Are You Ready to Get a Pet?

What you need to consider before you get a pet.

Medically Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S on June 10, 2011
7 min read

There’s nothing like the unconditional love of a pet.

Almost 60% of homes in America have at least one pet, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. About half of those owners say they consider their pet a member of the family.

Having a critter companion can be good for your health, too. Studies have shown being around an animal can ease depression, lower blood pressure and stress, and keep you active. Heart attack patients who have a dog can live longer than those who don’t.

But caring for an animal is a commitment that requires much more than just bringing home a lovable little fur ball from the pet store. Do you have what it takes to be a pet owner? Here’s what you should be thinking about.

Knowing how much attention you can devote to a furry friend will help you decide if you’re ready to own one. It also makes it easier to pick what kind of pet is best for you.

“If you are too busy or not at home enough, it’s not appropriate to bring a pet into the mix,” says Bernardine Cruz, DVM, one of the veterinarians in WebMD’s pet health community.

Dogs probably need the most TLC, compared to other pets. They have to be taken outdoors at least three times a day to relieve themselves. Puppies need to be fed two to four times a day, depending on their age. Older dogs need to be fed once or twice a day.

Most dogs also need to play. A canine that doesn’t get enough active time can become bored or anxious and end up destroying the sofa or your favorite sneakers. So if you travel a lot, man’s best friend may not be a great choice unless you have a dependable and affordable way to ensure your dog will get ample exercise and play time.

Certain dog breeds require more exercise than others. For example, a Jack Russell Terrier is going to need a lot of time running around outside. If your heart is set on a hound, learn ahead of time about day-to-day needs of the breeds you like.

Cats are a bit easier on time demands. Kittens have to be fed three to four times daily, and adults need one to three meals.

An indoor cat means cleaning the litter box every day to avoid messes around the house. It’s best for cats to stay indoors to be safe from diseases, car accidents, or fights, Cruz tells WebMD.

Unlike dogs, cats don’t need to be walked. So it’s possible to leave a cat alone for a couple of days as long as someone can stop by once daily to check that your kitty is OK, replenish food and water, and clean the litter boxes.

Some of the most popular birds, such as cockatiels and budgies, need play time outside of their cages every day, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). These feathered creatures can also be quite social and crave human interaction.

“Since birds are flock animals, they want to form tight bonds with their owners. We see a lot of behavioral issues when birds are not getting the kind of attention they require,” says Austin, Texas veterinarian Brad Singleton, DVM.

Regardless of breed, most birds regularly need a steady supply of bird seed or pellets, and fresh water, fruit, and vegetables. Another time investment: weekly cage cleaning, and regular bathing.

Time-wise, smaller pets usually need the basics of regular feeding and a frequently cleaned cage or aquarium, says Singleton. Fish, reptiles, and amphibians generally don’t require a lot of human interaction. However, rabbits, ferrets, hamsters, and gerbils are sociable beings who do want some time to hang out with their owners.

Along with time commitment, money can be a major factor in owning an animal.

“It doesn’t always mean spending a lot, but if you don’t have the discretionary income, then having a pet may not be the best idea right now,” says veterinarian Greg Hammer, DVM, of Dover, Del.

The first expense: the pet itself. An animal can be as cheap as free, but certain prized breeds could cost thousands of dollars, Hammer tells WebMD.

Among household pets, dog-related expenses tend to be the highest, according to the ASPCA.

First, there are initial costs once you’ve adopted a dog. For a medium-sized dog, it costs about $200 to spay or neuter your canine, $70 for basic medical expenses such as deworming and blood tests, and another $300 or so for other one-time costs such as training, a crate, and a collar.

Every year, the average dog owner spends about $120 on food, and $235 on regular veterinarian visits for exams, vaccines, and heartworm, flea, and tick prevention medicines. Tack on toys, treats, and other smaller expenses, and that’s at least $500 annually, the ASPCA says.

Cats are generally the second-most pricey. Up-front costs after adopting a cat are about $145 to spay or neuter, $130 for first-time veterinarian expenses, $25 for a litter box, and another $90 in smaller expenses, according to the ASPCA. Annual recurring costs run about $115 for food, $160 for regular medical expenses, $165 for litter, and other fees, adding up to about $500 a year.

Rabbit owners should expect to spend about $1,055 the first year. Small mammals, birds, and fish run in the $200 to $350 range.

Veterinarian fees are one of the biggest expenses with many pets, but there are ways to cut these costs.

Pet insurance, which costs as little as $15 a month, can assist with unexpected medical bills from accidents or illness. Check out a policy carefully before you sign up, so you know what's covered.

Adopting an adult animal means avoiding initial vet fees for things like exams, vaccines, spaying, and neutering, Singleton says. Also, picking a smaller mammal with a short lifespan such as a rodent means you will probably never have to visit the vet.

When considering a pet, ask yourself this question: “What am I going to be doing in 10 years?” Will you have gone off to college? Will you be retired? Moved into assisted living?

When people adopt pets, they often fail to consider their long-range plans.

“When you get a pet, it’s for life - their life,” Cruz tells WebMD.

Some dogs and cats can live as long as 18 or 20 years. Some birds and reptiles can live 40 years or more, Singleton says.

As they age, pets tend to develop more kidney or liver failure, diabetes, and similar illnesses. Often they need expensive, ongoing medication or special equipment. That’s an expense that many people don’t account for when they first bring their pet home. Sadly, it’s a common cause for people to either give up their pets to shelters or put them down.

Owners need to understand how long a pet might live, and make sure they have a strategy to care for the pet if the owner can’t do it anymore either because of cost or physical disability.

“Especially if you’re older, you need to have a plan. What is going to happen to my pet when I die?” Cruz says.

And though elderly, more sedentary owners can benefit immensely from the companionship of a pet, Cruz says they should choose an animal with less demanding requirements. “A senior pet might be just what a senior person needs,” she says.

On the opposite end of the age spectrum, when is a child old enough to have a pet? It mainly depends on the child’s maturity level.

When a child can show some responsibility in taking care of himself, that’s when you know he can at least handle and treat an animal properly, Cruz says. That doesn’t mean they’re going to be able to assume full care of the pet. But at least they can help with some of the feeding and grooming duties.

Knowing what you’re looking for in a pet can save a lot of heartache and headache for both pet and owner.

There are plenty of resources to help you figure out if you’re ready and, if so - what kind of animal you should go for.

First, talk to a veterinarian. A vet will probably ask you if you have a lot of kids in the house, which might mean you need a sturdier breed of animal. And, what are your expectations -- are you looking for a dog that can go jogging and hiking with you every weekend, or just one that’s going to cuddle at the foot of your bed? Other questions: How big is your yard? Does anyone in your home have allergies? Do you want a calm companion, or a peppy animal who lives to play chase with you?

Based on these types of issues, a vet can suggest an animal to fit your lifestyle.

Books and web sites can also give you a good understanding of different animals and breeds, including grooming and health issues to anticipate.

Visiting a shelter, pet store, a dog show, or even talking to a breeder are other smart ways to better understand what kind of size, attitude, and breed best suits you, Cruz says.