Making the Commitment

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Choosing a pet is a big decision that will affect you and the animal for years to come. Our experts offer guidance.

Has this ever happened to you? You’re at the mall with a few friends when you encounter one of those pop-up pet adoption centers run by a local animal shelter. Perhaps you already have a pet at home, or maybe you don’t. You find yourself taken in by the sad eyes of a cute mixed-breed dog or the playfulness of a little kitten. Your once harmless shopping trip involves an important decision–should you act on your heart and adopt a new pet?

Many people are in a good position to adopt and care for an animal–equipped with the money, space, time and devotion necessary to provide a good environment for the animal. But others aren’t so prepared. As important as adoption centers are to helping find pets loving homes, experts agree that acquiring a pet should be a decision that’s carefully considered and not one made on impulse or in haste.

Adopting a pet “requires a lifetime commitment on the part of the pet ‘guardian,’” said Dr. Diane Pomerance, a Texas-based pet expert and author of several books on the relationships between pets and people. “In many ways, it is like adopting a human child.”

Decades of research studies indicate that pet ownership can deeply enrich our lives, helping people lower their blood pressure and anxiety levels and perhaps even increase immunity. Individuals with pets tend to exercise more and suffer less from depression. The benefits are many–but so are the responsibilities. While most people are capable of caring for some kind of pet, the question is what sort of animal makes the most sense given the individual’s lifestyle, needs and abilities.

Shari Elkins, owner of the Canine Center for Training and Behavior in Austin, said people should begin by asking themselves why they want a pet. “A really common answer is that they already have a pet and they don’t want that animal to be lonely. Or perhaps they’re looking to solve some other issue in their life,” Elkins said. “The reality is getting a pet isn’t going to solve issues. You have to want a pet for the right reasons.” Elkins said she sees a lot of new owners who allowed their heart to convince them to adopt a dog when they weren’t equipped for it. “They’ll see a dog up for adoption and say to themselves ‘that dog doesn’t have a life.’ and they want to provide that for the dog. But the reality is if they’re not ready to be an owner, that animal may wind up back at the shelter. The question people need to ask themselves is ‘Do I have the time in my life that’s necessary to meet this dog’s needs?’”

The Self-Assessment

Pomerance said before adopting any pet, it’s important that a person starts with a self-assessment, and she offers up a few questions: are you away from home for over 12 hours a day? What expenses will pet ownership require? Will your pet be left alone for long periods of time? Do you have time to interact with, socialize and obedience train a pet so that he will be a joyful and welcome addition to your family?

Pomerance pointed out that while dogs and cats are the most common types of pets, there are other options for people that might not require as much of a commitment, such as birds, hamsters or fish. “Read up on the different types of pets avail- able and determine which is most suitable to, and compatible with, your lifestyle,” she said.

Austin Vet Care’s Dr. Nancy Callaway agreed that some pets are better suited for people with active lifestyles and erratic schedules than others. Still, she said cats, birds and fish also need care, social interaction and regular feedings and cleanings to stay happy. “People with high-risk professions and workaholics may want to reconsider owning a pet until there are changes in their lifestyle,” she said.

Callaway said prospective owners should research the needs of the particular pet they are thinking about adopting–including grooming, activity level, diet and veterinary–before making any decision. “People must be willing and able to provide the right kind of care,” she said. “And that includes the basic, core vaccines–rabies, distemper and parvo virus.
…We see so many puppies who are brought in suffering from parvo virus because they have not had all their vaccines and were placed in an environment where parvo has been previously. But this is entirely preventable.” she also stresses the necessity of having the new pet spayed or neutered to prevent any unwanted, hard-to-place puppies and kittens.

For individuals and families who may not have the time to train a puppy or kitten, Pomerance suggested they consider an older animal. “People who desire a mellower and more ‘laid back’ animal find that a healthy, older pet is easier to maintain and will happily share life with you,” she said. “They are content to simply spend quality time and hang out with you. And they are generally calmer and less challenging to live with than a young, inquisitive, hyperactive pet.”

Callaway said she’s seen older clients who can’t handle their highly active dogs, high-energy people who expect too much out of low-energy dogs, and small dogs who act out after being teased or played with roughly by children. All of these situations can be avoided she said when an owner does their homework on the front end.

When it comes to dogs specifically, Elkins said prospective owners should carefully consider breed characteristics before adopting. “If you’re looking for a dog that will cuddle with you on the couch, don’t get an active breed,” she warned. “No matter how good the trainer, they can’t turn a Siberian husky into a Shih Tzu.” it’s up to the individual to investigate the breed, said Elkins, and that includes examining the likely traits of a mixed- breed.

Environmental Factors

For those who already have a pet, bringing a new pet into the house can be a difficult adjustment if not handled appropriately, said Callaway. “For some older pets, it is very hard to have a new puppy or kitten come into the house and either get all the attention or start trying to play with the older pet who may just want to rest or be suffering with health issues related to old age, such as arthritis,” she said. “If the existing pet is used to being the only pet, it may take some quiet introductions and time for them to become used to the new pet. This should be done in a relaxed environment, in small increments, under supervision.”

The larger environment should also be factored in to pet se- lection. Callaway pointed out that pets who relocate to Austin with their owners can suffer from allergies because of the high amounts of airborne pollen. Often these issues can be overcome without serious long-term effects. But she said owners should always look into whether there are any laws in their city concerning certain breeds. “Some cities have laws pertaining to Rottweilers, Staffordshire terriers, Dobermans and other large breed dogs,” she said.

People should know the law as it pertains to their specific animals and also how many pets are allowed under the law if they have multiple animals. Elkins said one worrisome trend she’s noticed does people who are expecting a baby want to get a pet at the same time. “Perhaps it’s a nesting thing, or maybe hormones, but I don’t think

These individuals are really weighing the reality of dealing with both a new pet and a new baby at the same time,” she said.

Adopting a pet is a decision that should be made only after carefully researching all the variables. “Pets are a wonderful part of our lives,” she said. “But they are a lifetime commitment.”

Our experts suggest you consider these factors before adopting a pet.

1. Breed – What are the most desirable and appealing breed characteristics–size, athleticism, personality, level of activity, good-natured, friendly, etc? Are certain breeds prone to problematic health or behavioral issues? Consult a veterinarian.

2. Size – What size pet best fits your environment? Do you live in a small apartment, condo, house? Consider the animal’s comfort.

3.Time For Friendship, Companionship And Interaction – Do you realistically have time to exercise, interact and play with your pet?

4. Cost – are you going to adopt a rescue/shelter pet? There is sometimes an adoption fee associated with rescue. You have to consider the ongoing cost. The budget for maintaining a healthy pet includes vaccinations, veterinary bills, nutritious food, treats, housesitting and boarding when you travel, obedience training, etc.

5. The Legality OF Having A Pet Where You Live – are you legally allowed to own the kind of pet you want where you live? How many animals are you legally allowed to have?

6. Age – are you ready to socialize and train a puppy or kit- ten, or would you prefer to adopt an older, calmer pet?

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