Having a pet can be one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences in life. You can form bonds that can literally last a lifetime, especially if you have a tortoise or other long-lived species. Opening your home and your heart to an animal is wonderful. However, it is also an enormous responsibility. Being a responsible pet owner doesn’t just consist of making sure your pet has food and water. In fact, responsible pet ownership should begin before the animal ever comes home with you.
The first step to becoming a responsible pet owner is planning. Do you already have a specific type of animal in mind that you would like to have? Or perhaps you are looking for some type of companion animal, but are not really sure what type of animal would best suit your lifestyle? Either way, one of the most important aspects of the planning process is research. Every animal has different care requirements. Even different dog breeds have different needs.
Before you decide to get a pet ask yourself the following questions.
- Do I have time to care for an animal? For example, if you work or travel a lot, it probably is not a good idea to have a dog or bird or other animal that requires a lot of attention. Some animals need more attention and affection than others. It is not fair to the animal to be deprived of that because you are unable to give the necessary attention it needs. In some cases, lack of attention can even lead to behavioral problems, which let’s be honest, you probably won’t have time to deal with that either. If you lead a busy lifestyle, there are plenty of lower maintenance pets out there that you can still form a bond with, but are also still happy to have their alone time while you are out and about.
- Am I financially stable enough to pay for food, veterinary care (both preventative and emergency), toys (or other types of enrichment), and any other regular maintenance items the animal will require? PETS COST MONEY! Period. Food can be expensive. Veterinary care, especially anything unexpected, can be very pricey as well. If you are not independently wealthy and instead live on a budget then you need to decide how you are willing to spend your money. Is the animal’s care more of a priority than going out to dinner or buying a new pair of shoes? Can you afford decent pet food that will provide proper nutrition and still be able to pay your bills? Do you have and are you willing to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars if your pet requires surgery or sustains a severe injury? You should be willing and able to provide any reasonable amount of care that your pet may need.
- Do I have enough space for the animal?
A great dane or a full grown sulcata tortoise will obviously need much more space than a bearded dragon or a cat. Make sure everyone can have a comfortable living space.
- Will the animal grow significantly? This is mostly relevant to reptiles. A newborn sulcata might weigh all of about 15-20 grams. A red tailed boa might be a few inches long as a hatchling. And then they grow up…
- Are there any specific habitat requirements that the animal will need such as temperature, sunlight or UV exposure, humidity, access to water for soaking or bathing, hiding areas, specific substrates, a water filtration system, etc? Herps are the perfect example for this question. Bearded dragons, crested geckos, and chameleons are all lizards and all have completely different habitat requirements. My electric bill is outrageous. I keep the house cooler for my frogs (especially the tinc), but to compensate for that, I have high wattage heat lamps on the tortoises and bearded dragons so that they are comfortable too. My torts, turtles, and beardies all also require UV light. Since I can’t have them outside all of the time, they also have UV lamps on top of their enclosures. All of these lights are on timers since my work schedule varies. At one point, I had to stop taking rescues because I had no more available electrical outlets in my home and if I had plugged in one more power strip, my circuit breaker probably would have exploded. I even had frogs in my kitchen because space was so tight (BTW, I ate out a lot during that time)
- What type of energy level does the animal have and will I be able to give the animal enough exercise or room to run/move? A monitor lizard needs to move around much more than a pac man frog. A border collie generally has more energy and needs to run/exercise more than an English bulldog.
A puppy or kitten is more energetic (and mischievous) than its adult counterpart. Also if the animal needs to come out of its enclosure for exercise, do you have time to spare for supervised play time or a space for the animal to exercise unsupervised?
- Who will be providing the day to day care and maintenance for the animal? When I worked in the pet store, customers would constantly ask questions like “What would be the best type of pet for my five year old?” If you are buying a pet for your child, please do not be one of those idiot parents who think that they will never have to deal with the animal and that it will be a great way to teach your child about responsibility. Your kid is a kid no matter how responsible your little angel is and at some point you will end up having to feed, clean, and exercise the animal. If you are not willing to help your child with animal care and set a good example then don’t get a pet.
- What is the life expectancy of the animal? A hamster lives about 2 years. A cat lives 15-20 years. A large parrot about 60-80 years. And then there are giant tortoises… If you’re a commitment-phobe, get the hamster.
- Is anyone in the household allergic to the type of animal you want to get? I can not even count how many times people have told me that they have to get rid of their pets because they are allergic to them. Not to be Captain Obvious here, but that’s something you should find out BEFORE bringing an animal into your home. If you’re not sure or have never had exposure to a certain type of animal, go to a shelter, a pet store, or friend’s house and spend more than five minutes around the type of animal you’re thinking of bringing home. The animal has no control over someone’s allergies and should not have to be bounced from home to home because you did not exercise a little common sense.
All of these questions should be asked and answered before bringing home any type of animal, even a cat or dog. Once you’ve answered these questions and have determined that you can provide proper care, then please obtain your pet responsibly. I am a huge proponent of adopting rescue animals. Most of those animals are in need of homes because their previous humans didn’t do any research or planning and ultimately decided that they couldn’t care for the pet for one reason or another. Other times, animals end up in need of homes because circumstances change (i.e. their humans passing away or becoming too ill to care for them).
There are plenty of rescues out there. You just need to look for them. And usually you don’t have to look too hard. Almost every major urban area in the U.S. has a local herp society. Even if the herp society doesn’t have any animals for adoption, they can often point you in the direction of someone who does. Some shelters take in exotic animals too. Here in Florida, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission holds exotic pet amnesty day events throughout the state. People who have exotic pets that do not want them anymore can drop their animals off at a specified location with no questions asked. The animals are then examined by veterinarians. Once they are given a clean bill of health, the animals can be adopted. You have to fill out an application and be pre-approved to adopt from these events, but it is a great way to give a forever home to an exotic animal in need. If you are looking to adopt cats and dogs, there are thousands of rescues throughout the country, many even being breed specific.
If you decide to buy from a breeder, buy from a responsible breeder. A responsible breeder should be able to tell you who the animal’s parents are, exactly how old the animal is (birthdate, hatch date), specific care requirements, and any known genetic health issues in the animal’s lineage. Reputation is also very important when choosing a breeder. The herp community is especially good about giving feedback on the reputations of breeders. There are many outlets to find reputable breeders for the type of animal you are looking for. Check out a species specific blog or go to your local reptile show and ask around. Also be sure to buy captive bred animals. There are very rare cases for experienced herpers to have wild caught animals, but for the average hobbyist, you should not be contributing to the depletion of wild population numbers for any reason, especially the pet trade. Again, buy responsibly!
And finally, ‘tis the season for gift giving and pets make popular gifts. Giving a pet as a gift may seem like a grand gesture, and may initially be well-received. However, if all of the above information is not taken into consideration prior to giving a pet to someone, the animal and the new pet owner may end up in a very unhappy situation. Though impulse buying plagues the pet trade throughout the year, it is much more prevalent during the holidays. We want to see someone’s eyes light up at the sight of a new pet, but that initial reaction may not last forever. Reality sets in after a while when there’s poop to clean and maintenance costs begin to add up. Please make sure you buy the right gift for your loved one and make sure that gift will always been seen as a gift and not a burden.
I realize that I am being rather blunt here and perhaps even a bit harsh, but there is a reason why shelters and rescue groups all over the country are at maximum capacity. We need to understand that these animals are relying on us for survival and that they are not novelties or conversation pieces that we can easily dispose of when we tire of them. They are living, breathing, emotional creatures who deserve respect and the best care we can possibly give them. Please remember that before choosing to take on such an important responsibility.
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