(Malina Omut/For The Washington Post)

Twice when I was a child, my parents surprised my brother and me with a pet. When I was 8, it was a puppy at Christmas. And when I was 13, a kitten, several months after a beloved cat had died.

We always had a dog or a cat, or both, in the house, and those pets were completely woven into the fabric of our family life. The dogs went on vacations with us; the cats were a fixture at the foot of my bed, or firmly planted between my face and whatever book I was reading. We were devastated when they died.

Of all of the pets that came and went, though, the two I remember most were the ones Mom and Dad sprung on us when we weren’t expecting it. Being a kid, I figured they had stopped somewhere on a whim and picked up the new animal on the way home.

Now I know better.

My husband and I surprised our own children with a kitten a few years ago, much to their delight. Just as my brother and I didn’t know how much planning went into my parents’ surprises, our kids didn’t know that we spent many evenings weighing the pros and cons of getting a cat. I had lived with cats my entire life, but I read “Cats for Dummies” and found out how much I didn’t know. (Cats have a pattern on their noses that is unique, just like a human fingerprint!)

We visited the shelter and played with several animals before choosing one. Then we waited a week for our application to be approved, and for her to get spayed. There was a lot that went into her popping her little head out of a picnic basket one Saturday morning and worming her way into all of our hearts.

The right pet in the right home can be one of the best experiences you can give your child. Pet ownership can teach a child about responsibility and unconditional love. But the wrong pet at the wrong time can lead to a heartbreaking disaster for everyone, including the animal.

“We always suggest that a family fill in the blank to this question: ‘It’s most important to me that my dog/cat . . .’ — not what he looks like, but how he behaves, his interactions with you, how he loves you, does he sit on your lap, or that he doesn’t pull on his leash,” said Emily Weiss, the vice president for shelter research and development for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “It’s always love at first sight, but knowing your expectations can help assure that that love at first sight stays a lasting love.”

Weiss said research shows that owners and their pets bond best when the owner has a clear idea of what he wants from his pet and keeps that in mind when choosing an animal. The people at the adopting agency, whether it’s a shelter or a rescue organization, know a lot about the animals in their care, Weiss said.

Lisa LaFontaine, chief executive of the Washington Humane Society, agreed that it is crucial to have that conversation with the adopting agency before bringing a new pet home.

“The first question is why are you looking for a pet and what’s important to you about the role they play in your life and what things do you want to do with them,” LaFontaine said.

For us, those expectations were more of a hope: We wanted our new cat to bond with our children and be a family pet. Our previous cat was one I’d had for years before I got married or had kids, and she was my cat. When we decided we were ready to adopt again, it was important to us that the animal was not only playful but patient and loving and comfortable with children as well.

Scout, now 4, is definitely a family girl. She is always right in the middle of everything and loves to curl up with the kids while they are watching television or sleeping. So even though she has some frustrating habits (chewing on things and the usual furniture-scratching), we knew those risks going in because we had done our homework on cat behavior, and we were prepared to live with them.

Pets are not good impulse purchases, said Chris Miller, a veterinarian with AtlasVet in the District. Miller once had a client who saw an English bulldog on TV late at night and, on a whim, ordered one from Russia online. When the dog arrived, the man knew nothing about the breed — or dogs — and didn’t know where to start.

“The key is to put some thought into it,” he said. “Look at your environment and financial status to make sure you have a budget in mind. It doesn’t mean you can’t have a pet, but take into account what each species or breed brings with it as far as dietary and medical needs and hereditary conditions.”

One of my colleagues has had a menagerie of pets over the past few years, including a hamster, guinea pigs and a betta fish. At least half of them were hand-me-downs from neighbors whose kids were tired of them.

It’s important to research the type of animal you’re considering and to make sure you’re getting information from a reputable source, said Gregory Costanzo, a veterinarian with Stahl Exotic Animal Veterinary Service in Fairfax.

If you are searching on the Internet, make sure the information you are getting comes from a veterinarian or legitimate rescue or shelter, he said. Better yet, look at books or published articles on the animal you have in mind. Particularly if you are considering something other than a cat or dog, gather as much good information as you can.

“A lot of these [exotic] animals require very different kinds of care,” Costanzo said. “They are a separate entity from dogs and cats when it comes to feeding them, the diseases that we can get from them or give them, and appropriate housing or care.”

Costanzo suggests making an appointment to talk to a veterinarian before you adopt — possibly one who specializes in the kind of animal you’re considering. The vet can advise you on everything from medical care your pet will need to the appropriate diet to what you need to do at home to keep it healthy and happy.

Many rescue organizations offer classes on caring for specific animals, Costanzo said, and that is a great way to familiarize yourself with a breed or species before adopting.

Finally, before you bring your new pet home, have a family plan in place for caring for it. That needs to include everything from where you will take it for routine or emergency medical care to who is going to feed it, clean up after it and make sure it gets the appropriate exercise.

Weiss said the entire family should visit the pet before adoption day, particularly if there are young children in the home.

“Watch the behavior of the dog or cat,” Weiss said. “If it’s choosing to approach your child and engage in a safe way, that’s a great sign. Observe the interaction. Do they seem relaxed and comfortable around each other?”

Once you’ve done the research, created your budget and chosen the right pet, go for it, Miller said, adding that people who own pets are generally healthier and happier than non-pet owners.

