Am I Ready For a Pet? Questions to Ask Yourself

Life is happening at every moment. Transitions beckon or stagnation sets in. You’re ready to break out – or break away. You believe you have lots of love to give. Or, you feel entitled to be loved no matter what. The idea of an animal companion pulls at your heart strings. Dogs and cats can be cuddly creatures that can add to our lives beyond measure – and we have the power to harpoon their happiness (and leave big holes in our own hearts) if we do not carefully review the conditions of our lives before bringing a pet into our home. Here are some issues to consider:

1. Why do I want a pet? Are you ready to responsibly expand your existing circle of love or do you feel entitled to unconditional love? Pet ownership is a reciprocal relationship between beings of different species that requires patience and understanding. Never bring a pet into the home because your friends down the street are getting a new puppy, your kids are pining for a kitten or you feel sorry for that discarded companion at the pound. Have you just recently lost a long-time companion? If so, give yourself time to heal emotionally and spiritually, before diving back in to pet ownership. Remember that a new pet can never - and should never - replace the old. Groups like Pet Loss Partners can help you process your grief. With time and distance, you'll realize that you may be able to love a new pet for his or her unique qualities. Whether out of grief or yearning, avoid acting in haste or you may only be contributing to shelter re/over-population in the end.

2. What is my life circumstance and what are my plans? Do you have adequate resources and a stable home or are you in the midst of financial upheaval and uncertainty? Do you have a busy work schedule or do you plan to travel extensively? After the trauma of being relinquished by their families, shelter animals especially need a family that can feed, house, play with and tend to their medical needs in the event of an emergency. Are there landlord issues or are you planning to have children which will require you to move? The last thing a companion animal needs is to be returned to a shelter for simple lack of foresight. It is especially tragic when older companion animals are surrendered by the only family they ever knew.

3. Did I research breeds to determine a good fit? Do you want a companion on the hiking trail or in the home gym or do you want a curl-up-next-to-me couch potato? Or, maybe something in between? The energy of dog breeds especially covers a very wide spectrum and you’ll want to do plenty of research to get an idea of which breed(s)/mix(s) would be a potential match for you. For tips, read the excellent article How to Successfully Adopt a Rescue Dog by the Dog Breed Info Center. You can check out breed rescues or meet-up groups and speak with pet owners experienced with that breed. Pet sit or volunteer at a shelter or rescue. If you’re still not sure, you can foster a furry companion to see what daily life would be like with one in your home.

4. Is my physical environment appropriate for the pet I am considering? The answer may lie more in the breed of companion than the size of your home. For example, a Jack Russell terrier may need more space to romp and release pent-up energy than a Great Dane. Certainly, you will want enough space to comfortably accommodate your new addition. Free-standing homes with fenced yards and doggie doors are bonuses, but not mandatory. Most sources agree that  - for health and environmental reasons - dogs and cats should be considered indoor pets.

5. Are there medical considerations? We’re talking here about yours AND your pet's. Do you have physical limitations (e.g. respiratory conditions, weakness) that could prevent you from lifting, carrying or otherwise tending to your pet? Do you have allergies? The best intentions in the world may not overcome relentless sneezing, itching and watery eyes day in and day out over the course of years. You may want to pet-sit for a short period and try allergy medications or using a nasal rinse if you become symptomatic and determine if this level of suffering is something you can live with. Are you adopting an older dog with infirmaries? You need to familiarize yourself with the typical age-related maladies that can afflict the breed of dog or cat you are thinking about adopting. As veterinary medicine improves, companion animals are living longer and developing cancer. Treatment options and favorable outcomes are improving. Learn more about efforts to map and track diseases of companion animals regionally.

