Thirty years ago, my mother opened the door to my father standing there, holding a bag of dog food in one hand and an old piece of rope in the other. At the end of the rope was a scrawny, year-old Irish setter with a giant wart on her head.
My mother immediately let go of the knob and the door slammed shut. She did not want a dog. But my brother and I caught a glimpse and we were thrilled. "IS THAT A DOG?! ARE WE GETTING A DOG?!"
Eventually, reluctantly, my mom let both the dog and my father into the house, and so began our long relationship with Molly. She was the worst dog. Don't get me wrong, we loved her, but she was untrainable. She once escaped from our house and returned several hours later dragging the better part of a deer carcass behind her. She often ran away, and given that we literally fed her ice cream cones and Twinkies, we never understood why until one day my father saw her on the porch of a house several streets away eating a steak grilled expressly for her by a man who explained that he thought of Molly as his dog, too. We couldn't compete with steak, and settled for joint custody.
Having a family pet can provide fun memories and opportunities for kids to learn how to care for another living creature. It can also be frustrating, gross, expensive and, at times, incredibly difficult.
So what kind of pet is right for your family?
Best Friends Animal Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing no-kill sanctuary and forever homes to animals of all kinds, recommends asking yourself some basic questions: What is your living situation? Do you have any outdoor space? How much time do you have to spend with a pet? How much can you afford for expenses like food, vet visits, boarding?
Once you've established these parameters, the American Veterinary Medical Association recommends you consider what you're looking for in a pet. Do you want a lap-warmer, like a small dog or a cat? Or maybe you want a pet that's easier to leave alone and won't impact your family's schedule as much, like a fish.
It's important to remember that what realistically works for you might not be what your kids are hoping (read: begging) to get. Despite your little negotiator's promises, you will be the pet's primary caregiver. Full stop. It's not fair to you, the kids, or the pet to bring home a high-needs, steak-eating, carcass-dragging Irish setter when all you truly have the time and resources for is a gecko.
For more on this topic, see "Rescue Mission."