When Erica Galligan’s children were young, her family tried adopting a dog. But allergy issues forced her family to return their pet to the breeder. Over time they found other alternatives, starting with a saltwater aquarium for their whole family and gradually adding freshwater fish and a tree frog for their sons.
“I figured an aquarium was easy, low-maintenance and fun to look at,” Galligan explains about their next step into pet ownership.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 56% of U.S. households include a pet. Of those, 38% have a dog and 25% have a cat. If you’re considering a pet, how do you find the right one? Here are five factors to consider:
Amount of care
Different types of pets require varying levels of commitment. Consider how much time you have available each day to care for a pet. Are you willing to walk a dog? Do you want to be regularly cleaning a hamster cage? Can you give a younger pet the extra attention it requires? How will you manage that puppy when it’s full grown? Knowing how much time you can invest in a pet may help to narrow your options.
“Your pet will be living with everyone in the home,” says Hannah Stember of Best Friends Animal Society, which partners with shelters and rescue organizations in Atlanta. “What sort of pet will fit best with everyone? Are you an active family? Do you travel a lot? These are lifestyle factors to consider.” Aquarium pets, such as fish and dwarf frogs, require the least care. Next come tank- and cage-kept pets: snails, hermit crabs, birds, reptiles, rodents and rabbits. And then cats.
Aside from horses, dogs can be the most time-consuming pets, with some breeds needing large amounts of exercise. Recognizing the energy level of a dog before bringing it home can prevent any surprises related to care and exercise. Puppies particularly require attention – even if they are housebroken, they need to go out frequently.
Ages of kids and level of responsibility
Introducing a new pet into a home with very young children can be a challenge – for both the pet and the child. Toddlers don’t have the capacity to understand appropriate handling of animals, and their quick motions can startle or scare pets. If you’re ready to bring home an animal while your children are young, make sure to consult with pet store or humane society staff to find a pet whose personality melds well with active youngsters.
If your children are older, taking responsibility becomes more of an issue. Often kids want a pet without understanding the care involved. Discuss how much work they’re willing to assume and explain what will be necessary for different pets.
Bridget Cahill drafted a contract with her three daughters before allowing them to purchase a tortoise. Then each girl signed the contract, agreeing to the responsibilities and consequences they’d outlined together.
“It did say on the contract, ‘I will not throw a fit when you ask me to feed Nelly. I will do it lovingly and happily,’” she says.
It’s easy to think a dog or cat would be fun to own – until you’re planning a trip and need to find a place for the pet to stay while you’re gone. If you travel often, this can quickly become a hassle.
“It’s pretty easy to put a 10-day feeder in an aquarium,” notes Galligan. This makes fish a terrific option for families who are away from home frequently. For a busy family on the go, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs or other independent pets work well.
It’s not necessary to have a fenced back yard – or any yard at all – to own a dog. But you should have in mind places to walk and play with the dog. A small aquarium can go in a bedroom. A litterbox can be kept in a laundry room or basement, as long as the cat has access.
It helps to think through placement of cages and other equipment before bringing a pet home. If you live in an apartment or condo, it is also important to check any rules that apply to pet ownership before bringing home any animal.
People can be allergic to dogs, cats, birds and even guinea pigs. Reactions such as itchy eyes, runny noses, rashes and asthma, come from a protein in pet dander and saliva, and occur in 15 to 30% of allergy sufferers, according to The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Because the allergens stick to surfaces, such as clothing and walls, it’s important for those with pet allergies to avoid having the animals in their home, if possible.
But this doesn’t mean families with allergies can’t have a pet. Reptiles and amphibians don’t create the allergy-causing protein and should be safe. Or choose a pet requiring more regular grooming, such as a poodle or poodle-mix dog. Also, the smaller the pet, the less dander is created to activate allergies. Ask your allergist or a veterinarian for recommended pet breeds.
Whatever animal your family chooses, you will find many benefits and rewards from being pet owners.
“It’s a lot of fun,” says Galligan. “It’s great for kids to grow up with the responsibility for someone other than themselves.”
And given so many breeds and varieties out there, you’re sure to find a pet to fit your family.
Tips for Easing Into Ownership
Research: Galligan’s son developed an interest in freshwater fish before having his own aquarium. He read books from the library. He visited the pet store to investigate varieties. He learned all he could before convincing his parents to buy a freshwater aquarium.
Besides books and store staff, it can also help to speak to someone who owns a pet like the one you are considering. Cahill talked with a friend who owns a turtle before letting her daughters buy the tortoise.
Pet sitting: The Cahills also had extensive experience caring for a variety of animals before they brought home their own pet. They watched friends’ fish, hamsters, several cats, hermit crabs and a number of dogs. And they used each of those experiences as an opportunity to talk about pet ownership.
“It’s totally different to have the animal every day,” Cahill notes. “It makes them see that it’s constant. There are certain things you have to do every day.” She recommends having a child take on a pet sitting responsibility, even if it means simply going to a house to feed a pet or let a dog out for one day.
Start simple: Not all pets are created equal. You can choose to start with a low-maintenance pet, like a turtle or guinea pig, to allow your children to learn responsibility before moving up to a bigger commitment.
Cahill agrees. “I thought the tortoise would be great to ease in. The girls still clean and feed her and walk her in the summer.”
Bringing Home a Four-Legged Pet:
Things to Think About
Introductions: Your pet will need time to adjust to his new surroundings. Let your kids know they need to be calm and patient around him.
Identification: A collar and ID tag are essential. Look for DIY tag-engraving machines at larger pet supply stores. A break-away collar is best for cats’ safety.
Sleeping Arrangements: Younger dogs may feel more secure sleeping in a kennel; it also protects your home when you’re not around. Buy a bed to fit your pet’s size. Cats prefer the comfort of a small, cozy bed.
Pet Space: You may need to block off your kitchen or small area of the house at first. A pet gate or a hand-me-down baby gate are good options. If your dog will run in your fenced-in yard, make sure there are no gaps large enough to squeeze through.
Cleanup: Be a responsible dog owner and always have doggie pick-up bags with you. Your cat will need a litterbox; be sure to place it somewhere easily accessible.
Playtime: Dogs love to chew, tug and chase – don’t forget to have a few durable toys on hand. Cats love to bat and chase small toys; a scratching post can also help protect your furniture.
Staying Healthy: Help your new pet enjoy a long and healthy life by scheduling regular checkups and vaccines. Ask your pet-owning friends to recommend a veterinary practice.
Be an Animal Advocate
Adopting a pet from a shelter or rescue group is a great way to give an unwanted animal a home. There are lots other ways for families and kids to help animals around the Atlanta area.
Volunteer at FurKids Animal Rescue and Shelter. Kids are welcome to help care for and read to resident cats, foster a cat or dog, volunteer at adoption events and raise funds. furkids.org
Angels Among Us Pet Rescue needs families to foster animals, volunteer to feed/walk dogs, and donate funds. angelsrescue.org
Spend time with cats at Java Cats Café in Atlanta or Marietta. Make a reservation to visit and play with the café’s resident cats – all are adoptable. javacatscafe.com
Encourage your kids to raise funds for organizations like the Atlanta Humane Society; they also accept donations of laundry detergent, blankets, paper towels and more. atlantahumane.org
Pets and the Pandemic
“When the pandemic first hit, shelters saw unprecedented numbers of people sign up to foster. Some shelters completely emptied their kennels for the first time ever,” Stember says. If you’re working from home right now, she recommends that families consider how life may change when the pandemic is over. “Adopting a pet is a lifelong commitment, so remember to think long term when adding a new family member.”
– Lara Krupicka