Adopting an animal is a major commitment.
Yet all too often people put more effort into researching what kind of car to get than the type of pet that would best fit their lifestyle.
So Vetstreet consulted three renowned experts — Dr. Ernie Ward, animal trainer Andrea Arden, and Stephanie Shain, chief operating officer at the Washington Humane Society — about the 10 most important questions to ask yourself before you adopt a pet.
What will your life be like in five or even 10 years?
A dog or cat can live 15 or more years, so envisioning how pet-friendly your life will be in the future is important. “Consider whether you’re likely to be married, have children, move, change careers or undergo other major life changes,” says Dr. Ernie Ward, a small animal veterinarian in Calabash, N.C. “And keep in mind that as pets age, their needs change as well.”
Will you be adopting the pet by yourself or with someone?
If you have a roommate or spouse, make sure that he or she is totally committed to a new pet,” Dr. Ward says. Otherwise, expect drama. “I’ve seen many couples fight openly over the care of their pet,” he adds.
And even if everyone is on board with the idea of getting a pet, it’s important for people in the household to express concerns ahead of time, Shain says. “For instance, if shedding is a problem for someone, you may want to aim for a dog with a shorter coat.”
How much time can you dedicate to your pet each day?
Though dogs generally require more time and attention than cats, you should be able to give any pet your undivided attention. “Dogs and cats who don’t receive daily interaction have a greater risk of developing behavioral problems, anxiety and obesity,” Dr. Ward says.
And don’t forget energy. “If you regularly come home late at night only to plop down in front of the TV, that’s not a good sign,” Dr. Ward says. “Pets need and deserve real engagement, such as playing and walking, in addition to cuddles and snuggles.”
Can you afford to own an animal?
Even if the cost of the pet itself is negligible, you need to factor in food, supplies and vet visits. According to the ASPCA, dog owners should expect to spend about $1,500 on a dog during the first year of ownership; cat owners should set aside at least $1,000 for that crucial first year.
If you plan to split the costs with someone, make sure you’re all in agreement about the amount that will be spent on the pet. “Talking about costs in advance helps avoid surprises,” Shain says. “For example, is everyone on board with buying premium pet food? Do you want pet insurance?” While we’re on the subject, Dr. Ward advises owners to consider insurance when pets are young. “It can save you thousands of dollars should a medical crisis arise.”
Do you have support from others if you’re working late or traveling?
“Many behavioral problems and even bladder infections result from not having a reliable system in place to relieve pets who are confined indoors,” Dr. Ward says. “Imagine not being able to use the restroom for 14 hours.” That’s why he suggests looking into boarding facilities, sitters and daycare before you adopt.
Arden, who lives in New York, also recommends securing a network of people who can help you in a pinch: “Make sure you have trustworthy friends and neighbors who will be there for you in an emergency.”
How much household destruction can you tolerate?
Accidents are a given when you bring a pet into your life. “There will be misunderstandings, mis-communications and missed potty breaks,” Dr. Ward says. “My best advice: Be patient. Within a few weeks of regular training, you’ll be well on your way to a dream relationship.”
For Arden, the real question is how prepared an owner is to commit to early and consistent training. “Destructive behavior, like garbage raiding, can be hazardous to your pet’s health,” she says. “A pet who’s well-mannered and focused on toys is sure to be happier — and so is the family.”
If you already have a pet, is that animal likely to accept a new housemate?
The good news is that most pets, even the most spoiled cats, crave companionship,” Dr. Ward says. “I’m a fan of multipet households — they help reduce stress and anxiety and foster healthy interspecies behavior.”
Of course, it may take some time for an existing pet to accept a new addition, so Arden suggests introducing animals to each other before adoption. “It gives you a chance to watch them interact and see if they’ll be amiable housemates.”
What do you hope to get out of the relationship?
“Too many pet owners get a big dog only to complain that the dog is difficult to travel with, while others regret getting a miniature dog when what they really want is a running partner,” Dr. Ward says. So he suggests listing the activities you see yourself doing with your pet, such as playing ball or going for car rides. “Our best friends are often those we enjoy doing things with,” he says. “So make sure you have a plan to find the best buddy for your lifestyle.”
Arden adds that you should consider not just what you expect from a pet, but what you have to offer your new pet. “The best chances of a great match start when you identify expectations and remain realistic about the relationship.”
Do you have the time and resources needed for proper training?
Arden, the author of Barron’s Dog Training Bible, says that pets need plenty of guidance when it comes to abiding by human rules. “Companion dogs exposed to the world outside of the home generally require a greater commitment in regards to petiquette,” she says. “This means focusing on socialization and handling, so they’re comfortable around people.”
This, of course, requires a serious commitment on the part of the owner. “Too many new pet parents believe that they can simply enroll in a puppy class and — voilà! — a perfect puppy,” Dr. Ward says. “Puppy classes are only the beginning.” The real education happens at home — several times a day. “It’s not hard or even that time-consuming,” he says. “But it must be done in order to have a well-mannered companion.”
Do you have small children?
Contrary to popular belief, there is no species or breed that comes ready to live with kids. “If you have children, you must first teach them the rules of safe pet conduct: No teasing, pulling, pushing or climbing on animals,” Arden says. You’ll also need to spend ample time meeting different animals, so you can observe tolerance levels, responsiveness to training and the ability to bounce back from jarring incidents.
Now that you’re ready to adopt a pet…
There’s one more important question every potential pet parent needs to consider: dog or cat?
There are certainly “cat people” and “dog people,” but Dr. Ward has found that most of us are just “pet people.” Although there are periods in life when a cat may be a better mate, and times when a dog feels like the right fit, he says that “you’ll find a place and time when both may be best.”
He also points out that potential owners shouldn’t rule out adopting an older animal from a shelter. “Many of these pets are already house-trained and in desperate need of loving homes.”
On that note, Shain says that it’s also important to consider a pet’s personality and temperament — and avoid making a decision based on appearance alone. “Like any relationship,” she says, “you need to remember that looks may change.”