6. Am I willing to learn a pet’s language? What, you say!? The key to successful pet adjustment, many experts say, is to learn to “speak” – and understand – your pet’s language. This includes using appropriate gestures and voicing when communicating with your pet. For example, dogs can perceive pity as a sign of weakness (which is why you should never adopt a dog simply because you feel sorry for him or her!). When you first approach a dog do you face him squarely, look him straight in the eyes and put out your hand, palm down, for him to smell? These could be interpreted by dogs as signs of aggression or dominance. The book, "How to Speak Dog," by Stanley Coren, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, is an amazing resource containing an extensive and illustrated glossary of a dog's verbal and non-verbal language and suggestions on how to enhance our communication skills using simple shifts of posture and gestures. Also, cats and dogs can interpret the very same body language very differently - with potentially disastrous results.

7. Are all family members on the same page regarding the pet’s place in the family? People have differing belief systems about how the pet fits into the family and how he/she is to be treated (please see the article: Where Does the Pet Fit into the Family Relationship on this website). Differences over where the pet should sleep, how much money to spend on veterinary care and how much time is spent with the pet have split many families apart. Moreover, the choice of a pet needs to be a family decision, taking into consideration the needs and attitudes of everyone involved, to ensure the highest possibility of a successful, forever home.

8. Am I prepared to deal with special, though not totally unforeseen, circumstances? There are issues that may crop up just by virtue of having a pet. “Accidents” in the home from companions not yet house trained, flea infestations and scratched or gnawed furniture are common complaints among new pet owners. Behavioral problems may not emerge for months after the pet's homecoming and may be exacerbated by human behaviors in the home. Competent training, a socialization program or behavioral intervention will help. For best results – and to strengthen your bond with your companion – you should be part of the training process. Give your new companion time to adjust to his new family and home. Surrender or abandonment is traumatizing to a pet; it could be weeks or months before your furry friend fully warms up to you. Think about who will care for your companion when you go on vacation. Screen friends/neighbors/walkers and live-in caregivers carefully. Learn about the full range of services provided by boarders. Try to plan periodic vacations in regions that offer pet-friendly access.

9. Where should I look for a pet? While there are a few idyllic stories about how abandoned companion animals and their human companions find each other in the wild or on the street (it happened with my cousin, TWICE!), the vast majority of us go to the shelter, adoption agency, breeder or pet store. For those of you pulled toward the latter two options because you fear that an adopted dog or cat comes with “issues,” gently – and honestly – ask yourself if you or anyone else in your family is free of issues (if you are, please let me know your secret!). Too many pets that are surrendered/returned to shelters are there because of human “issues” including, but not limited to, not providing training or structure and/or the belief that they deserve a “perfect” pet.

10. Am I willing/able to commit to a lifetime of care (10-15 years, or longer)? When you take home a new companion you are taking a vow to make your best effort to create a forever home. If not already performed, spay or neuter your pet. Not only will they be calmer, they will live longer! Keep durable identification tags on your pet at all times. Find a reputable vet and get a microchip implanted; make “lost” posters a thing of the past. If yours is a canine companion, go through basic training together and create structure. Love, nurture, feed, exercise and play with your companion. Be a good pet ambassador: obey local leash laws and pick up the poop. Don’t give up at the first sign of trouble. Stick with it. If, despite your best efforts, your companion proves not to be a good “fit” for your family (or is a danger to others), please honor the agreement you signed and return him/her to the rescue agency where he/she was adopted. If you adopted from a shelter, please, PLEASE contact a NO-KILL facility for guidance. These facilities can very often refer you to organizations that can provide temporary fostering. Click on the NO-KILL option under Resources for a partial listing of favorably-reviewed no-kill shelters in the U.S. and Canada. If you can, keep your pet with you as you search for a loving home so that the transition is the least-traumatic for your pet.

Yes, there are many hard questions to ask and answer. But people of goodwill will find this soul searching revealing, not annoying. If you feel burdened by this process, imagine what it would be like to live with the daily responsibilities of pet ownership. A pet is not a toy! Remember, a network of lives is depending on your honest answers to the above questions. The right answer could literally be a life-or-death decision for the pet. You may very well be ready to say “Yes!” to pet "parenthood" because you are ready to embark on the courageous journey toward love through responsibility. It might also be that you need to say “No” at this time in your life – which could be the most loving thing to do.