Choosing a first family pet.


Most children love animals, and there are many benefits from owning one. Apart from the fun and companionship, caring for an animal can help give children a sense of responsibility.

On the other hand, children can become bored with things quickly when the novelty wears off, so adults always need to be prepared to take overall responsibility for a pet. Choosing the right pet for your family’s lifestyle can make it more likely that the children will stay involved and that their relationship with their pet will be a fulfilling one.

The basic welfare needs of all pets are that they should be provided with a suitable environment and diet, the right health care as needed, be kept with others or apart from others (depending on species), and be allowed to exhibit normal behaviour patterns. These basic rights are a legal requirement under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Different animals have very different needs however, so it is worth doing some research before deciding which pet would best suit your family.

Dogs

The most popular pet in Britain for many years (although now being caught up by cats), dogs are also amongst the most time consuming and expensive to keep. It is not fair to leave a dog alone at home for long periods, so this would make it unsuitable if everyone is out at work all day, unless a reliable dog walker was used. As well as needing company and exercise, dogs need time spent on training, and grooming if long-haired. Having a garden and somewhere close by for exercise would be ideal. Expenses would include food, vaccinations, neutering and other vets bills, grooming or clipping and boarding kennels or dog-sitters. Dogs come in all shapes and sizes so the traits of different breeds should also be considered. If a dog is your choice of pet, you can expect years of fun and loyalty.

Cats

The independent nature of cats means that they are not quite as reliant on humans as dogs. With a cat flap or a cat litter tray and food available, they can be left for a number of hours, but most cats still enjoy human company. Not all cats like to be lap cats though, so their enjoyment of your company may be on their own terms! This very independence of character is part of the appeal to a cat lover. They also exercise themselves, but long-haired cats need daily grooming. Expenses to consider would be vaccinations, neutering and other veterinary bills, cattery fees.

Rabbits

The number of pet rabbits in the UK goes up all the time, and many now live more like cats and dogs than in the traditional hutch. Rabbits can be litter-trained like cats and can make very good house pets. They are not always ideally suited for children though, as they may resent being picked up and scratch or kick. To keep them in good health they should have the correct diet, vaccinations and in some cases, neutering. They need daily attention to ensure they do not suffer from problems like fly strike or overgrown teeth.

Caged animals

In general, these animals take more time to look after than you might think. Cleaning out cages can be quite time-consuming and can reduce the amount of time spent handling and interacting with the pet. The smallest furry animals can be very quick and a bit nippy, making them less suitable for young children. My own personal favourites in this group would be guinea pigs and rats, but we are probably all influenced by which pets we grew up with ourselves.

Guinea Pigs

These make very good pets and are easy to handle and sociable. They need the right diet (especially a source of vitamin C) and as with all caged animals they need their home to be regularly cleaned. They like to have a companion of the same gender.

Hamsters

The biggest drawback with hamsters is that they tend to be nocturnal, so they may be asleep when you want to play with them and active during the night. They need to be handled very carefully and very frequently to keep them used to handling. If they get ignored for a while they become reluctant to co-operate and will bite. Cages need regular cleaning. A hamster’s lifespan is only about 2 years.

Ferrets

These are interesting and entertaining animals, which have a longer lifespan than many other small furries. They can have a strong smell, especially the males. Females need to be spayed to prevent health problems. Ferrets can be prone to disease of the adrenal glands requiring hormonal treatment.

Rats

Another animal which I think makes a great pet if well kept and well handled. They are intelligent and like to play and interact with humans. They do like to live with a companion rat of the same gender.

Fish

These can be enchanting and relaxing to watch but there isn’t any opportunity for handling as with other pets. The initial expense of setting up a tank is quite high. They can be ideal pets for a family with little space and no garden.

Birds

Many different species are kept as pets, either caged or in an aviary. Caged birds can be tamed and handled and allowed out of the cage to interact with the family, while birds kept in an aviary can enjoy having room to fly. Specialist knowledge is needed to offer the best conditions as different species of birds have very different requirements.

Exotic Pets

Snakes, reptiles and others require very special environments which are secure and have controllable temperature, light and humidity. They also require very special diets to keep healthy and should not be considered good first time pets. Some grow to a very large size which would make them impractical for many people to look after.

If you want to know more about the care needed by a particular type of pet, most veterinary surgeries will be happy to advise. It is also worth remembering that some of the worries about expense can be eased by taking out pet insurance. This is not just for dogs and cats but is also available for rabbits, birds and exotics.

Note from editor: The PDSA have a fun interactive ‘Pet Finder’ tool that is very helpful.

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