Mom, I Want a Dog!
But Dad, I Want an Iguana!

by Mary Jane Checchi

A pet can be a source of joy, fun, and comfort for an individual or a family - if you find the right pet. For children, pets provide unconditional love, learning opportunities, and a connection to nature. Parents may find that the pet they got "for the children" becomes their companion as well.

While the choice of a pet can have a more lasting impact than almost any other purchase, it is often a hit-or-miss proposition. Studies show that pets acquired on impulse are not the pets that families keep.

Every child, family, and pet is unique. There is no "ideal pet" for a child of a certain age, no "one size fits all". But with a little forethought and planning, you can avoid common pitfalls and find the right pet for your family.

Keep an Open Mind
Selecting the right pet means putting old biases aside; just because Mom grew up with a dog doesn't mean she has time for one now.

It means not being swayed by a child's pleas for an iguana because a friend or a celebrity has one. When the fad passes, and children lose interest, Mom and Dad are left in charge of a pet they did not want in the first place.

It means avoiding "pet du jour" purchases, such as the Dalmatians that become popular each time Disney re-releases 101 Dalmatians. Dalmatians are lovely dogs that shed constantly and have a high energy level - the right dog for a few families, but not for all.

 Start With the Heart
Make a list of the types of pets that members of your family really like.

Add Facts
Learn about a prospective pet. How long will he live? How big will he grow? How much space does he need? How much time, each day, will you spend caring for him? What kind of care? What can you expect to spend, annually, on food, veterinary expenses, or other costs? Does he shed a lot? Is he capable of biting, scratching? Is he too frail for your young children to handle?

Inventory Your Resources
Take a quick but realistic inventory of your resources and circumstances. How much time, each day, are you or family members willing to devote to pet care? How much money are you prepared to spend, not merely to acquire a pet, but to provide veterinary care, a healthy diet, equipment? Do you have room for an indoor habitat? A fenced-in yard? Proximity to a park for dog-walking?

Consider Special Issues
Think about your children's ages, temperaments, interests, and physical abilities in relation to a pet. Children up to age five should not be left alone with a pet; the risk of injury -- to your child, the pet, or both -- is too great.

Are family members allergic to certain pets? What pets are permitted under your lease or condo agreement? Who will care for the pet when you are working late or traveling?

Select From Many Choices
There is a wide range of appealing pets to choose from, in addition to cats and dogs. For almost every individual or family, a good match is possible.
Some thoughts about each:

Cats have replaced dogs as America's most popular pets. This reversal is no doubt due to today's hectic lifestyles - and cats, unlike dogs, do not need to be walked outside. A cat or two may be a good choice if you want a quiet, indoor pet. They like human company and attention, and can be quite affectionate. They need regular meals, grooming, a clean litter box, toys and a window on the world.

If your children are under age six, an adult cat is a better choice than a kitten. If you feel uncertain about making a twenty-year commitment to this long-lived pet, adopt an older cat that is used to being with children.

A dog or even two if you have lots of space and can afford it, may be right for your family if you or your children can spend a lot of time exercising and playing with a canine family member. Dogs are sociable animals, and need a lot of interaction with people. They need training and grooming, as well as food and regular veterinary care. They are great pets for individuals and families that are outdoor oriented.

Small Mammals include fancy mice and fancy rats; ferrets; gerbils; guinea pigs; hamsters; rabbits. These adorable little creatures, residing in a cage or tank, are becoming increasingly popular, but sometimes for the wrong reason: parents mistakenly think that an animal that lives in a contained habitat is low-maintenance. In fact, ferrets and rabbits require nearly as much time and attention (and exercise outside the cage) as dogs. All of these pets need daily human attention, some need company of their own kind, and most should not be left inside their habitat full-time. In addition to feeding and handling, care chores include thoroughly cleaning the pet habitat.

Children love these small, furry pets. Children up to age eight or nine usually lack the muscle control to handle them, and it is too easy, and traumatic, for a child to inadvertently injure and even kill one of these beloved pets.

Birds can be charming, endearing companions. They are intelligent and sociable. Unless you get two lovebirds, two canaries, or several finches (who will then bond with each other, rather than with your family members), birds require substantial human interaction, including time outside the cage, which can be messy.

Children under the age of eight usually have not developed the patience or gentleness to safely handle these fragile animals. A single cockatiel or parakeet can develop an astonishing vocabulary, display a strong personality, and become an older child's friend and playmate.

Fish may be the pets for you if your family is pressed for time. An aquarium is a miniature ecosystem that often fascinates children. Setting up an aquarium can be time-consuming, but daily feeding takes only a moment, and weekly maintenance can be accomplished in less than an hour. For children a freshwater tank is recommended (either cold, or tropical), and offers opportunities to nurture a wide variety of fish.

Exotic, Alternative, or Non-traditional Pets, including most reptiles and amphibians, often appeal to children, especially teens. But, according to an article in Petlife magazine, "Most people who wind up owning an alternative pet shouldn't .... invariably the demands of upkeep prove too grueling or the novelty simply wears off." Non-traditional pets of all kinds are harder, and generally more expensive, to care for. It is difficult to find veterinarians trained in these specialties, and difficult to find reliable information about their care. The transmission of salmonella bacteria from reptiles to humans is a serious health issue. Most families are wise to choose among more traditional pets.

Don't Forget to Have Fun
The process of choosing a pet can be fun for the whole family, and the rewards are many.