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Selecting a Pet

Before acting on impulse to acquire a pet, take time to consider the commitment. A dog, cat or any other pet is a living, sensitive creature. Each one is an individual, requiring life-long medical care beyond any initial financial investment. The cost of pet food and supplies should also be considered. Large-breed dogs live an average of at least 10 years. Smaller dogs can live up to 15 years or more. Some cats, kept indoors with regular health maintenance, may live up to 20 years. Pets require continued daily investment of your attention and energy. They should be guided with gentle but consistent practice toward desirable behavior. Their needs do not cease when you are tired or preoccupied, when you leave for vacation or when the weather is bad. Consider who among your friends and family would be willing to act as secondary caregivers and ask for their opinion. How will your current pets be affected by an additional pet? Do not acquire a pet of any kind if your decision is based on frivolous needs or spontaneous urges. Put yourself in the animal's place. Think about it.

Dog or Cat? (or for that matter, something else!)
When you have decided that your life has room for a pet, the next step is to select the appropriate pet for you. Do not be misled by popular misconceptions that all cats are antisocial toward people or that no one should have a dog unless they own a house with a yard. Neither should you limit your options to a dog or cat. You may find great pleasure in a pet rabbit, bird or an aquarium of fish. Be open-minded and consider all the options. A pet dog requires a bigger investment of time and energy than does a cat. Regardless of size or breed, a dog should be walked on a leash for a minimum of 20 minutes at least twice daily. It is not enough to let it out into the backyard, nor can it be allowed to roam unsupervised in the neighborhood. Also, a dog must be taught acceptable behavior as soon as it enters your home. Obedience training should be practiced daily. Dogs make wonderful pets if they are given ample opportunity for exercise, play and social interaction with their owners. If you are a first-time pet owner, a large-breed dog is probably not the best choice. A smaller dog will be easier to manage so that you can perfect your obedience skills and acquire experience. The approaches to raising dogs of any size are identical. Train a small dog the same way you would train a large one. You would not want a Great Dane to jump up on your guests, so do not tolerate this behavior in a Lhasa Apso. You would not train a German Shepherd to void on newspaper, so take your Yorkshire Terrier out for at least 2 walks every day. While most dogs enjoy playing with people, cats can generally amuse themselves. Most cats enjoy interacting with their owners but are often content to play alone. Cats do not need to be let outdoors to live a happy and healthy life. In fact, they are better off remaining exclusively indoors. They may adapt better to smaller homes or apartments than do some dogs. Cats do not need to be walked, though a cat can learn to walk on a leash. Though their activities can be more solitary, cats thrive on attention and social contact with their owners. Cats have a very different social nature from dogs. Cats tend to be more discreet and unassertive than dogs, but they can be as attentive and responsive as any dog. A cat's relatively small size and independent nature make it an attractive candidate for small living quarters and busy households.

Male or Female?
Males tend to be larger than females and may be more active in general. Females may be easier to train and less destructive. They may not play as roughly as males, but both sexes are equally playful. Males tend to be more aggressive toward other males in particular and aggressive behavior may be more easily provoked. Males may be less tolerant of children. Dominance aggression in males is more common. This does not mean that females are not aggressive or are always calm and sweet-tempered, nor does this suggest that male cats or dogs are not responsive to their owners. There is probably no difference between the sexes in territorial aggression or the demand for affection. The decision between a male and female is one of your own preference. The fundamental guideline is to choose a healthy pet with a good temperament. Physical beauty and gender should be secondary considerations. Avoid selecting a pet that remains extremely shy and intolerant to handling over more than one visit. An overly anxious pup, for example, is most likely to remain so as an adult. The most assertive pup of a litter is likely to become extremely dominant as an adult. If you choose a pet that displays any temperamental extremes, be prepared for life-long challenges. This may be particularly true for dogs. Testing a puppy's temperament during the first few months of life can be misleading. Pups go through phases of development that are largely influenced by their environment. A pet's earliest experiences influence it throughout its lifetime. If you want a pet that is good with children, for example, your chances are probably better with a pet that was born into a household with (and handled by) children. This can be more important for pets adopted as adults or even older than 3 months of age. With proper training from the start, even difficult pups can grow into exceptional pets. Look for the pet that has the traits you desire, but in moderation. This does not mean that the average pup or kitten will not have behavioral or medical problems, but it will have a better chance of developing only average, and not extreme, problems. Have your new pet examined by a veterinarian soon after adoption. If any serious health problems are detected, you will be able to deal with them more objectively if a deep bond is not yet formed. If you or your veterinarian suspect a behavior problem, seek the advice of a veterinary behavior consultant in your area. Resolving a problem early can prevent problems later.

