Girl patting kittens

Choosing the Right Pet for Your Family

Growing up with a pet can be a wonderful experience – pets provide children with company and unconditional love as well as teaching them responsibility and how to care for another living being.

These days pets are considered valued members of the family but remember that a dog or cat may share your life for 15-20 years, so choosing the right one is very important.

It is hard to be definitive about breed selection because all dogs and cats are individuals and although breeds have common behaviour characteristics, their temperaments can vary enormously. Just as important as selecting the breed is the individual temperament of the animal and the way it is socialised and managed by you. To complicate things further, many of the cats and dogs in Australia and New Zealand fall into the categories of “moggie” or “mutt”- crossbreds whose breed is often difficult to define but which can make great pets.

The main things to think about before choosing a dog or cat for your family are:

  • the type of lifestyle you lead
  • the age of your children
  • the type of accommodation you live in
  • the amount of time you spend at home
  • the amount of exercise
  • how much time and money you’re prepared to spend on your pet.

All of these things will influence the way you interact with your pet on a daily basis and determine whether you meet each other’s needs.

Dogs

Many breeds of dog have been developed for a specific purpose and this can have a large impact on the way they behave around people.

Working Breeds

Working breeds such as Australian Cattle Dogs, Kelpies and Border Collies, like my own dog Toby, have been bred to herd and chase and even nip, they are very energetic and have a strong instinct to herd. These breeds of dog frequently become bored in a suburban backyard and can become over excited around children. They are more suited to the active family with teenage children who include their dog in their outdoor activities.

Guarding Breeds

Guarding breeds such as German Shepherd Dogs, Maremmas, Rottweilers, Dobermans and Akitas can be very protective and although loyal and safe with their own family members, can sometimes resent outsiders coming into their territory. This could potentially cause problems with visiting friends. On saying this, I have seen individuals of all these breeds that are truly wonderful with children.

Small Breeds

Some people mistakenly believe that they are better off to buy a small dog. This is not always the case as many small dogs are intimidated by children’s behaviour and may not be comfortable being chased by a toddler. This can result in snapping – many reported dog bites in Australia are from small dogs. Also, most small terriers like Jack Russell’s and Fox Terriers are very energetic and love to chase and catch things. This can be problematic when kids are involved.

Large Breeds

It is essential that any large dog has a good level of basic obedience, otherwise his/her sheer size will be a problem as it is easy to knock a small child over.

As a general rule your family should try to buy a dog with a low activity level and because most families with young children are time poor, choose a dog that won’t require a lot of grooming.

  • Try to meet both parents of your potential pup- temperament is partly inherited so if either parent is shy or aggressive, then avoid. If both parents are delightful with kids, you are heading the right way.
  • It is essential that your pup/dog is well socialised with humans and other animals.
  • Every dog should receive some basic obedience training and know how to sit, stay, drop and come when you call it.
  • Firm ground rules must be laid down for your dog but children must also learn to follow rules such as not patting your dog when it is sleeping or eating.
  • Children need to understand that a dog is not a toy and must be treated appropriately.

Although the individual personality of each dog differs widely depending on its genetics as well as upbringing, the following breeds generally have a good temperament around children:

  • Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
  • