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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.