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Love Your Pet: Choosing a Family Pet

Owning a pet can be extremely rewarding. I got into veterinary medicine because of the experiences I had growing up with many pets. A well-chosen pet can bring many years of joy and can teach kids life lessons as they care for another living being. Pets can provide years of companionship, entertainment and educational opportunities for everyone in your family.

When searching for a pet for your family, there is much to consider. Do you want one that is big or small? Caged or able to roam the house? One that will be with your family for a long time? One that can be handled? One that teaches children responsibility through care? These and other questions come into play as you do your research and make your choice.

Some of the most popular pets are hamsters and guinea pigs. A hamster needs a roomy cage with tunnels and nesting areas for sleeping. They can be startled when initially handled, so if you want the hamster to be picked up and played with, be careful not to startle it. Hamsters can bite when frightened. They usually live for 2 to 3 years.

Guinea pigs are fellow members of the rodent family but are considered more gentle. They squeal when surprised or nervous but are less likely to bite. Guinea pigs are also more sociable and usually do not mind being handled. They do better when there are two or more of them together. They also live longer — usually 5 to 7 years. Since they eat a lot of hay and vegetables, they can be a little messy and require more frequent cleaning of their cages.

One pet I don’t recommend is gerbils. They do not like to be handled. If they are anything like the ones I had growing up, they are also excellent escape artists. It is hard to find one that has gotten out of its cage.

Rats actually make good pets for most small children. Most are calm and can be handled a lot. Rats can even be taught tricks. They like to be kept entertained and need many toys to play with. Rats, however, also have a shorter life span of 2 to 3 years.

Rabbits, like guinea pigs, are usually calmer and enjoy being petted. Children need to be taught how to handle them since they can easily injure their backs if held incorrectly or if they fall. A rabbit can live as long as 12 years, but some live only until 7 or 8. Rabbits, as they age, can sometimes develop aggression. This is why many people get them spayed or neutered. They require much more space and attention than smaller creatures. They need a large amount of fresh hay daily or can graze on a lawn outside if supervised.

Some people opt for other animals. A fish can be a good starter pet, but some can actually be difficult to raise and do not give the interaction desired. Some people get reptiles for pets. Lizards and snakes can make good pets, but I would avoid a constrictor snake as a choice for your first snake. Reptiles are hypoallergenic, but they can transmit some diseases, including salmonella. You also must remember that a tortoise can live for more than 50 years — which is quite a commitment. And some reptiles are fed live food, so people can be squeamish about this.

Birds can make good pets. They are usually highly intelligent but require daily attention. Birds can also be very delicate, and some do not like to be handled. You have to be careful to feed them correctly. Many are overweight and unhealthy from being fed fatty seeds only.

The most common pets are dogs and cats. Again, consider how much you want it to be handled — and if kids will be caring for it, picking it up and so on. Pets can teach children about responsibility and dependability. It’s best if this is understood beforehand.

The breed picked by most families is the good ol’ mutt. More important than pedigree and breed is temperament. Also, remember that your commitment goes beyond the initial excitement. You may need to make special arrangements if you want to go on vacation. It’s helpful to consider and discuss these things with family members or whoever would care for the pet in your absence. Your veterinarian can also provide information regarding a choice for a pet.

May you have many years of fulfilling pet ownership as I did and enjoy the many benefits people get from interacting with and caring for their animal companions.

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