“We are naturally drawn to animals, whether it’s a rat or a cat or a Great Dane,” Miller said. “It’s something that is healthy and good for people, animals and the community.”

Take a quiz to see which pet is right for you

Before adopting a pet, here’s what you need to know:

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has a guide on its Web site to the most popular types of pets, including the things about each animal that might make it appealing (or not so much) to a family. Here are edited excerpts from some of their guidelines.

(Malina Omut/for The Washington Post)

(Malina Omut/for The Washington Post)


Pros and cons: Dogs are loyal, loving, social animals who want to be involved with their families. They require exercise, bathroom breaks, feeding one to four times a day (depending on age) and regular grooming, in addition to veterinary care. Some breeds are high-energy, while others are content to cuddle up on your lap while you watch television. If you have small children, it might be best to choose an older dog rather than a puppy.

Life span: Eight to 16 years, depending on breed and size.

Average annual cost: $580-$875, depending on size.


Pros and cons: Because they are trained to use a litter box, cats don’t need to be walked and have gained a reputation for being low-maintenance pets. That is true to an extent, but they still need exercise, attention and daily feedings and litter-box cleanings. Their claws need to be trimmed regularly and they need annual trips to the veterinarian for vaccines and a checkup. They also require play time, with laser lights, balls, wads of paper or feather toys. Cats range from very independent and aloof to extremely cuddly lap companions, depending on the individual animal.

Life span: 13 to 17 years for an indoor cat.

Average annual cost: $670.

(Malina Omut/for The Washington Post)

(Malina Omut/for The Washington Post)


Pros and cons: Birds are intelligent and sensitive, and many enjoy interaction with their caretakers. Some species, such as finches, are social and do better in pairs. They can be caged during the day but need time to move around and play when you are home. They can be messy, so plan to clean your bird’s cage and the area around it every day. Get the largest, most well-constructed cage you can accommodate; most small birds need an area at least 25 inches wide by 25 inches tall. Birds need annual visits to the vet.

Life span: Depends on the breed, ranging from seven to 10 years for a finch, up to 15 years for a parakeet to as much as 70 years for other parrots.

Average annual cost: $200.


Pros and cons: Fish are great pets for people who have limited space, work long hours or are allergic to furrier friends. They are fairly low-maintenance, but keeping their tank clean and healthy takes some work. Research how much space your fish needs before choosing a tank size, and make sure you know which types of fish play nicely together. Plan to monitor the water temperature daily, in addition to feeding the fish. Replace several gallons of the water each week to prevent algae buildup, and scrape down any algae accumulation. Test the water weekly to make sure it is still safe for your fish.

Life span: The common goldfish can live up to 20 years with proper care.

Average annual cost: $35.

(Malina Omut/for The Washington Post)

(Malina Omut/for The Washington Post)

Guinea pigs

Pros and cons: Guinea pigs are great starter pets for children (with adult supervision) because they are friendly, calm and vocal. They need at least eight square feet of living space and do well with companions (though that means a larger cage). They need time out of the cage to exercise and socialize each day, in addition to fresh water, nail trimmings every few weeks and regular veterinary care. Supplement their diet of pellets with fresh fruit and vegetables.

Life span: Five to seven years.

Average annual cost: $635.


Pros and cons: Hamsters are busy and cute and don’t take up much space, so they are great for apartment dwellers. But they are nocturnal, so they run on their wheels at night, while their humans are trying to sleep. Syrian hamsters are solitary and need to live alone, while dwarf hamsters enjoy sharing quarters with a buddy. You will need to clean the cage daily, removing droppings and uneaten food. Once a week you will need to replace the hamster’s bedding and clean the cage with soap and water. Hamsters’ teeth grow, so they need stuff to gnaw on. Give your hamster time to play outside the cage each day, and plan on annual visits to a veterinarian who specializes in small animals.

Life span: One to three years.

Average annual cost: $300.


Pros and cons: Like hamsters and guinea pigs, gerbils make great starter pets for older children. Bonus: Mongolian gerbils are active during the day, unlike hamsters, so their schedules are more similar to humans’. They are social animals, so consider getting at least two. You will need a 10-gallon aquarium, at minimum, for two gerbils, with a mesh cover. Gerbils love to play, so make sure to give them lots of things to explore. They also need time outside their cage to exercise. They will eat gerbil seeds and fresh vegetables daily. Remove soiled bedding and uneaten food each day and give the cage a thorough cleaning weekly. As with hamsters, their teeth grow continuously, so make sure they have appropriate things to gnaw on. Gerbils need annual checkups with a veterinarian who specializes in small animals.

Life span: Three to five years.

Average annual cost: $300.

(Malina Omut/for The Washington Post)


Pros and cons: Rabbits are playful, can be litter-box trained and will come when called, making them great companion animals. They are not, however, low-maintenance starter pets. They need specialized care and must be housed inside to keep them safe from ticks and parasites, and to prevent them from dying of fright (really). They need lots of room to move around, at minimum a 4-by-2-by-2 cage, and time to play outside the cage each day. Avoid wire-bottomed cages that can damage the rabbit’s feet. Provide plenty of toys that allow them to dig and chew, their two favorite activities. A healthful rabbit diet includes grass and hay, rabbit pellets and leafy greens. Plan to clean the cage once or twice a week. Rabbits need annual visits to a veterinarian who specializes in small or exotic animals.

Life span: Seven to 10 years.

Average annual cost: $730.

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