Picking the Perfect Pet for Your Family
Liz and Mark were looking to bring a new dog into their home, but they had problems in the past with a particularly aggressive dog. Afraid they might end up with another heartbreaker, Liz consulted a dog trainer for suggestions of large breeds that are known for sweet temperaments, and the couple brought home a delightful, friendly new puppy.
Liz and Mark were so consumed by the dog’s temperament, however, that they neglected to do their homework about possible physical problems that are known to some breeds. As a result, Heidi, their sweet-tempered dog, is the neighborhood mascot, but some days her hip problems make it difficult for her to run to the corner park to greet her adoring fans.
The decision to open your home to a new pet demands careful research and a lot of family discussion. A thoughtful match results in a new pet that easily fits into your household. Potential pet owners need to examine their budgets, schedules, and lifestyles as well as their aesthetic likes and dislikes. “Certain breeds are more challenging and demand an experienced caretaker or someone who can afford professional grooming, private training, or more trips to the veterinarian than the average cat or dog would demand,” counsels Dr. Lila Miller, veterinary advisor for the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
With over 50 cat breeds and several hundred dog breeds to consider—not including mixed breeds—potential pet parents have their work cut out for them. Luckily, veterinarians, dog trainers, shelter adoption counselors, books, and Internet Web sites can offer assistance. Once you have an idea of the type of pet you might like to bring into your home, read books about the particular breed, visit Web sites for clubs associated with the breed (visit www.akc.org for a list), and ask your veterinarian about any health problems common to the breed that has piqued your interest.
ARE CATS YOUR CUP OF TEA?
Throughout much of history, cats and mankind have had a somewhat uneasy alliance. We needed them to keep our grain safe from rodents and our homes free of snakes. It wasn’t until the 19th century that we really considered the cat a pet. Only about 10 percent of pet cats are registered purebreds. Because of the relatively low number of purebred cats, breed-specific health issues are not as common as they are in dogs. Certain breeds of cats may be inclined to certain illnesses, so it is best to consult with your veterinarian before choosing a new feline friend.
The primary differences in early cat breeds stemmed from the climate and environment of the region in which they were developed. The breeds from the coldest regions have the thickest coats and often the heaviest body mass (Maine coons, Norwegian forests, and Siberians). Those that come from more tropical regions, like Siamese and Egyptian maus, are long and lean with light coats and little body fat to help them stay cool in hot climates.
Most purebred cats are good with children, especially if socialized to them during kittenhood. Birman cats and ragdoll cats make exceptionally easy, laid-back companions. However, Abyssinians and Egyptian maus prefer their freedom, so if you want a cat that sits in your lap while you watch television, a different breed might be a better fit. Korats and Russian blues can be shy with strangers, so if your house is full of visitors, these cats might not be happy in your home. Bengal cats like to play and can be quite mischevious.
Siamese, Burmese, Tonkinese, and Javanese cats are very playful and interactive—and may be very talkative and demanding pets. Generally, the most active cats exhibit long, lean profiles. Those with “squarer” profiles, such as Persians and Maine coons, are among the most easygoing.
OR ARE YOU A DOG PERSON?
There is no more diverse mammal than the dog. They range in size from a tiny Chihuahua to a huge mastiff. Man found many more jobs for dogs than for cats, and the size difference came in handy for hunting, guarding, herding, retrieving, alarm barking, and mushing, as well as vermin control and companionship. Each job and geographic locale demanded certain physical attributes to be successful, and dogs were selectively bred to do their work more effectively. Northern sled dogs (Alaskan malamutes, Siberian huskies) were bred to have extra thick coats and bushy tails to protect them in Arctic climates and muscular front ends for pulling heavy sleds. Southern sight hounds (greyhounds, salukis) have short coats and little body fat to enable them to run fast while protecting them from overheating in desert climates.
Dog breeds can be divided into eight groups based on the type of work they were originally created to perform: herding dogs, companion dogs, Northern spitzes, terriers, hunting/gun dogs, guarding breeds, scent hounds, and sight hounds. The following is a glimpse of some of the dogs in each group and their typical traits. These may help you to determine if any of these dog breeds fits into your family’s lifestyle.
