What to Ask Before Buying a Family Pet

Before you rush out and buy a furry friend for the family, here are some things to think about
By Lucille Kemp

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One of my most treasured pet memories was when boisterous Buster was still a pup. He was a soft ball of black and white fluff that loved to be loved – perfect for a home that enjoys family hugs. Mind you, having a bit of terrier in him, the best times for cuddling were only when he was completely exhausted. If, on these occasions, you happened to be lying on the couch, he’d climb up and curl himself around the back of your neck, his head cosily tucked next to your face – bliss! Pets have a way of worming their way into our affections, and it’s these warm, fuzzy memories that often have parents of toddlers dashing off to the pet shop to find them a furry friend.
But before nostalgia grips you and you’re already in the store just about to scoop up the animal friend that tugs hardest at your, or your children’s, heart strings, you’ll need to ask yourself a few questions about your home and your family’s lifestyle.
How much space do you have inside and outside the home? If you go for an indoor pet, will you be able to live with possible pet hair, a litter box, a chewed shoe or torn upholstery? Think hard about this one – if you have cat inclinations you probably need to budget for an indoor cat (they generally live longer and are healthier). On indoor dogs, Cape Town-based pet behaviourist Mike Wood points out, “Interestingly, there is a strong suggestion that dogs with the lowest incidence of behaviour problems are those kept in flats or apartments.”
Can you handle high maintenance? Regular grooming is important to prevent excess shedding. Brushing your dog’s coat can take place daily (long-haired Cocker Spaniels), weekly (medium-haired Golden Retrievers) or monthly (short-haired Beagles). If you prefer an outdoor animal, do you have secure fencing and have you drafted a pick-up-the-doody roster? Even if you’ve survived nappies, it’s worth remembering that the bigger the dog, the bigger the poop – so it’s best if you’re not the easily offended type.
Can you live with the odd landscaping issue? Not only will Jack Russell terriers gladly run circles around the house with your energetic son, but they will also dig – with or without him. Rabbits may not be an option either, since they like to burrow.
Do you live in a flat with no outside area? A pet fish may be best as it is confined to its space or, if you love birds, perhaps parrots are an option, but then you need to have a big enough area for them to spread and flap their wings. Also, because parrots are intelligent, social creatures it’s recommended that you get two birds so they don’t get lonely. Surprisingly, Wood says that a Great Dane can do perfectly well in an apartment as long as he is given sufficient daily exercise and stimulation.
How much time do you have to spend with a pet? Wood cuts to the chase: “People who are very busy and will not have the time to care for their kitten or take their puppy to socialisation classes, obedience training and for daily walks (rain or shine), provide ongoing veterinary care, environmental enrichment such as chews and daily play as well as direct attention (not just when they’re cute puppies), should rather consider getting a grown cat or a goldfish.”  
Another important question is: are you active or sedentary? And, on this don’t be fooled by size – an oversized Newfoundland prefers lounging around and leisurely walks, whereas a small Jack Russell Terrier is rambunctious and best suited to farm life, according to Wood.
Do you have small children? They are entranced by animals from a very young age, and this could prompt you to want a pet that will grow up with them. But toddlers may get too rough with fragile puppies and kittens and, by the same token, adult animals may be too rough with them. If your child is younger than four years, perhaps consider a low-maintenance mini-pet protected by a cage, such as a guinea pig or hamster or a small bird like a budgie.
Be in the Know
When it comes to South Africans and pets, dogs are by far the most popular choice, with this country in the top 10 of pet-dog populations in the world, according to the book, Top 10 of Everything 2011 (Hamlyn).
One of the most important things for families to consider when choosing a dog, however, is whether the breed has the right temperament for children. Many pet experts say there is no hard and fast rule about a dog breed’s child friendliness. However, all dogs are divided into one of seven types of breeds and knowing your dog’s type will give you a clue as to its child friendliness. On this Wood says, “A great deal of a dog’s behaviour and temperament has to do with the original job dogs were bred to perform and the tendencies that these produce.” For example, “toy dogs” (such as Chihuahuas) are bred as very loyal companions to only one person, so out of possessiveness might snap at your toddler if she gets too close to him or the dog’s chosen family member.
There are various websites that offer great advice on the most child-friendly breeds, such as justdogbreeds.com and petsplace.co.za. For more information on the seven types of dog breeds visit helpguide.org.
