Dear Dr. Baum —
We are about to adopt a new pet for our children. Our daughter is four and our son is ten. Can you give us some advice on what kind of pets would be best? We’re thinking of a cat or dog, although our kids tried to talk us into a raccoon!
Dear Mary and family —
Owning a pet should be a pleasure, and with the proper foresight in its selection it certainly can be. The most important criteria in choosing a family pet are your expectations as to how you want this pet to integrate into your family’s lifestyle. Are you looking for a dog to jog with or do you want a warm bundle of fur to sit in your lap? Do people in your household have allergies? Does someone want to spend time grooming a long hairy coat each day? How many responsibilities for their care do you realistically want to assign to your children and will they be able to meet those expectations? The answers to these lifestyle questions are the keys to determining which pet is best for your household.
To me, in my dual role as father of three and as a veterinarian, the single most important trait for any pet of any size is that it have a gentle, friendly personality. Everyone has different esthetic values that come into play when considering different breeds of dogs or cats and you can certainly find individuals within any breed that can meet the requirements of a good temperament.
Because all puppies and kittens are cute and cuddly I will always advise seeing the parents when possible, to get an idea as to how these babies will turn out. I heartily recommend taking a day to go to an all-breed dog or cat show to see the various breeds in person, how they act and how they look. The reactions of your children to the different sizes and levels of activity that they encounter when face to face with their prospective pet might surprise you. The frenetic movements of a little dog can often lead to its being dropped from the arms of a child not properly instructed in how to securely hold it, and the lumbering movements of a gentle giant can often result in an unintentional knockdown of the child.
Getting a pet from an animal shelter or private adoption group is also a viable option. The advantage of taking this route is that you can see the finished product — an adult that will not be growing anymore and with a fully developed personality, or what you see is what you get! In addition, consider the powerful message that you send to your children as they witness the inherent goodness of rescuing a condemned pet.
In general, in thinking about dogs, the breeds that I sense have the highest degree of owner satisfaction for a young family are golden retrievers, yellow labs, pugs, schnauzers, poodles, English bulldogs and German shepherds. Breeds that I generally advise against are Dalmatians, chows, rottweillers, cocker and springer spaniels ands shar pies, primarily due to their predilection for biting. Breeds not mentioned here may be suitable or unsuitable based on the priorities of the family.
A quick parting note about allergies to pets. Generally, curly-coated animals offer the least allergenic stimulation for the allergy sufferer. The source of the allergy, pet dander (skin flakes), is more effectively trapped in the hair and less is exfoliated directly onto the susceptible individual. Using cream rinses after a shampoo will help also by creating a thin veneer which seals the potential flakes in, and diminishes the rate at which they fall off and provoke allergic responses.