Allergies to Animals
Most cats and dogs shed hair and require regular grooming, depending on the breed. Any allergy you may have to either dogs or cats may influence your choice. There is no such thing as a "hypoallergenic" dog or cat. A person's allergic reactions to dogs or cats vary, not only with the species and breed, but between individual animals within a breed. A person might develop a rash from direct contact with one Dalmatian dog yet have no reaction to another Dalmatian. While some breeds, such as the Poodle dog or Rex cat, shed less because of the quality of their hair, a person may still be allergic to them. If you are allergic to pets but wish to own one anyway, you may eventually find a breed that poses no health problem to you. Remember, however, that it is still possible to develop an allergy to a pet long after you have acquired the animal. If you have allergies to pets, it can be very helpful to restrict a pet from access to your bedroom or confine it to a limited area of your home. Some pet owners have found it helpful to make extra efforts to keep pets clean. Avoid bathing your pet too frequently, however, as this can cause skin problems. An alternative to bathing may be to regularly wipe your pet with a dampened cloth. Dry shampoos can also be effective in absorbing oils and odors. Bear in mind that you could develop sensitivities to the products you use on your pet. Keep your home well vacuumed and well ventilated. If allergies to your pet create serious medical problems, do not jeopardize your health. If you cannot enjoy having a pet, your pet cannot enjoy being with you. Placing your pet in another happy home will benefit everyone in the long run.

Selecting a Breed
Because there is less variation in size between cats as compared with dogs, size is more of a consideration in selecting a dog. While it is important to consider the size of your home, do not rule out larger dogs because you live in an apartment. You may be able to provide enough excercise and activity outside when you are home so that your pet is content to rest quietly until your return. Certain cat and dog breeds, such as the Himalayan cat and the Samoyed dog, require constant brushing. Some pets require professional grooming several times a year. Speak with pet groomers and other pet owners to get their opinions about the frequency and cost to groom a breed that interests you. This may help to make a selection. Also ask about the amount that the breed sheds. Every pet has a normal odor that may be typical of the species, breed or individual. Every pet owner has preferences as to what is an acceptable odor and what is not. These, too, should be considered. Avoid choosing a cat or dog breed because it is in fashion. Popular breeds may have a higher incidence of inbred diseases or poor temperaments. Some pet breeders are not as careful when they are under pressure to supply an increased demand for the animals they breed. Do not limit yourself to purebred pets. Dogs and cats of mixed breeds may give you the advantage of a variety of breeds all in one. Hybrids may also be less prone to inherited health problems seen in purebred pets. Also, many mixed-breed dogs and cats in animal shelters need a good home.

Sources for Pet Adoption
Pets are available through a variety of sources. Professional breeders of purebred dogs, animal shelters, pet stores, neighbors and newspaper advertisements may all offer pets for adoption. Veterinarians sometimes help place pets in good homes by sheltering strays or serving as contacts for clients that can no longer keep a pet. Adopting a pet through animal shelters is a wonderful way to save a healthy animal from becoming a sad statistic of pet overpopulation. Be cautious of pet store puppies. Unethical breeders continue to mass produce animals for profit without regard for the quality of pups produced or the quality of the lives of their breeding dogs. Spend time with the animal before making a final selection. Ask that it be reserved for you for at least one day and return later to have another look. A pet that is calm when you first visit it, for example, may just be sleepy and could exhibit undesirable traits when it is more awake. Inquire about any known history regarding the pet's breeder, lineage, early environment or behavior or health problems. Make an appointment to have your pet examined by your veterinarian and ask for an opinion about the pet's physical and behavioral presentation. Some problems develop over time and may not be immediately evident, but at least you can identify those that are initially obvious.

Age at Adoption
The age at which a cat or dog is adopted influences a number of advantages and disadvantages. The advantage of acquiring a kitten or puppy is that it will be exposed to you during a critical stage in its formation. To develop healthy social skills with people, pups require positive exposure during a critical phase. The socialization period of puppies is generally between 6 and 13 weeks of age, though it may be earlier for kittens. Newborn puppies or kittens should be handled for short periods every day to increase their tolerance of social interaction with people. An animal that has been confined during this stage in its development or that has had unstable relationships with people during this time may develop undesirable behavior. As long as the animal has been exposed to people under happy circumstances early in life, it will likely bond normally to new owners. If possible, arrange to meet one or both of the dog's parents, as many temperament traits are inherited. Pets acquired as adults may be more attractive to pet owners seeking to avoid the high energy levels of young pets or the basic training required to house train a pet. Some prospective pet owners hesitate to adopt an adult pet because they will not own it for as long as a pet adopted soon after birth. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee of longevity even in a pet that is raised from an early age. Many treasures may be overlooked because of an owner's projected fear of losing a cherished companion in the future.

Sources of Information
Visit your local public library and speak with friends, neighbors and, of course, your veterinarian. Everyone has an opinion about breed preference and is eager to offer advice. Many books about breed characteristics have been written, some of them based on valid scientific surveys and research. Keep in mind that there are always exceptions to sweeping generalities. There is tremendous variation between individuals of a breed, though there may be many common physical traits and behavioral tendencies. Make your own decision based on your research. Your selection should not be based on whim or purely on the physical appeal of a pet. Base your selection on the pet's health, basic good temperament, short-term and long-term care requirements, projected adult size, gender, individual history, origin and, last of all, physical appearance.

Checklist for Pet Selection

Before adopting a pet, consider:
* your motivation (whim or well-planned goal)
* financial investment (short-term, long-term)
* required changes (removing valuable objects, tolerating
* occasional accidents, placing screens on windows to prevent escape)
* adult size (small, medium, large)
* breed characteristics, physical attributes (activity
* level, hair length)
* gender
* time and energy for pet's daily maintenance (exercise, grooming, play, affection)
* municipal and state regulations regarding pets
* your previous experience (basic obedience training, house training)
* a secondary caretaker (if you leave on vacation or become ill)