Pets are family.
But there’s a big difference between the way we acquire furry family and human family members: We don’t always get to choose our biological family, but we can choose our pets.
You might be looking at rescue sites, humane organizations, stores, breeders, or websites like Petfinder to find your match. There are so many adorable faces, and heart-wrenching stories—it can be overwhelming.
What are some ways of narrowing your search to make sure you are choosing the right pet for your lifestyle?
Allergies. Some people are allergic to the dander or saliva that comes with dogs and cats. The American Veterinary Medicine Association says that over 50 million people in the United States have allergies, and 24 million have asthma. Pets are a trigger for some people with asthma. Allergies can be managed with medical care, and even veterinarians and other animal workers have strategies for managing allergies. But it’s still important to be aware of the possibility of allergic reactions in your family and in people visiting your home. Despite common misunderstandings, there is no such thing as a nonallergenic dog. But some breeds of dogs and cats are considered “low‑allergen” because they shed less. Birds, reptiles, fish, and short‑haired rodents might be a better choice for people with severe pet allergies.
Your space. Some pets need more space than others, and some landlords or management companies don’t allow pets. There are resources available to help you find pet‑friendly housing. Note that some helper animals (emotional support animals and service animals) are legally allowed to live with you, even in properties that do not normally allow pets. “Environmental enrichment” is the formal term for things such as safe pet toys, dog or cat puzzles (usually associated with feeding your pet so they don’t eat too much or too fast), and places your pet can explore and hide. You might find creative ways to outfit your space so that it includes being mindful that you are sharing your space with your pet.
Your life. Living with pets provides many physical and mental health benefits. And it’s also a lot of work. Are you prepared to make sure your dog or cat gets enough exercise, regular veterinary care, training, and socialization? Even if you have a fenced‑in yard, a dog will need walks, and certain dog breeds need more exercise than others. Cats need more entertainment than you might realize, so play with them using cat-safe toys. I find it fun to play with my cat Pearl (when she’s in the mood).
Age. It can be rewarding to raise a cat or dog from when they are young, but puppies and kittens are a lot of work! When you see those adorable faces looking at you, there are a few things you should think about: potty or litter training, socialization, spaying and neutering, and the fact that sometimes they might destroy things, like furniture and shoes. If you are looking for a mellow companion, adopting an adult or senior animal can be a wonderful way to add a family member that has been around the block.
Personality and temperament. Meet before you get your new companion! Looks can be deceiving. It’s hard to know from an online photo if a pet will have a personality and energy level that is a good match for you. Adopting from a reputable humane organization or a rescue organization that has a foster system might be a better choice than using breeders. Many states are trying to regulate the unscrupulous operations known as “puppy mills.” It does take time to determine whether adopting is a better choice for you than buying from a store or breeder. Stores that work with rescue shelters can be a good option. As you may know, many wonderful animals are living in shelters and foster homes. The benefits of a foster pet are that a foster family can talk to you about the animal’s needs and behaviors and report on how they get along with other animals and humans. The best rescue, adoption, and foster groups make sure that before you get one of their pets, they are spayed or neutered, microchipped, and have their vaccinations. Most organizations provide opportunities for you to meet a pet before adopting, and even to take them home for a trial visit before committing.
Life span. Cats live an average of 15 years, and dogs live an average of 12. However, that is an average, so your pet may not live so long or may live even longer. Are you emotionally prepared to outlive your pet? Have you thought about the extra cost and time it takes to care for an elderly or sick pet? Pet parents need to think about things like the end‑of‑life care for pets and euthanasia, a humane way to end a pet’s life when they’re experiencing pain or distress.
Financial situation. It can cost upwards of $1,000 a year to care for a cat and $3,000 to care for a dog after paying the one‑time costs, according to the ASPCA. And some pets have more needs than other pets, which can increase costs. We need to take good care of our pets. It’s important to schedule regular check‑ups to keep pets vaccinated and protected against parasites and disease. Thankfully, some veterinarians offer payment plans and assistance for low‑income people, and programs like the One Health Organization’s Veterinary Care Voucher program are helping people with the cost of veterinary care.
Dogs need socialization to live happily among humans.
Unfortunately, some dogs have suffered abuse or neglect before coming into a shelter system. Sharing your life with a dog that has suffered trauma or neglect and helping them heal can be one of the most rewarding relationships of your life. But you will need to take extra time and have patience to get them to trust you. Some of these pups can be really wary of human contact at the beginning. You’ll need to understand that they might not jump right into your lap and start snuggling. They may need professional help with an appropriate trainer or behaviorist and slow introductions to situations that they find scary. If you are adopting a high‑needs dog, be prepared to spend extra patience, time, and money.
Some people underestimate the work it takes to care for cats, thinking they are much easier than dogs. It’s true that not many of them need (or enjoy) walking on leashes, but they do need attention and love to play and channel their hunting instincts.
My veterinary colleagues and I prefer that cats always stay indoors to prevent them getting run over by cars, and to prevent them getting parasites or other diseases. However, some cats need outside stimulation, so a “catio” is an option that might work for you.
Some people choose to adopt littermates or bonded pairs of cats because they groom and play with each other. If they claim to be a bonded pair, they might not actually be bonded and instead simply lived together in the same home before coming to the shelter (see my story about Oreo and Pearl below).
Cats need litter boxes (ideally one on each floor of your home) and places for scratching behavior, which helps them sharpen or shed their claws.
Declawing cats is controversial. It involves amputation of the cat’s toe (only the part that has the claw). If not performed properly by a veterinarian, it can lead to painful paws. Also, it might cause behavioral problems if they can’t defend themselves. I have known some declawed outdoor cats that could climb trees, catch mice, and operate very comfortably without their claws. However, more and more veterinarians are refusing to do the procedure since it’s usually not a medical need for the cat.
Happy cats have places to hide and perch (cat trees, tunnels, shelves) where they feel safe. Some people create catios so their cats can enjoy the sounds and activity in the outdoors without the risk of getting run over by a car or getting eaten by predatory animals.
Also consider the grooming needs of a cat. Long‑haired cats have some special grooming needs. When their fur gets matted, it can be painful and cause skin problems. There are also special grooming needs for hairless cats, like Sphynx.
I usually got pets through family members or friends, and the first time I went to choose my own pet it was at a local shelter that had veterinarians on staff. I went into the shelter with my list of requirements and ended up falling in love with two cats (a mom and daughter pair) that did not fit my list of criteria. Thankfully, they were a great addition to our home. It did take about three months for the cats to adjust well to their new home, so you might need that much time too.
The interesting part for me was that each cat picked out their favorite human. Oreo picked my eldest daughter as her person (I was her second choice), and Pearl chose me (my husband was her second choice).
Also, they weren’t as bonded as I thought they’d be. Oreo decided she didn’t want her daughter Pearl around, so I wonder if sibling pairs are a better idea than a parent‑child pair when it comes to cats. That was my experience with other cats we got—sibling pairs got along quite well.
I did learn that dogs in sibling pairs are not the best choice since their social dynamic in puppyhood can lead to the two not getting along with one another.
Living with a pet is one of life’s greatest joys, and choosing a pet is a big decision. No one should “impulse buy” a pet. That’s why rescue organizations are so thorough about checking references and interviewing potential pet parents. Some pet stores and breeders tend to care more about making money than finding the best home for the animals they sell. The good ones do more to make sure you’re getting a good match for one another.
The experience of adding an animal to your life is more likely to go well if you are thoughtful and flexible—and honest with yourself about what you are capable of as a pet parent.
It’s the foundation of a great relationship.