Knowing the specific function for which your favoured dog was originally bred will also give you a good indication of how active they are, perhaps how noisy they are and what their favourite “hobbies” are. If she’s a beagle, she falls into the hound category, so she likes to track (sniffing out mice, cats, other dogs, you). That means many games of hide-and-seek ahead for your child. Your spaniel is a sporting dog that loves to dash around all day, so best you too love a morning run or you’ll have a hyperactive dog on your hands.
Knowing the facts is important because a pet is a long-term commitment. Some birds such as parrots can live up to 50 years or more, a dog lives 10 to 16 years, cats can live up to 15 years or more and rabbits can live seven to 10 years. Impulsively buying a pet as a Christmas gift is a bad idea – they’re in it for the long haul; so should you be.
Where to Go
If you’re looking for a purebred or a “designer” mixed breed such as a Labradoodle your best bet is to go through a registered breeder. “A reputable breeder is registered with the Kennel Union of Southern Africa,” says Robyn Khoury, animal centre manager at the Cape of Good Hope SPCA. According to Khoury, you should ensure that you meet the parents of the puppy, see their pedigree papers and the breeding facilities.
You can also adopt an animal from one of the welfare organisations. The SPCA, for one, looks to re-home not only neglected dogs but also well-behaved dogs that have been given to them because of immigration or divorce. “If you have a hectic life, adopt an adult animal,” says Khoury. “Dogs live an average of 16 years so if you take a dog of about two they still have many happy years ahead of them.”
One of the downsides of an adult animal, however, is that she may take a while to bond with the family and other pets. If you aren’t able to screen her properly before adoption, you might discover she has undesirable behaviour traits or there may be an existing health condition. On the upside, as the dog has outgrown the puppy years he will not be so needy and will have learnt to be fine with being left alone. Also, most adult dogs will have already been neutered and house trained, and will probably be used to being around other animals and people.
For most young, growing families the plea for a pet is only a matter of time. When the call does come it’s difficult to resist because the love and companionship that a pet provides lifts everyone’s mood. Also, walking and playing with your pet means that you get exercise; having an animal will build up your child’s immune system, helping to prevent allergies, and owning a pet will teach your child the all-important life skills of care and responsibility (see “mucking in” for suggestions).
Parenting a Puppy
Dog rearing is not what it used to be…
  • Pets need attention and appropriate stimulation. Puppies and kittens need constant care. Interact and play with your pet. If they become bored they will become destructive. Buy toys. Khoury suggests cow hooves (put peanut butter in them), or try chewing Kongs filled with food and pellets (out of their daily allowance) for keeping them out of mischief if you are out for the day. There is debate about whether to train your pet not to dig, or whether to create a designated section of the garden or a special sandpit where they can dig – you decide.
  • Don’t rub their nose in the pee. Train good habits from the start. Take them out every 45 minutes; in the mornings or after a meal. Praise what you like verbally and with treats; don’t punish.
  • Don’t spank them, socialise them. From eight weeks old you can take your puppy to a puppy-training facility. Here your dog will learn how to act around other canines, and in the world around them in general.
Mucking In
A family pet doesn’t have to be solely the parents’ responsibility. Your children can benefit from age-appropriate involvement. Here are some suggestions for helping them get involved with the family dog – and learn some valuable life skills in the process.
age four
  • Pet the dog every day.
  • Brush the dog for a few minutes with your help.
  • Give the dog a treat by dropping it on the floor for him to pick up.
age five
  • Help walk the dog by holding onto the same leash you are holding – some leashes have an extra loop.
  • Give a treat with your help. Put the treat in the child’s open palm and let the dog take it gently.
age six
  • Brush the dog with you nearby.
  • Practise simple tricks with the dog like “shake hands”.
  • Play ball with the dog and you.
age seven and eight
  • Take a small dog for a walk in the yard. If you have a big dog, let your child walk the dog with your help.
  • Play ball with the dog or your child can throw a toy for him to retrieve.
  • Teach your child the commands that the dog knows like “sit” and “stay”, and get her to practise them with the dog.
age nine
  • Play games like “fetch” and hide-and-seek.
  • Feed the dog every day.
  • Help you bath the dog.
age 10
  • Wash up the dog’s dishes.
  • Put out fresh water for the dog.
age 11
  • Practise tricks with the dog.
  • Teach the dog new tricks.
age 12
  • Take responsibility for brushing the dog.
  • Give the dog a weekly checkup.
  • Let your child attend and assist you at dog obedience classes.
age 13
  • Attend dog obedience classes, while you observe.
  • Sweep up the dog hair.
  • Brush your dog’s teeth with assistance, if needed.
age 14
  • Schedule vet appointments when asked to do so.
age 15
  • Pick up dog poop. 

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