How to adopt a pet

Oct 12, 2008 at 11:10 p.m. ET

If you are thinking about adopting a pet, there are many wonderful dogs and cats available at your local shelter. Be sure to consider the age, size and disposition of the animal. Try to select a pet that is best for your family unit and that fits your family's living style.

Dog in Cage

Carrie Neff, of the Greater Miami Humane Society, offers the following advice:

How can parents decide what kind of dog to adopt?

Parents often assume that a puppy is the best choice for their children, so he can "grow up" with the children. In reality, this idea makes little sense. A puppy can physically go from being 2 pounds to 70 pounds and mentally from a baby to a "teenager" in only one year. Physically and mentally, puppies grow much faster than children. The puppy stage of a dog's life is perhaps the most time-intensive for the owner.

Puppies must be properly socialized in order to learn important skills such as bite inhibition, acceptance of handling, and confidence in people. A family with young children may already be on a tight schedule and may not be able to set aside sufficient time each day to see to the puppy's extensive needs.

Are smaller dogs better for children?

While no dog or puppy should be expected to tolerate the tail pulling, eye poking, and other inappropriate behaviors common to unsupervised young children, smaller, more fragile dogs are more likely to bite in an attempt to protect themselves from the unintentional rough handling of an inexperienced child. Parents should always supervise the interactions between children and dogs to prevent this type of situation from occurring. The ideal solution is to adopt an adult dog that has already successfully lived with children.

Is there a particular breed of dog that is best for families with children?

Rather than look for a particular breed or type of dog, it is a good idea to focus the personality, temperament, and age of the individual dog. Choose one that is older than one and a half year old (dogs are usually considered mentally mature around this time). Look for a dog that has lived with a family that had children around the same ages as yours. Many of these dogs are also obedience trained and housetrained. This really sets everyone involved up for success.

Should children be expected to care for a dog?

If you choose to bring a dog into your family, remember that he will ultimately be the responsibility of the adult members of the household. No matter how much the children promise to care for the pet, it is unreasonable to expect a child to take full responsibility for a pet. Children can help out and learn about pet care, but the adults must be prepared to meet the physical and emotional needs of the dog each day.

What responsibilities are involved in owning a dog?

Dogs and puppies are lots of fun, but they also require lots of time and attention! It is important to realize that dogs can live to be 15 or more years old, and they will need to be fed, walked, groomed, trained, supervised and cared for every day of their lives. Look at your family's present situation -- do you have the time and money to devote to caring for a dog? A busy family with two working parents would probably not have the time necessary to properly train a puppy.

Likewise, a family that is having a hard time financially may find it difficult to provide a puppy the vaccinations and veterinary care that puppies require, which can cost several hundred dollars. Do you foresee any major changes in your lifestyle over the next year or so, such as a move, a new baby or a divorce? Often, it is best to wait until you are certain that your home will be relatively stable before bringing home a new dog.

"I have adopted six dogs over the past 10 years from a shelter," says Odette Struys, of Jacksonville, Florida, a veteran pet owner. "I feel the most important consideration when adopting an animal, is the absolute certainty that you want to take on that responsibility, and that you have set aside dedicated time in your day for that commitment. A pet is not a temporary emotional fix, but rather a permanent dependent just like children. It's important to understand that each of these dogs come with a history. Some need extra attention, some need much quiet time and careful voice tones, some need more exercise, and some just need a home to call their own."

Dogs and cats end up at shelters for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the owner experiences financial setbacks and cannot afford to care for an animal, or the family relocates a new setting and pets are not allowed. Most often, however, pets end up at animal shelters because owners did not expect, and were not prepared for all the additional responsibilities.

If you are considering a pet, please check out your local animal shelter, but be sure you understand the obligations of pet ownership. Adopting a dog or cat requires more than simply agreeing to take an animal home and feed it. Careful planning and thought is necessary to successful pet ownership.