Find Your Perfect Pet

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Perhaps a Burmese kitten is catching your fancy? No? Corn snake? Budgie? How about a Hungarian Wirehaired Vizsla? Whatever is in fashion for you today, just beware that, should you go ahead with the purchase, you’ll be wearing it for the next decade or so (ok, the poor old budgie might be down for the count in only six years, but still). It pays to make an educated decision. So, here is the education for your decision. A crash course in pet-selection criteria.

Before we get to the different types of animals, let’s do a little interview. And since, at the time of writing, we have been unable to reach you for a comment, we’ll both ask and answer the questions for you. How good is that? (You answer: thank you very much, that’s great! Let’s go.)

Ok. Let’s go.

Question numero uno: why do you want a pet? Is it for companionship, life education for the kids, exercise or a special purpose such as hunting, guarding or tracing? If you’re looking for a pet – most probably some kind of dog – for a special purpose, you can stop reading right here and go ask your friends at the pig-shooting/dog-sledding/truffle-finding club what make and model they have gone with. They have the specialist knowledge you’re after. But if you want a companion for more mainstream pastimes, say, hanging with the family, going for walks and playing in the park, you’ll want to consider the general points below.

For starters, unless you’re the ruler of a single-person household, remember that you’ll need to have everyone aboard for this. A pet is like an ever-present housemate. The whole family will need to get along with them, or things will get very tense very soon.

Granted that everyone is feeling cheerful, you can now start the journey toward your perfect pet. You’ll soon encounter the first fork in the road. It’s the one with signposts for Social (Population: 2+) and Not-So-Social (Population: 1).

Should you want a pet that’s going to make for a true soul mate, potentially even be treated as a member of the family, you can bank on that animal needing a lot of interaction with you. Not just “good morning, goodbye” and “hello, I’m home, good night”, but substantial amounts of time. So, if you’re out all day every day, drop the more intelligent, social animals such as cats, dogs and rodents from your list of pet candidates. Actually, let’s keep it simple: drop all mammals. Drop the birds, too, whilst you’re at it. They’re all too smart, fun-loving and loving-loving. May we instead recommend that you consider a reptile, stick insect or troop of sea monkeys? They won’t complain about your absence, and some of them even hibernate, so you can forego the interaction altogether whilst still having the Mystery of Life at your fingertips.

Too many people dive into the deep end of the pet-mammal/bird ownership pool and realise that – surprise! – the animal that they love coming home to after a long workday actually loves them right back and has been feeling very lonely (and potentially taken out their frustration on the new leather couch) between 8am and 6.30pm (ample time to work on that couch). Cats and dogs surrendered for adoption know this all too well. Don’t add to their number.

Are we getting a bit too heavy here? (You answer: yes, let’s lighten the mood a bit.)

Ok. Let’s lighten the mood. And, actually, let’s drop this whole interview game. You’re not being responsive enough. Sorry. It was fun whilst it lasted.

Onward and upward. Next stop: a closer look at the social animals, the ones you’ll be spending lots of time with.

Dogs

Could Man’s Best Friend be Your Best Friend? Yes, if you’re a relatively active person. The deal breaker with dogs is outdoor exercise and play. Some breeds require more than others, true, but every dog needs to get out and about several times a day (you can read about considerations when picking a breed here).

Dogs are also at the very top of the social elite of social animals and will develop exceptionally strong bonds with everyone in the house. You will treat them as a member of the family, and you don’t necessarily dump a member of the family at day care when you go on vacation. So the main advantage of dogs is also their biggest downside: they will need you. A lot.

Paws and cons of dogs

  • Very social and loving
  • Perfect for teaching children how to care for someone else
  • Will generally make a noise if a stranger shows up at your door
  • Depending on breed, may provide a degree of physical protection
  • Inspire an active lifestyle
  • Provide something for the whole family to bond over
  • Will quickly introduce you to all other dog-owners in the neighbourhood
  • Have potential to minimise risk for development of allergies in children
  • Will need social interaction and exercise several times a day
  • Not great for those who travel a lot
  • Shed fur indoor (yes, all breeds do; some more than others)
  • Potential risk of bites to unattended babies and small children
  • Costs, particularly when veterinary care is needed

Cats

You know all those stories about dogs that hitchhike interstate, swim over crocodile-infested rivers and scale the facades of high-rise buildings just so that they can smell the shoes of their departed owners? Surely you’ve read at least a couple of them. But have you ever heard about a cat doing the same?

To quote Irina Dunn, cats need people “like a fish needs a bicycle”.

