It’s common for potential pet owners to have a clear idea of the sort of animal they want before they go to buy or adopt. But the difference between what an owner wants and what an owner should realistically have can be vast. Lifestyle, finances and health issues all need to be considered to ensure your new pet doesn’t become one of the tens of thousands that are handed over to adoption centres each year, or one of the millions living with behavioural difficulties due to inadequate care. Choosing a pet based on its popularity or cuteness alone, in particular, is problematic, with many trendy purebred cats and dogs such as bengal cats and pugs harbouring genetic predispositions to various health and behavioural issues that can come as a nasty shock to underprepared owners.
So when it comes to choosing a cat or dog, there are important questions to ask yourself. Huw Stacey, director of clinical services at Vets4Pets, advises on what an owner-to-be should consider before making the decision – as well as some of the support on offer to make bringing an animal into your home easier.
What is your lifestyle like?
You have to evaluate whether or not your lifestyle allows you to commit to a pet. If you are someone who goes on holiday often or is away from home regularly, particularly in the evenings or weekends, having a pet may mean kissing those Thursday-night work drinks goodbye. You need to have not only time, but patience and willingness to exercise your pet as well as playing and bonding with them.
How much space do you have in your home?
Dogs should have enough space to roam around freely indoors with their own designated bed area. Having a garden isn’t absolutely necessary depending on what dog you get, as the amount of outdoor space and exercise depends on the breed – the smaller the dog, the less room it will need. Large working dogs and high-energy breeds such as dalmatians, labradors and huskies need to be walked a lot and shouldn’t be in a cramped space. Cats can live inside happily, particularly if they’ve been inside since they were kittens, but like dogs they have some requirements – they need to be stimulated and be active with toys that allow them to exercise their natural instincts such as scratching and hunting.
Is your home safe and secure?
Safety and security are very important when you are considering getting a pet. You must go through your home before introducing a pet – especially a juvenile one – to look for hazards and move or remove them; for example, ibuprofen is toxic to cats and chewing gum is dangerous for dogs. You need to check your home and garden for toxic plants, check all counter tops, all cabinets at pet level (remember, cats are expert jumpers), bottles of chemicals on the floor, electrical cords, and other hazards.
How stable are your living arrangements?
You need to recognise that pets are long-term commitments, and think about your future plans. Before getting a pet, it’s wise to think about how long it is likely to live for. The average life expectancy of a dog is eight to 13 years, depending on size and breed, and the average life expectancy of an indoor cat is 12 to 18 years. You must try your best to anticipate possible changes in your circumstances such as moving house and, in the case of dogs, changing from a pet-friendly workspace to one where it won’t be allowed in. Obviously, it’s impossible to accurately predict every single thing that will happen in the future, but you have to have this mindset.
Do you anticipate a change in your household?
When trying to recognise your long-term plans in life, you should also think about whether or not you are considering having children – or how having a pet will affect you if you are already a parent. According to Stacey, pets are sometimes given up for adoption as a result of people having children.
How much are you willing to spend?
Arguably, one of the most important factors to consider when getting a new pet is the costs. Many potential pet owners tend to focus on the initial spend of a pet, not realising that there will be considerable ongoing costs such as vaccinations, food, bedding, toys. Most importantly, pet insurance – it can cost upwards of £25 a month for dogs and £20 a month for cats. Vet bills without insurance can be very expensive – there is no NHS for pets, and if something goes wrong you don’t want to be in a position where you have to choose between your upcoming holiday and an essential treatment for your pet. You can ease some of these costs by joining Vets4Pets’ Complete Care Health Plan, which offers discounts on healthcare, free expert advice and savings on food and other pet essentials.
Does anyone in your household have allergies or phobias?
It’s important to ensure you or your household don’t have fur or animal allergies. If you don’t know if this is the case, try to spend time with a friend’s pet to find out or speak to your doctor about being screened for any allergies.
Are you ready for the adjustment period?
If you get a puppy, you must be prepared for crying. They cry during the night in the first few days of being in their new home. Set up a puppy crate or a quiet, closed-off space with a comfortable bed to give them a place where they feel safe and secure. This can initially be set up near your own bed so that your puppy feels less alone at night, although don’t be tempted to take them to bed with you. When they are comfortable with sleeping alone, you can gradually move their crate to where you would like it to be situated going forward. A kitten’s bedtime is easier; make the sleeping area secure and near to the litter box so it can be found, and leave your cat to walk around the area until it sleeps.
Do you feel confident in training a pet?
Being a responsible pet owner means teaching your pet how to behave – house training must start immediately after bringing them home, and it requires a lot of patience, time and effort. Puppies may be intimidated by their new surroundings, so you must teach your puppy to get to know the neighbourhood and begin outside training as soon as they have had all their vaccinations (usually at around 12 weeks). It is not advisable for puppies to mix with other dogs until then. Kittens are often already trained in how to use a litter tray by the time they come home – most of a kitten’s socialisation period takes place while they’re still at the breeder. Unlike with puppies, you are more limited as an owner to influence your cat’s behaviour – natural behaviour such as scratching can be redirected to more desirable places, such as scratching posts, by making sure they’re in the right area.
Have you done your research?
Please research the pet you want beforehand – you can find so much information online about the pet you’re thinking about getting, and a quick search on Pets at Home’s Pet Talk can potentially stop you from getting a pet that doesn’t match your needs. Many people don’t know this, but if you don’t feel confident about caring for your new pet, you can always get advice from a vet before you purchase your cat or dog.