Getting a pet can seem like a basic life milestone: graduate, get a job, rent your own place, and then adopt an adorable dog who can't wait to see you at the end of the day. Maybe it's because most of us grow up with animals in the house— 68 percent of American households have at least one pet. Maybe it's just because they look so dang cute on Instagram. But while most of us fantasize about having a pet who loves us unconditionally, the reality of getting a pet can also be intense, financially draining, and far different from what we anticipate.
"Before getting a cat, I assumed that adopting a pet meant that you'd then get your sh*t together, and make a place for the cat in your life and daily responsibilities," Lisa, 33, tells Bustle. "That's not the case. For it to work out, you already have to have your life in order before getting a pet."
There's no way to anticipate every twist life with a pet can take. But there are some questions you can ask yourself to make sure you're as close to ready as possible.
"You're taking on a life. [A pet] is part of the family, and you're responsible for it," Kristi Littrell, adoption manager of Best Friends Animal Society, tells Bustle. Littrell stresses that there are no surface characteristics that all responsible or irresponsible pet owners share: Rather, the qualities that make a good pet parent are commitment and responsibility.
Most people adopt animals with every intention of providing good, loving homes for them. But good intentions only go so far; when it comes to pets, understanding the facts is just as important. Here are seven questions to ask yourself before adopting a pet.
Do You Have Enough Time?
No matter what kind of animal you adopt, caring for a pet will change how you spend your time. Dogs, of course, are notoriously time-intensive — experts recommend a half hour to two hours of active exercise for dogs each day — but cats, rabbits, and other animals still require time set aside each day for feeding, play, and general care.
Carlee Linden, who manages pet stores and pet insurance information for BestCompany, tells Bustle that prospective pet parents need to be realistic about how much time they actually have to spend with their pets. “If you find yourself coming home from work and having a few extra hours to yourself, then adopting a pet might be for you,” says Linden. “But if your work has you consistently working late or flying out for weeks at a time, adopting probably isn’t right for you; while pets can be flexible with our schedules, having an inconsistent or a 'barely there’ approach to raising a pet is asking for trouble.”
Aimee Gilbreath, executive director of the nonprofit Michelson Found Animals Foundation, urges potential adopters to be honest with themselves about whether they’ll resent the intrusion on their free time. "If you love spur-of-the-moment trips and the flexibility to work late, go out for happy hour and sleep in on weekends, and aren’t ready to adjust yet, it’s probably not time to adopt a pet,” says Gilbreath.
Do You Have Enough Money?
Money isn’t necessarily a barrier to responsible pet ownership, but pets can have financial needs far beyond kibble — according to Petfinder, the average first-year costs of having a dog can run from $395 to $2,455, and that doesn't even take into account the cost of pet insurance, emergency veterinary care for an unexpected illness, training, boarding if you travel, or dog-walking if you work late hours. Meanwhile, your first year with your cat may cost between $405 to 2,285.
"All too often, we get owners surrenders because the people couldn’t afford the care of their pet," Kelly Reeves, co-founder and president of California’s Paw Prints in the Sand Animal Rescue, tells Bustle. According to the ASPCA, financial and housing issues are the number one reason lower income owners relinquish their pets.
Littrell suggests that potential pet parents seriously look at their finances before adopting. Examine whether you'd be able to handle emergencies like sudden illness, in addition to regular expenses like food. You might also want to consider getting pet insurance, which, like human health insurance, can help defray the cost of medical services.
Do You Know Where You'll Be Living Next Year?
You can move frequently or not have a fixed address and still take wonderful care of your pets. But it is worth remembering that housing issues — like moving to an apartment that doesn't allow pets or only permits pets of a certain size, or being unable to afford the pet deposit on a rental — are the third most common reason pets are given to a shelter, and the most common reason among renters.
Littrell suggests taking a realistic look at your current housing situation, examining when you are “going to be moving a lot in the next few years,” and talking with your landlord about your building's pet policy. “Say to your landlord, ‘Hey, I'm adopting this puppy. Is there any sort of weight restrictions where I'm living?’" Littrell suggests. "That way, when the puppy gets to be 50-60 pounds, the landlord doesn't come back and go ‘Oh, I'm sorry. You can't have a dog over 25 pounds.’"
