By Jane Ehrhardt
Dogs and/or cats currently reside in a majority of American households (57%). However a 1995 Gallup poll discovered that 90% of those surveyed want a cat or dog.
So how do you choose one? There are currently 140 dog breeds and 36 cat breeds to select from, plus the myriad of mixes. Don't pooh-pooh the mixed breeds; they are often hardier aned just as beautiful, intelligent, and affectionate as the purepreds.
Since a pet will truly affect your entire lifestyle, lifestyle should dictate the pet you choose. Someone who lies on the couch watching TV should not have a dog bred to herd livestock, like a corgie or sheltie. Cats, of course are ideal for this lifestyle, but if you want complete silence, don't choose a Siamese -- they vocalize a lot.
Now look at your spare time. Factor in how much time you want to spend grooming and exercising to determine the ideal pet's size, look and species.
As for size, dogs, unlike cats, grow to be anything from a handful to a houseful, so choose one that you can and want to handle. Some of the smaller dogs, like a Jack Russell terrier, require more exercise and interaction than the big ones, like a Great Dane. Do not rule out a large dog simply because you live in an apartment or do not have a yard. Nor do dogs need midday walks. Since dogs sleep about 18 hours a day, evening and morning companionship and exercise are fine.
Keep in mind that all these time requirements, and costs -- food, veterinary care, grooming, toys, license -- will continue throughout your dog's or cat's life (generally at least 10 years).
If you want expert advice on this life-altering decision, ask your veterinarian and certainly your local animal shelter staff. Shelter professionals match pets with people for a living. The over 6400 humane societies and animal control agencies in this country acually adopted out 4.2 million animals in 1994; an estimated one-fourth of these were pure-bred.
Shelters, then, are the optimal place to find a pet. Millions of adorable, affectionate, healthy cats and dogs are surrendered to shelters each year. More often than not, these pets are given up because the cuteness and novelty wore off, and the real work began.
This was confirmed in a study involving more than 1500 dogs and cats in 1995. It found that owners were more likely to relinquish their dogs if they did not participate in training classes, visited the veterinarian infrequently, or considered the pet too much work. For cats, the reasons were similar. However, the number-one reason was that the cat simply did not fulfill the expectations set for the pet, such as being a playmate for their child.
The chance of someone giving up their pet also increased if the pet was not neutered. This is because unneutered dogs and cats yowl, spot, mark their territory, attract other pets, roam, and get pregnant. This last situation causes a great deal of extra work and expense and results in more pets being born into an already overburdened society.
In a study in 1995 by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy of 1100 animal shelters, 56% of the dogs (this includes puppies too) had to be euthanized, and an astonishing 72% of the cats and kittens. This equaled the death of over 2.2 million pets in only about one-sixth of the shelters.
So when you get a pet, get it neutered. You end up with a calmer, healthier pet and the shelters end up with fewer animals they must euthanize.
And choose carefully. As statistics show, most people who don't keep their pets for life did not plan ahead or held unrealistic expectations for their pet. Before you commit your home, family, and budget to the responsibility of a pet, remember that it is for a lifetime -- a lifetime of costs and annoyance generously mixed with immense joy and love.
Jane Ehrhardt is editor of the Animal Protection Division of the American Humane Association.