I'll never forget the day my partner and I adopted our first pet. We didn't spend much time thinking about whether we were ready for a pet or not. We just went to the pet store, saw her beautiful, sweet face, and knew she had to be ours. Several breakups, a dog custody battle, some big vet bills, and a few long-distance moves later, she's still a treasured member of the family, but my view of pet ownership and what it takes to make that commitment have totally changed.
In fact, if I knew then what I know now, I don't think I would have adopted her at all. Not because I don't love her. She's pretty much the love of my life. But because I wonder if everything I've put her through has been fair to her. Between moving from my house to my exes and back, suffering my late nights at school and work, and having to adjust to a new home almost every year, her life has been nothing short of chaotic, when at the time, I thought I was calm and settled.
If you're considering getting a pet in a new relationship or even just as a young person, I encourage you to think hard about the big picture, and to take my experiences into account before you jump in. Pet ownership is a big (but incredibly worthwhile) responsibility!
1. You Both Want The Pet
If one of you wants a pet and the other doesn't, you're gonna have a bad time, especially if that pet is a high-maintenance one, like a dog. Having a dog is a full-time, full-household deal. One person can't just be absent from care, especially when it comes to discipline and setting boundaries for acceptable behavior. That has to come from all household members. So the old "fine, but you're taking care of it and I'm not" might sound good at first, but it's not really possible in the long-term. Better if you're both on board.
2. You Have The Time
You have to have time to feed and walk a dog, sure, but dogs also need your presence. Their social creatures. They need you to play with them, exercise them, give them training, and be a part of their lives. If you travel a lot, work long hours, or have a lot on your plate, you have to consider the needs of your dog, and any other pet you adopt, as well. You can't just hop in the car and go wherever, for however long you want. You have to take your pets with you or arrange care. You have to get up when they need fed or cared for, and come home at night for the same reason. Plus, you probably want to have time to create the kind of bond where you and your pet can be emotionally bonded BFFs who totally get each other and pal around in the cutest ways.
3. You Have The Energy
You have to consider if you and your partner have enough energy to handle the needs of your pet. You should pick out a pet with an energy level equal to your own or lower, according to celebrity dog behavioralist Cesar Milan. If you get a high energy dog and you're not a high energy person, all that unused energy can turn into destructive behaviors and discipline problems. Plus, you also need to consider how it will make you feel if you're a very calm person and you adopt a super hyper pet, or vice-versa. If you and your partner have opposite energy levels, you'll have to come to a compromise that requires some getting used to. Maybe that means a sweet pet sloth. Maybe it means a gerbil. Compromise.
4. You Have The Money
Pets are expensive. They require food, toys, vet care, grooming, licenses, cages, gear, and maybe carpet cleaning. Plus, like people, you have to give them quality food or you'll pay more in vet bills. And if you're like me, your dog will have allergies that require super expensive food. Like, his food bill is almost as much as mine. And you'll never know when you'll need cash for an emergency vet visit (like the time my dog chased his tail and caught it... and bit the top inch off) or a replacement pair of chewed up work shoes. Pet adoption website Petfinder estimates that pet ownership can cost anywhere from $500 to upwards of $10,000 a year, depending on the breed and its needs. My dog was completely healthy most of his life, but he is a senior now, and in addition to special food, he needs arthritis care, allergy care, dental care, and expensive medication for his chronic dry eye disorder. Cats have similar needs as they age. And did you know some birds can live longer than people? It's an investment that's totally worth it, in my opinion, but you have to be able to make that investment in order to be a responsible pet owner.
5. You're Not Compensating For Having A Baby
If you're getting a pet as a test run for a baby, you're barking up the wrong tree (see what I did there). Pet ownership isn't a reliable indicator of whether or not you'll be good parents, according to Jessica Reynolds in an article for the Chicago Tribune. It can get you talking about parenting and working together as a team. And it can point out weaknesses in your relationship. But having kids is just a whole other ball game entirely. No guinea pig or turtle can prepare you for it.
6. You Have A Stable Home Situation
Have you ever tried to find an apartment with a dog? What about three? Trust me, it's not easy! It took me almost a year to find an affordable rental that would accept our two tiny dogs, and that was after I accepted the reality that my third dog would have to go live with a previous ex. If you don't know where you'll be living from one year to the next, you'll need to take that into consideration. While I had no idea that life would take me into three different relationships with three different dog owners, it's something I wish I would have thought about in the beginning. Pets aren't something you just get rid of when you move. Our dog is still recovering from the separation anxiety that ensued when his last family got rid of him. And I'm still recovering from the guilt of sending one of my dogs to live with her new family (even though she's happy). You have to be prepared for this kind of stuff, bottom line.
7. You're Stable
Pet custody, should you break up, is an easy thing to sweep under the rug. You can just say "we will never break up!" Hopefully that's true, but in my experience, it isn't always the case. I have seen so many couples (including myself) split ways and then have to work through pet ownership. It's a hard and painful process that involves someone losing a partner and a pet at the same time. Worst case scenario, neither of you feels like you can take the pets with you. Maybe that's not such a big deal if you have fish, but if you have a dog, it can be a heartbreaking, trust shattering experiencing for you pet. Think long-term from day one, even if that means a seemingly ridiculous custody plan.
All that being said, having peta has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. It's given me and my wife a happy little family and provided endless amounts of love and joy. Just make sure you're ready to roll with the punches of a five to 10 to 20 year commitment or more. Pets are not disposable.
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