Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Tips for Choosing the Perfect Pet

Pet Column for the week of September 16, 2002

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

Your heart may melt when you see that puppy in the pet store window, but keep in mind that adopting a pet is a big responsibility. Very few people do research to find the right pet for them before they get it. That's a big reason why so many animals are relinquished to humane shelters every year. But these sad endings can be avoided with a little research and preparation.

What kinds of things should a pet owner consider when choosing a pet? Dr. Christine Merle, an Extension veterinarian at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana, believes that the first step is to think about why you want the pet. "This is probably the most important question to ask yourself when choosing a pet because it can often tell you right away what sort of pet you are looking for," she says. "A person who wants a companion but won't be home enough to care for a high-maintenance animal may better off with a cat than a dog, while a person who spends lots of time at home may enjoy the companionship of a dog."

Unfortunately, people often choose pets for the wrong reasons. Some people choose purebred dogs as a status symbol, while others get whatever breed they have recently seen on television or in a movie. "The problem with choosing a pet this way is that the pet may not suit the owner's personality and may not make a good match for the owner," says Dr. Merle. "Breed personality traits should always be taken in to consideration when choosing a pet."

For example, people often say that Labrador retrievers make great family pets. Why is this? It is because they are usually high energy, very patient, and non-aggressive. Retrievers have been bred for these traits for their work alongside hunters, so they usually display them as family pets too.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when you are thinking about getting a pet:

  • Do I have the time necessary to care for this animal's needs?

  • Do I have the physical space required for this pet? Does this pet need a yard?

  • Do I have the money to care for this animal? It is often more expensive than you think!

  • Is this pet suited to the place where I live? A large dog may not be very happy in a big city if there is no yard.

  • If I get this pet, will I physically be able to handle the animal on walks? This one is especially important when the owner is elderly or when children will be the primary caretakers.

  • Do I have young children in the house? If so, a puppy might not be the best choice. Having a puppy in a household with a tiny child can be like having two small children competing for the attention of the parent. Puppies can also be very high energy and can sometimes cause accidents and injury to the child. An adult dog may be calmer and may be a better choice for people with young ones.

    Two resources that are often overlooked as a source for some really great pets are the local humane shelter and rescue groups. "I am a big advocate of pets that come from the humane shelter," says Dr. Merle. "Not only do these animals often make great pets, but many are not purebred, which means that in the long run they may be healthier and may not have some of the genetically predisposed problems that purebreds have."

    Purebred animals that do end up at a shelter are often taken to a rescue group for that breed. Rescue groups reduce the numbers of animals that the local shelter has to care for and provide people with a source of purebred dogs without going to a breeder. "Getting a dog from a rescue group is a great way to get a purebred dog and still help an animal that needs a home," says Dr. Merle. "If you are thinking about getting a certain breed, it may be a good idea to contact a rescue group and learn from some of the people who know the breed best!"

    Researching the pet that will best suit you can include more than just reading books or surfing the Internet. "When deciding what pet will best suit your lifestyle, it can be very beneficial to talk to people who have had experience with that breed," says Dr. Merle. "The more people you talk to, the better informed you can become before making your final decision. This includes talking to other pet owners, breeders, rescue groups, and don�t forget, veterinarians. They will each have a different perspective that can help you become better informed."

    Researching what kind of pet is best for you can save you a lot of trouble in the long run. So if you are tempted to get a pet on a whim, remember that a little preparation will go a long way to ensure that your home is a happy one.