There’s plenty to think about when considering taking on a pet. How much time do you have to devote to a pet? How much space will the animal have indoors and outside to play in? Are you looking for a pet to accompany you on jogs or would you rather a pet curl up in your lap while you read a book?
“Our approach, we try to get people to talk about their lifestyle,” said Heather Faria, executive director of the Concord-Merrimack County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “For us, it’s about personality and activity, not chocolate labs versus yellow labs.”
“Having a pet is just a very rewarding experience,” said Dr. Jim Paine of the Russell Animal Hospital in Concord. “They make outstanding companions and friends and they want nothing of us but love and companionship.”
Along with determining what type of daily commitment people can make, Faria tries to impress on people that pet ownership is a long-term proposition. Even in the case of smaller animals, like bunnies or guinea pigs, pets can live quite a while. So if you’re looking to adopt a dog for your kids, think about what they’ll be doing in 10 to 15 years. If the answer is college or beyond, parents probably want to make sure they’re up for a pet as well.
“How long an animal will be with us is pretty considerable,” Faria said. “It causes people to pause.”
There are online tools that will take in people’s information about their lifestyles and spit back recommended dog breeds. In general, dogs that were bred for working and hunting — German shepherds, pointers, setters, retrievers — are going to have lots of energy to burn on a daily basis. Dogs bred more for companionship, such as dachshunds, shih tzus or lhasa apsos, are more likely to be OK with less activity. Many of the larger dog breeds, like Great Danes or Newfoundlands, can be a little on the lazy side, but owners would need to be able to handle all that comes with a large dog — lots of fur, hogging the couch or bed, bucketfuls of drool.
“Dogs are a serious undertaking,” Paine said. “You’ve got to give it attention, interaction, exercise, and you have to keep it mentally and physically healthy.”
Parasite control products, aimed at combating pests like ticks and fleas, have to be applied regularly and paid for regularly as well. People need to spend time caring for the dental health of dogs, particularly as they get older. Paine sees dogs every day of the week infected with Lyme disease or other tick-borne infections.
Cats tend to have fewer health problems than dogs, but cats commonly run into urinary tract infections.
With better medicine, pets are now living longer. That’s good, but it also means they’re alive longer to suffer from kidney disease, diabetes and tumors. Cats can be considerably more independent than dogs, but they still need attention. Owners need to play with them, pat them or simply let them snuggle up to them. (Faria wouldn’t mind if non-superstitious prospective pet owners stopped by and picked up one of their many black cats and kittens.)
“Cats are such good company and they’re more independent,” Faria said. “They’re a little bit lower-maintenance than perhaps a puppy or a dog. They take care of their own exercise needs. They can be left at home for longer periods of time without direct care. But they’re also not going to bring the ball back to you.... We like to talk to people about cats. They’re very therapeutic.”
Faria said cats, which can exhibit many different personalities, can definitely meet people’s need for affection: “The bond that we generally think of with dogs can certainly happen with cats as well.” For cats, there are long- and short-hair varieties. People might want to check with family members about allergies before making a decision.
But it’s not just dogs and cats to consider.
“That group of pocket pets can really be rewarding,” Paine said. “One of my favorites, guinea pigs, they have got a lot of personality. They tend to be quite interactive and a lot of folks don’t appreciate them and recognize that.”
Parents often buy guinea pigs as a first pet for a child, expecting the animal not to live that long. Paine said they often survive far longer than parents think, and mom ends up taking care of the little guy. “Moms being natural softies, they fall in love with them,” he said, adding guinea pigs have a tendency to whistle when they hear the refrigerator door open, knowing that means a snack is on the way.
Bunnies too, Paine said, have more personality and are more interactive than people expect. An 8- or 10-year-old bunny isn’t all that uncommon either. Birds are another long-living pet that can win over owners.
Cats are more ideal in an indoor setting. Most dogs are decidedly not happy with being confined inside day after day. So pet sellers are going to want to know if prospective owners have enough of a yard for a dog or if they’re willing to take them to a nearby park on a daily basis. Faria said people should also think about how much physical space they have inside. People will need space for all the things that go with doggie-ownership: food, feeding bowls, dog beds, possibly a cage and toys.
“When you’re adding another creature into the mix, it really can change how the space feels in a house,” Faria said.
Then there are the finances. It’s difficult to measure expenditures as food and medical costs vary widely depending on type of pet, but financially, pets aren’t cheap to maintain. Especially in the poor economic climate, shelters are often presented with pets owners can no longer afford to take care of.
Prospective owners should also consider whether they want a mature dog or a puppy. Puppies are lots of fun and lots of work. If you’re not up for the training and the peeing on the floor, shelter officials are likely to nudge you toward a trained animal.
If you want a purebred animal, do some homework. Check out the parents, as their temperaments can indicate what puppies would be like. Certain breeds can have specific health risks. Sometimes opting for a mixed breed can eliminate some of the inherited risks of purebred dogs, though there’s no exact science there. Paine sees fewer purebred cats, but certain breeds do have health risks much like dogs. For example, Maine coon cats are at risk for heart disease.
“If a dog is bred to be a bird dog — setters, pointers — they were bred to run and run all day long,” Paine said.
Paine said Labrador retrievers are the dogs he sees most frequently and that makes sense. “They’re hard to knock,” he said. “They’re bred to be active, outdoor, athletic kind of dogs ... but they’re not bred to run all day for a living, so they don’t need to have hours and hours and hours of mental health time to burn off their energy. But they’re big enough to go on long hikes....”
“Some of the best dogs are mutts,” Paine said.
Paine said mixed-breeds often don’t have the concentration of some of the traits that would occur in a more closely bred dog. Purebred labs often inherit allergies. A mixed breed might miss the allergies. Behavior is part of the equation as well in terms of what a dog inherits.
For people who want a dog but don’t want to be run ragged by one, there are plenty of options. Though it can be a bit of a hot-button breed, Paine said he sees lots of nice pit bulls and pit bull crosses. He said everybody loves beagles, though they have a tendency to wander. Certain terrier breeds can have a nice combination of personality and energy.
Shelter officials ask people to think long and hard about how much they’ll actually be able to give to an animal each day and each week. At shelters, people are encouraged to come in and interact with pets. Sometimes the pairings are easy to make. Sometimes it takes a few visits for both sides to get comfortable.
“It’s really important to give themselves time in the adoption process,” Faria said. “When you get to the point where you’re going to do this, it’s a really big step ... but then you kind of want it to happen fast. Sometimes it takes a little while to find the right match.”