Of course, this is not to say that there won’t be a special bond between you and your cat. Just be prepared that, whilst a dog will share your joys and grief, a cat couldn’t care less if you lost all your money on the stock market today (keep the Whiskas coming, though, or it’s sayonara and off to the neighbour’s more well-stocked kitchen).

Don’t take this as a licence to never be around for your cat. A cat might not crave your company the way a dog would, but it sure needs the stimulation you provide. Cats are highly intelligent and likely to get bored out of their brains if they’re shut inside day after day without anyone to play with. Aggression in cats is usually caused by lack of stimulation.

A plus side with the more hard-to-get nature of cats is that you, well, will generally have to work harder to get them, and that’s a rewarding challenge. Gaining a cat’s trust is somewhat akin to building rapport with a wild animal. Once you’re accepted, you will probably feel extra special.

Then, of course, there’s that irresistible feline beauty and heavenly soft fur and soothing purrrrring. Yes, there’s certainly something about cats.

Paws and cons of cats

  • Very intelligent and can make for great connectionsNot as needy as dogs
  • Provide something for the whole family to bond over
  • Good for teaching children how to care for someone else
  • May prevent development of allergies if present when baby brought home
  • Outdoor exercise not strictly necessary
  • Allergies to cats are relatively common; might stop some visitors from coming
  • Risk of scratches and bites
  • With few exceptions, will make short work of any small to medium-sized wildlife if you let your cat out especially at nighttime
  • Shed fur
  • Do require daily social interaction
  • Should not be left without company when you travel
  • Costs, in particular for veterinary care

Rodents

Rats, hamsters and guinea pigs are very smart and social, and can make great pets. But they’re all different. Rats are little acrobatic marvels that will astonish you with their escaping tricks; guinea pigs are quite sedentary and love the company of other guinea pigs; hamsters don’t want to hang with other hamsters (unless it is for the purpose of making more hamsters) and are asleep most of the day, but will gladly put that exercise wheel to use over night. The common denominator of these rodents is that they need to be let out to explore every now and then – and they all make for great companions, being very loving to people who care well for them.

Be aware that, as easy as these pets are to care for, do read up on the recommendations for each species. Exercise wheels should never be put in with guinea pigs, for example, but should definitely be made available to hamsters and (maybe) to rats – if the wheel is large enough not to force the animals to bend their backs. Hardwood shavings should never be used on the cage floor, but rather shred paper. Guinea pigs don’t climb, so their enclosures don’t have to be covered. But leave any part of your rat cage open and you’ll be in for a surprise, etc., etc.

Paws and cons of rodents

  • Very intelligent and can make for great connections
  • Appreciate a good cuddle (guinea pigs might often delight children with cute whistles of joy when picked up)
  • Do not need to be exercised outdoors
  • Good for teaching children how to care for someone else
  • Unless allowed to escape, leave relatively little mess
  • Do require human company, socialisation and daily exercise
  • May require rodent friend to hang with (guinea pigs) when you’re out
  • Expect daily cage-cleaning
  • Relatively delicate; children need to be trained to handled rodents carefully
  • May bite if scared
  • Require grass (hamsters and guinea pigs) and fresh vegetables
  • High escape risk (rats)

Birds

If you want a pet that’s a keeper, go for a bird. It will in some cases keep for 50 years or longer. A considerable commitment, in other words. There are birds of shorter expiry date, of course, but even budgies can live up to 15 years or so. What’s more, birds are very intelligent and require a lot of stimulation. You need to provide them with plenty of toys or plenty of you.

Another important point for consideration is that birds have these feathered appendages, wings, and they generally like spreading them. If you would never be able to let a pet bird fly, you might want to consider your options. Some people would contend that, flying or not flying, birds are happy as long as they’re safe and feel your love. We’ll leave this philosophical question for you to ponder.

Birds are also messy. They will pick at things, throw birdseed in every direction and rip the newspaper cage floor covering into tiny, tiny bits and fling them into whatever corners of the room aren’t already occupied by birdseed. You get the picture.

Paws and cons of birds

  • Very intelligent and can make for great connections
  • Can display great affection and sympathy to their owners
  • Depending on species, may be trained to say more or less enlightened things
  • Do not require daily outdoor exercise
  • Very messy
  • Expect daily cage-cleaning
  • May be loud
  • Most pet birds will not show clear signs of disease until it’s far gone; they require a keen eye to identify medical needs
  • Do require daily social interaction

Fishes

“Fish are easy to keep. Just fill up an aquarium, plonk in the fish and occasionally season with a sprinkling of food flakes. Hey, presto, ultra-low-maintenance pets!”

Yeah. Nah.

