Choosing the perfect pet

What to look for when adding a new furry, scaled or feathered family member

By Janet Whitman

Thinking of adding a pet to your family? It pays to do some homework.

One of the first things to figure out is what sort of animal is the right fit. 

“If your family is constantly on the go or not at home, a dog might not be the best choice,” says Kyla Wuhr, a veterinarian at the Nova Scotia SPCA Veterinary Hospital in Dartmouth. “A caged pet like a rat might be better. It’s important that families understand a pet is a commitment and the pet does have to match your lifestyle.”

Cats are more independent than dogs but probably need more attention than a rat, hedgehog, hamster, guineapig or other “pocket” pet.

“Lots of cats will sleep 20 hours a day, so they don’t depend on their people as much during the day,” says Wuhr. “But kitties are social and they do like to have their people around.”

Another consideration is the financial commitment (a dog can cost around $4,000 a year), plus the potential pet’s lifespan. 

If you don’t want a long commitment, Wuhr recommends caged pets.

“People get all grossed out when I say rats, but they’re actually really social and they’re friendly little things,” she says. “They only live two to five years so they’re actually a nice little pet for first-time pet people.”

Birds, on the other hand, have many special requirements and can live a long time, she says. “People should know what they’re getting into before getting a bird.”

Finding a veterinarian that can handle their specialized care is also a challenge, she says. “The exotic pets — birds and reptiles — do require much more detailed care.” 


If your family has the time, resources and interest, the list of pros of pet ownership is long, from teaching responsibility and helping with learning to building bonds and promoting physical activity.

“There’s tons of evidence on the health benefits of having pets in the household,” says Halifax-based health consultant Mary Jane Hampton. 

Studies show that children who grow up with pets have more robust immune systems and better social skills, she adds. 

“Younger children in their formative years get opportunities to experience empathy and understand the implications of caring for something else,” says Hampton. “Older kids learn responsibility if there are expectations that everyone in the family has some part in caring for a pet, whether that’s a fish or a Great Dane or anything in between.”

Pet ownership is a family commitment, Hampton adds. “It can’t just be, usually the mom, who ends up picking up the slack when the novelty of the new pet wears off.”

Getting kids involved in the care and nurture “are invaluable life lessons to take through every other kind of social relationship that they’ll have growing up,” she says. “Children who have that exposure early on are much more likely to be set up for success and be able to translate those lessons in pet ownership to other lessons in social relationships.” 

Work-from-home mom Tracy Stuart recently added two Goldendoodle puppies to the household.

While Stuart and her husband Jarrett Stuart both had pets growing up, the prospect of owning a dog didn’t become realistic until their two daughters, Brooklyn and Olivia, now ages eight and nine respectively, were in school and the family had a consistent routine after years of travelling.

Getting a puppy is a lot like bringing home a new baby.

“In the first three months, all other things are on the backburner,” says Stuart. “They are around-the-clock care.”

For those working at a full-time job and unable to be home like Stuart, a good support team, such as a family member or friend who can pop by to visit the pup during the day, is a big help.

“Pets bring something different to each member of the household, whether it’s stress relief or joy, play and excitement,” says Stuart. “There are so many benefits, it’s hard to list them all. They’re such a joy to have in the house. They’re always there for you and it’s unconditional.” 

Only a few months in with the new puppies, Hazel and Willow, Stuart’s daughters have no doubts.

As soon as the girls start down the stairs in the mornings, their puppies’ tails are wagging and they meet them at the bottom of the stairs with kisses, says Stuart.

“Brooklyn, my youngest daughter, said, ‘They give the best good mornings of anyone ever,’” says Stuart. “Olivia said, ‘Mommy, I can’t even remember life without them.’ They love them to death.”

 Choosing the right dog

Photo: GlobalP/Gettyimages

Want a puppy/dog and not sure what breed is best for your family’s lifestyle? Take the American Kennel Club’s breed selector quiz

Illustration: Fourleaflover/Gettyimages

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