches and bites that break the skin can get infected from the bacteria cats have in their saliva and on their claws, so talk to your child about appropriate behavior with the animal. Declawing is a solution, but the procedure can alter the cat's ability to run and jump and animal advocates consider it inhumane.

Fish

"Be wary of naming your fish unless you want to be a participant in fish burials," says Zebbie Nix, an Evergreen, Alabama, mom of two, ages 7 and 4, who swears that the scaly pets that are named are more inclined to float to the top of the tank. Okay, that's extreme, Nix admits. The real key to her tropical fish's survival was to purchase both an acid/base and an ammonia test kit and a siphon for partial tank-water changes. "It really takes very little time," she says. "The kids love to watch them and fight over who gets to feed them. Thank goodness those fish eat twice a day!"

Although many fish-owning families don't consider the high mortality rate to be a huge drawback (cleaning the tank and gravel is the number one problem reported by fish owners), untimely-death stories are common among families with young kids, such as Loren Kircher, 2, who filled the fish tank with dish soap one day. "No matter how hard I tried—with fresh water and lots of suggestions and remedies from the fish store—I couldn't save them," says her mom, Molly Clark Kircher of Walloon Lake, Michigan.

Still, even a fish's short life span can be a plus. "They've taught our two kids about loss and grief," says Bar Turner, a preschool teacher in Big Sky, Montana. "The warm, fuzzy attachment isn't there, so it's an easier grief lesson."

Birds

Lou Guyton's daughter, Mary Lou, 7, has several daily chores in her Dallas home, including the job of having breakfast and watching TV with her cockatiel, Curly. "It's her responsibility," says her mom, a regional director of the Humane Society of the United States. "Birds get bored easily, and you have to spend a lot of time with them." Curly loves the attention and rewards these efforts by amusing the family with such sounds as the phone ringing and the alarm on the stove going off.

The family also has two parrots, but they're extremely temperamental and like only Guyton. They try to bite anyone else who even thinks about playing with them. Even Guyton, who rescued and bonded with the birds, hasn't always been safe from attack. "I tried to restrain one, and he bit me and badly bruised me -- but he could have ripped my finger off," says Guyton, who's careful to note that parrots aren't appropriate for children.

Birds are family pets, not children's pets. "They have special dietary needs, require fresh food and water and a variety of vegetables and fruits, and make a big mess -- you shouldn't ever have a bird without a dustpan and broom next to him," says Guyton. They can be wonderfully entertaining, but they're not ideal for busy households.

Small Animals

When 11-year-old Bhrea Henley diligently saved up $15 to buy a hamster, her dad decided that she'd demonstrated enough commitment to warrant getting one for her.

"Seventy-eight dollars later, for the cage, the wheel, and the aquarium, we had Henry the Hamster," says Dennis Henley of Big Sky, Montana. After the first few days of infatuation wore off, they also had quite a mess on their hands. "He stinks! He has this terrible fishy odor," Henley says. Even worse, Henley adds, "Bhrea can't lift his cage to empty it out and clean it because the aquarium is too heavy. And Henry runs all night on his squeaky wheel, making so much noise that we can't even keep him in her room for fear he'll disturb her sleep. Now he sits in the laundry room while we try to get rid of him." An ad posted at school has so far gone unanswered.

Cleanup is a primary disadvantage of small-animal ownership. Hamsters, guinea pigs, and rabbits can also be hard for young kids to handle; they squirm and buck and can bite. Socializing them takes time and commitment. "You can't just see them for fifteen minutes after school. Imagine being a small creature suddenly lifted out of your cage when you are never held. It makes sense why they would bite you," says Shain.

Helping your child understand the very different habits of small animals is also vital to successful rearing of these pets: Hamsters sleep all day; rabbits can scratch and are hard to hold because of their powerful hind legs (but can also be trained to use a litter box); and guinea pigs need the company of fellow pigs, for instance.

Still, for families who go into small-animal ownership informed, the experience can be successful, even transforming. Dianne Spelter's son, Gabriel, was a very shy 5-year-old until his interest in guinea pigs gave him something to talk about. But the Latham, New York, mom of five also made the experience worthwhile. She sewed pockets on Gabriel's T-shirts so he could carry his pets in a "piggie pocket." And she and Gabriel cheerfully clean the large, lightweight plastic container they keep the pigs in.

All of this has helped make the guinea pigs easier to handle, she says, though she adds that some are friendlier and easier to hold than others. The Spelters' first guinea pig bit Gabriel, but he didn't mind and wouldn't return it, keeping it until it died a natural death a year later. "He loved it anyway," explains Spelter.

Choosing, caring for, and bonding with creatures when you've got responsibilities as a parent is certainly no simple feat. But by knowing what you're getting into, and making clear-eyed decisions, you can live happily ever after with your family's new best friend.

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