By STEVE DALE
Certified Animal Behavior Consultant
When you decide it’s time to bring a pet into your life, it’s best to make an informed decision about the right kind of pet for you.
Begin by having a realistic conversation with yourself. Be honest about the time and resources you can dedicate to care and what kinds of qualities you are looking for in a pet. Think about how much time you can commit to this new member of your family, including giving them the appropriate level of exercise (not much to consider for hamsters, but Australian shepherds require more of an outdoor workout than Dachshunds). Talk to all family members about the decision and what their expected responsibilities will be. Keep in mind that any pet chosen for your children is ultimately yours. Adults are responsible for any medical bills and ensuring pets are cared for when a video game becomes a higher priority than scooping the litter box.
This process is vital because people who make the wrong choice tend to want to relinquish their pet. If there are children involved, the only lesson learned is that animals are expendable – hopefully, not the lesson you wanted for them.
In exploring possible pets, dogs are often the first kind many people consider. When weighing this choice, don’t be swayed by trends or popular culture. After watching the movie “Babe,” it may be a romantic notion to want a Border collie (the breed that appears in the movie), however, like any dog, the possible challenges may not be presented on the screen.
“You’ve gotta be crazy,” says Patricia McConnell on choosing the breed. “Unless you’re crazy like I am.” McConnell, an animal behaviorist and Border collie owner says, in reality, the breed truly needs an outlet for their intensity or they can develop behavioral or temperament problems that aren’t easy to deal with.
“In other words, they can be exhausting,” she says.
Since keeping a dog can be quite a challenge and breeds vary in behavior and needs, it helps to do some research before selecting a particular breed so you can separate out fact from fiction.
Cats are the most popular pet in America, yet there are many misconceptions about keeping our feline friends. Chief among them is the belief that they’re ideal for people with little or no time.
“You’re always hearing, if you’re a busy person, get a cat,” says Liz Palika, an author of numerous pet-related books. “I don’t believe that’s correct. Cats deserve and require as much attention as dogs. Of course they don’t require the kind of labor involved in taking them outside to do their business and to socialize, but they need to play and thrive on attention from people.”
So, are there any ideal pets for the busy person who can’t offer that level of attention?
“There really aren’t many,” says pet-author Audrey Pavia. “All pets take up some time.”
However, for first-time pet owners and those purchasing pets primarily for the kids, smaller pets are often a good starter.
Pavia suggests hedgehogs, admittedly a prickly choice. “Hedgehogs aren’t so cuddly,” she says. “They do get to know their people by smell. Still, they really don’t need to interact with us.” Caring for hedgies is a matter of providing food, a wheel (specially made for hedgehog feet), and a clean cage. They are active at night though, so be aware that they could keep light sleepers awake.
Hermit crabs won’t fetch your paper, but they are interesting pets to watch. They don’t need your conversation, but the do require other hermit crabs because they live in large groups in the wild. Keeping two or three is important (Maintaining more is work, of course). Even crabs require a little elbow room (that is, if they have elbows), so don’t overdo it with a herd of too many crabs in too small of a space. With proper care, crabs can live around a decade so it’s a commitment may definitely last for some time.
That can be the problem with long-lived pets. What happens if a young child loses interest as they age? A snake or larger lizard could live for 15 years or more, so you need to think about what happens to the animal when your child goes away to college.” Most dorm rooms don’t welcome pet residents. Requiring even longer-term planning are large parrots. Some parrot species live longer than some people (more than 70 years). You literally may require a will that includes who the caretaker for your pet will be when you go on to your reward.
Though they can be long lived, one advantage of a pet snake is that you don’t have to run home from work or school because you’re worried your slithery friend may be lonely. That tongue doesn’t flick back and forth because she wants to kiss you. She’s sensing her environment.
“Having a reptile is fascinating, like a little nature in your home,” says Palika, a reptile rescuer for many years. She recommends a corn snake for beginners. They are bred not only for spectacular color combinations, but also for temperament.
“I believe they kind of enjoy being handled some, but overdoing it will cause stress,” she says. As adults, they don’t require daily feeding (In fact, twice a month is usually acceptable) and their environment is relatively easy to maintain. You won’t have to worry about tripping over their toys as you might with a dog, cat, or a ferret.
If there’s any pet with a sense of humor, it’s the ferret. Ferrets are constantly in motion or sleeping. There is no middle ground. Because they’re so inquisitive, you need to ferret- proof whatever room they’re cavorting in. Remember that because of their flexible backbone, they can squeeze into small spaces. So they don’t get themselves into too much trouble, they can’t really be trusted to play alone without adult supervision. Two ferrets are best, and three is even better. They tend to pine for lost friends who pass away. If one dies, at least there’s another buddy if you begin with a trio.
While ferrets are the life of the party, rabbits are the wallflowers. They enjoy being with their people, but they don’t enjoy being the center of attention. Rabbits are a good choice for gentle people in a quiet household, and not ideal for young children, according to Pavia.
“Generally, they (rabbits) don’t enjoy being picked up and really don’t like to be cuddled,” she says. “They prefer simply sitting in the room, and being petted every now and again, but not being smothered by their people.”
If you’re seeking a small interactive pet, a rat may not sound like the perfect choice –, but it might be. Palika taught her rats, Weed and Flower, an assortment of rat tricks.
“They were more like circus rats,” she says. “We really enjoyed them and bonded with them. They’re smarter, more affectionate, and not quite as fragile as gerbils, hamster, or Guinea pigs.” However, being smart, rats require more human interaction than other more common rodent choices, and as a result will require more of your time.
If you really want a smart pet, as well as a real challenge, your best bet are parrots. Most experts agree, parrots are generally as smart, or even brighter, than dogs and cats.
Palika agrees, and adds, “It’s also like having a two-or-three year old in the house for years and years and years without ever growing up.” Various species have different needs, but no parrot is afraid to express its point of view.
“People ask me all the time to choose a quiet parrot for them,” says Liz Wilson, a parrot behavior consultant. “I tell them, ‘get fish.’”
While you clearly don’t have to take a fish for a walk and they don’t require your interaction, maintaining their environment can be a lot of work (Assuming were not talking about a betta fish in a bowl – which is far less labor intensive). Of course, you can always hire a professional aquarist to do that work for you, while you sit back and enjoy their beauty.
Studies show that watching fish is a stress-buster, but then so is petting a cat or a dog (or likely any other pet). It turns out that science is now demonstrating that pets are good for us, but when we make the wrong choices, it can all go sour fast. And that can be stressful and, therefore, unhealthy. Once we’ve chosen a pet, it’s important to avoid wildly unrealistic expectations.
“The trick is to accept them for what they are,” says Palika “And then every pet is the perfect pet.”
Steve Dale is widely known as the "Ann Landers of the pet world." He writes "My Pet World," a syndicated, twice-weekly column, offering animal lovers of all kinds the latest news and information on their furry, feathered and scaled companions. Listen to Steve Dale's WEEKLY RADIO SHOW, "Pet Central," on Saturdays at http://www.wgnradio.com; or Steve's syndicated radio shows: "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." Learn more at http://www.petworldradio.net.