Deciding what pet, if any, is right for your family

Pets are good for your wellbeing. Your blood pressure drops when you pet them, they provide an open, non-judgmental source of comfort, and they help bring your family together, giving everyone something to rally over and laugh about. Pets also have a practical use—they teach kids how to care for someone other than themselves and learn about chores. There are plenty of good reasons to get a pet, but is your family ready for one?

While it seems like every family you know owns a pet, that’s not necessarily true. It’s important to get a pet for the right reasons, be aware of your limitations, and to be thoughtful when selecting a pet. According to the American Pet Products Association, 68 percent of households own a pet. You want to make sure the pros outweigh the cons. Here are a few tips on deciding if it’s the right time to become pet owners.

Deciding if your kids are ready

Pets are great companions and offer the chance for kids to learn important life lessons, but they have to be ready to handle the responsibilities of pet ownership. How do you know if your kids are ready to care for a pet? And which pet is right for them?

“A common mistake people make when selecting a pet is not recognizing the needs of the particular animal that they choose. For example, your child might want to get a friend for their hamster, but hamsters may not want a friend in their cage and they might fight. It comes down to doing good research and learning how much training and obligations a pet needs,” says Lauren Parsons, Volunteer Human Education Coordinator for the Larimer Humane Society.

If you think your child is ready to care for a pet, start with the simple things. Your child can learn responsibility and compassion by readying your pet’s dinner, checking its water bowl and replacing dirty water with fresh, making sure they have a clean environment, and giving them lots of love.

Whether your child is ready for a pet or not depends more on your particular child’s nature than anything else, but here are a few guidelines. Is your child able to take care of his own basic needs? Can he dress himself, use the toilet alone and get a snack if needed? Then he might be ready. Toddlers and preschoolers don’t know how to control their strength or emotions and can hurt a small pet inadvertently. School age is often a good time to get a pet. Getting a pet that your child can keep in her room might also be something to consider—if you are not keen on having a pet underfoot. Teenagers can usually handle pets but may not have the time for them.

Which pet is right for your family?

Each pet comes with its own pros and cons list. A dog or cat, for instance, will provide the most affection and interaction but will demand the most care. Is your child ready to commit to picking up after your dog in the yard or taking the dog for a daily walk? If not, this responsibility will fall on you. Dander associated with fur—and how your child might react—is also something to consider before getting a dog or cat. When choosing a pet, consider how long it will live and if it needs special food or supplies.

Reptiles and amphibians including lizards, turtles, frogs, iguanas, snakes, toads, chameleons and salamanders are interesting to watch, but carry salmonella—a bacteria that can cause stomach upset. If your child is good at personal hygiene, or willing to wash his or her hands each time after holding the pet—and also willing to clean the cage regularly—reptiles might be a good choice. However, they often demand live food like meal worms or crickets which means weekly trips to the pet store. Consider how that fits into your schedule.

Some people think guinea pigs are a good way to go, and they certainly can be. It’s a pleasure to feed them lettuce scraps and carrot peels and watch them squeal in delight. They can be calm and allow some cuddling and holding, but sometimes remain skittish. Cage upkeep can be a challenge as it’s a large cage that demands regular cleaning.

If you are not quite ready for a guinea pig, try a gerbil or hamster. After all, the smaller the pet, the less mess they make. Hamsters can be quite entertaining, even when they get out in the house and you have to move furniture to find them. There’s even a mini version—robo hamsters—that are amazingly fast and fun to watch. Rats can also be great pets as they are more intelligent and often like to be held.

“What I have learned working with animals and children is that small mammals are a lot more manageable. The smaller the pet, generally the smaller amount of responsibility,” Parsons says.

Teach your kids how to provide the right amount of attention and the right type of attention to their chosen pet. Pets often respond differently to affection than people do, or even other pets. Help your child read a pet’s cues, which can differ by animal.

“Tail wagging in a dog is a green light behavior while tail twitching in a cat is a hands off behavior. Likewise, when a dog rolls over and presents its belly it wants pets, but when a cat rolls over and shows its belly, petting it will break its trust,” Parsons says.

Tips for adopting

If you plan to visit the shelter and select a pet, consider your options before you go. Most shelters have online pictures and descriptions of animals, including the Larimer Humane Society (larimerhumane.org). Dogs go fast, so if you see one you like don’t hesitate too long once you definitely know you are ready. When you get to the shelter, take the time to really hang out with the animal to make sure your personalities match.

“It really comes down to fit. Every animal has their own personality, so make sure yours match. With dogs, make sure you pick one that matches your energy level and availability. Some dogs require more exercise, and have a harder time being at home alone all day while you work than others. Finally, we encourage people to consider older animals. Everyone wants a puppy but there are advantages to older dogs,” concluded Ben Barnhart, Director of Development and Community Relations for the Larimer Humane Society.


Larimer Humane Society

Open House at New Location
3501 E 71st Street, Loveland, CO 
Saturday, November 4
10 am-2 pm