Of course, we can't plan for sudden and unexpected moves, like being evicted or having to relocate. But it's useful for pet owners to be aware of the emergency resources available, like Red Rover, a nonprofit that offers financial and other assistance to people with pets who are financially struggling or fleeing domestic violence.
Is Your Relationship Ready For A Pet?
If you're in a long-term relationship, you've probably had a variety of annoying and extremely inappropriate people suggest you two get a pet as "practice" for having a kid. Leaving the creepy things about that suggestion aside, the reality is that caring for a pet together can change your romantic relationship (though probably not as much as tag-teaming duty for an actual, human child would).
If you’re adopting a pet with a partner, you need to make sure that you’re not only ready to handle all the work your new fuzzball requires, but ready to work together. If you and your significant other “don’t work as a team now and [don't] have really good communication,” says Gilbreath, “it’s not going to get easier once you have a pet that’s totally dependent on you. If you resent being the one to always to do the grocery shopping or pick up dirty socks, talk about how you’ll share the responsibility of daily walks, grooming, etc. before you welcome a furry friend.”
You might also want to consider what will happen to the pet if you break up. Gilbreath says that "new homes and new schedules can cause distress in pets and can even result in illness, trauma and behavioral issues;" she thinks that "co-parenting — where the pet still has the love of both parents in their life — is the most beneficial course of action in most cases."
Are You Allergic to Pets?
This one might seem obvious, but the ASPCA reports that pet allergies are one of the top three reasons both cats and dogs are relinquished to shelters. Luckily, there's any easy way to avoid this one — make sure that you and everyone in your home has been tested for pet allergies before you adopt.
Are You Really Ready To Take Care of a Pet?
No matter how much you prepare, though, life with an animal rarely follows the script. Alexandra Devitt, 32, had wanted a pet for a while before she adopted her Bombay cat, Bowie, earlier this year. Devitt tells Bustle that "having a cat in my life has brought a whole level of joy I didn’t think I would find again. Just knowing she is there when I am home to greet me, and demand food, has had a huge impact on my well being." But even though she's now settled happily into life with Bowie, she was initially surprised by the demands of being a "cat mom;" while she had thought of cats as less needy and more self-sufficient than dogs, she soon learned that Bowie "wants to be the center of attention and play constantly. She even gets sad when I leave! Navigating her mood swings (and avoiding her claw swipes) has been a challenge."
She and Bowie are now "basically inseparable." But even though Devitt did a lot of research and planning before adopting, the realities of life with her cat presented surprising situations, and she had to figure out how to roll with them.
Experts agree that being responsible enough to deal with the unexpected parts of pet ownership was the most important factor in potential adopters — and, conversely, that lack of responsibility was the one factor that couldn't be negotiated away. “You forget to pay your electric bill,” says Littrell, “your lights go out. That comes back on. But if you can't commit to an animal [and] be responsible enough, that affects the animal as well, for life. It's not just you that's getting affected by it.”
What If You're Not Ready?
Being honest with yourself and realizing that you're not ready to adopt doesn't mean you can't love and support animals in other ways. Littrell recommends that people who aren't completely sure they can meet the demands of long-term pet ownership try fostering an animal, a process where people provide temporary homes to shelter pets: "it's a shorter term commitment and you still get to take care of them."
"But," notes Littrell, "if you will be moving or the place where you're living might change quickly or doesn't allow pets, then you can always go to your local shelters and volunteer. Shelters, as well as places like Best Friends, thrive on the volunteers. That's what keeps them going."
In the end, you're the only one who knows what you can handle. “We know that there are a great many pet lovers who may not seem ready on paper, so we do our due diligence and have thorough and open conversations with anyone who is interested in adopting one of our pets,” says Kelly Reeves. “We wouldn’t want to deny someone who would give a pet a great home just because things may not seem perfect.” So be honest with yourself. And know that there's nothing shameful about admitting that you're not yet in a place where you can care for an animal; sometimes, the kindest thing you can do for a pet is admit that you're not ready for it.