Not even hard-as-nails goldfish do very well if you leave them in a bowl without filtration (you can use a bowl, yes, but it’s probably more work than having a proper setup, because you’ll have to change water on a daily basis). Think of your aquarium as that Little Chemist/Physicist/Biologist set from the toyshop: you will need a basic understanding of pH, bacteria cultures and so forth in order to establish and maintain a good environment for the fish. And then we’re still only talking freshwater fish; dare to tread into domain of tropical marine fish, and you can add salinity and finely tuned temperature control as well.

That said, a well-kept aquarium can provide Zen-like relaxation. If the proverbial hits the fan at work, spend some time in front of your living aquatic wallpaper and try to adopt the attitude of your little scaly protégés. No matter how stressful life gets, they will never bat an eyelid.

Fish don’t have eyelids.

Paws and cons of fish

  • Won’t be offended if you work late
  • Can teach you (and the kids) a lot about ecosystems
  • Unless a lot of heating is required, relatively low maintenance cost
  • Low to no veterinary costs (cetaceans not included)
  • Make for relaxing atmosphere
  • Provided aquarium doesn’t spring a leak and flood the neighbours, very tidy
  • Mix and match species to create your own unique setup
  • If Goldie kicks the bucket, probably lower psychotherapist fees than if a dog does the same. (Sorry to be so blunt, but there it is. This is not to say that one life should be respected more than another… Eh, on second thought, let’s give Freud, Jung et al free reins in another blog post.)
  • Will provide preciously little thought exchange
  • May teach you more about ecosystems than you care to know
  • Require a lot of tank-cleaning and occasional water tests and exchanges
  • Fail at knowing your fish species, and you’ll soon behold the food chain in full action (hint: big fish eat little fish)
  • If heating is required, may rack up a record power bill

Snakes

Snakes can hold a very strong mysterious appeal and, as many keepers will tell you, they can be surprisingly affectionate. However, you’ll also find that a lot of people DON’T share your fascination with snakes – and that includes state governments, councils and landlords. Should you want to get a pet snake, you better check that you’ve got clearance from all relevant authorities (including, of course, anyone who lives with you) before proceeding. Beware that state regulations differ, so if you’re planning on moving interstate, you’ll want to research the applicable legislation at the destination as well as in your home state.

Another point for consideration is that some snakes might require you to feed them live mice or rats. Such is the way of nature, after all, but before you go ahead and purchase a snake of that calibre, you’ll want to make sure that you’re prepared to feed it with, well, other pets.

Much like with fish (see above), keeping a snake actually asks for a fair bit of commitment. You’re not up for the same degree of tank-cleaning as with an aquarium, but you’ll need to build a carefully designed environment for your snake to thrive. This will most definitely include a hiding place for the snake (be prepared that it’s going to keep out of sight a lot of the time) as well as a basking light and under-tank heating to create graded heat across the habitat, so that that your snake can regulate its body temperature appropriately. Some spots should be warmer than others, and the hiding place should feature the ideal temperature for general lounging. Certain snakes will also require a UVB light, and to make sure that everything is spot on, you will require an array of hygrometers (for measuring humidity) and thermometers.

Once you have everything sorted – and you should do before you bring your new snake home – this is one pet that really is quite low maintenance. Snakes don’t require meals three times a day, and they don’t require any exercise outside of their tank. And they’ll still be an instant talking point with most visitors.

Lastly, be aware that your snake may well live for 50 years or so. Being a snake keeper is a real commitment.

Paws and cons of snakes

  • Hold mysterious appeal unlikely to leave anyone unaffected
  • Non-allergenic
  • Relatively low maintenance once environment set up
  • Won’t get hissed off if you go on holidays
  • Have unique ectothermic (coldblooded) properties that can teach kids a lot about different types of biology
  • Can be surprisingly affectionate
  • May put off unwanted visitors (just open the door to a salesperson with your python peering over your shoulder and you’ll see)
  • Require various permits
  • May put off much-loved visitors
  • Venomous and large constrictor snakes can be downright dangerous
  • About 92% of all snakes carry salmonella, which can make you seriously ill if ingested
  • May require feeding with live prey, such as mice or rats
  • Require detailed knowledge of species-specific needs
  • Tank heating may rack up record power bills
  • Might grow to very, very large sizes

Disclaimer

Let’s just state the obvious: this is not a comprehensive list of pets. You could add lagomorphs, for instance (rabbits and hares, which are not rodents), insects, crabs, turtles, frogs and so on and so on. The latest census puts the total number of animal species at around eight million. Even discounting the more impractical species such as blue whales and polar bears, that leaves a lot of potential pets. And with only 26 letters in the alphabet to cover them all, we just ran out.