Three subgroups make up this group: cattle dogs, sheepdogs, and herder/ protectors. Cattle dogs (Welsh corgis, Australian cattle dogs, and kelpies) are short-legged, long-backed dogs that can quickly flatten to the ground to avoid the kicks of ornery steer. Pups from working stock dogs need to work or else they spend their days trying to herd neighborhood kids around the yard. Sheepdogs (collies, Australian shepherds, Shetland sheepdogs) are high-energy dogs that keep flocks of sheep intact and move them to pasture. Very bright and easy to train, sheepdogs need owners who can keep them physically and mentally well exercised. Herder/protectors (Belgian sheepdogs, German shepherds, Bouviers des Flandres) are larger, more independent dogs that can both drive stock and protect the homestead. They are often found in police and military K-9 units and are recommended for families that have experience with dogs as pets.
Primarily created to serve as lap dogs and bed-warmers, companion dogs are little canines that are totally devoted to their families and are most happy when in their arms or in their beds. Some are miniatures of larger breeds (Italian greyhounds, toy poodles, French bulldogs) while others are unique (Pekingese, Maltese, shih tzus). Many companion dogs sport long, decorative coats that demand hours of grooming in order to look their best.
Whether pulling sleds (Alaskan malamutes, Siberian huskies), herding reindeer (Samoyeds), or hunting birds and game (Finnish spitz, shiba inus, Akitas, chow chows), the thick-coated Northern breeds take their jobs very seriously. Many of the breeds in this group are reserved with strangers and do not enjoy a lot of handling. Most are independent thinkers and demand patience and persistence during obedience training.
Terriers can be divided into three subgroups: “go to ground” terriers (fox, Cairn, Jack Russell), bull-and-terrier breeds (American pit bull, American Staffordshire, bull), and the larger multi-use terriers (Airedale, Kerry blue, soft-coated wheaten). Many terriers display tenacity and assertiveness. Most are high-energy, independent dogs that freely bark when they hear anything out of the ordinary.
The hunting dog group consists of four subgroups: pointers (German shorthaired, vizsla, weimaraner), retrievers (golden, Labrador, Chesapeake Bay), setters (English, Irish, Gordon), and spaniels (cocker, springer, field spaniel). Created to work alongside hunters, gun dogs are among the easiest to train. Cocker spaniels, Labrador retrievers, and golden retrievers have been top 10 favorite family dogs for many years.
These dogs are very large and imposing, with huge blocky skulls, thick necks, and strong muscular bodies. The protective nature of these breeds is genetic, but their owners must provide them with lots of early socialization so they can tell friend from foe when their guarding instincts kick in. Subgroups in this category include mastiffs (English, bullmastiffs, Neapolitan), flock protectors (Great Pyrenees, komondors, maremmas), Swiss dogs (St. Bernards, Bernese mountain dogs, Greater Swiss mountain dogs), and bull breeds (boxers, English bulldogs, American bulldogs). These breeds need leadership in a pet owner.
Scent hounds, with their long noses, loose thick lips, and lengthy folding earflaps, are exceptional trackers. Whether chasing raccoons (coonhounds), foxes (English and American foxhounds), rabbits (beagles and basset hounds), or missing children (bloodhounds), these single-minded dogs stay the course. This intense focus on the ground can turn companionable walk into a manhunt! Scent hounds are generally friendly to everyone, dog and human alike. They are easily distracted by interesting scents and sometimes it’s hard to pull them away.
Sight hounds were created to catch sight of prey in the distance and then run it down with the agility to follow every twist and turn at speeds of 30 to 45 miles per hour. Sight hounds of warmer regions are shorthaired (greyhounds, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, salukis), and those from cooler regions sport longer coats (borzois, Afghans, Irish wolfhounds). These speed demons are very sweet, low-key dogs when inside the house and quite undemanding.
A PERFECT FIT
The key to finding the perfect pet to add to your family is to carefully research the types of pets available and how their particular traits fit your lifestyle. Your veterinarian can be a great source of information when you are trying to find a pet that fits your family, so be sure to ask for guidance. Keep in mind that generalizations about different dog and cat beeds can give you an idea of the perfect match, but there are always exceptions. We hope that the thumbnail sketches above have piqued your curiosity and will kick off your search to find the perfect companion for your family!
BEFORE YOU BEGIN YOUR SEARCH...
Before you start searching for a new best friend, ask yourself these questions:
- How much free time do I have? Certain pets and breeds take a lot more time and effort in training and grooming. Make sure you choose a breed of dog or cat that suits the amount of free time you have to offer.
- How much room do I have at home? Some pets are happy and content to stay inside most of the day, while others need a lot of room to run and explore. Be sure you have enough room—both inside and outside your home—to accommodate your new friend.
- Can I afford this pet? Some breeds of dog and cat have specific medical problems that can lead to higher veterinary bills. Carefully check your budget; pet insurance can help cover these costs.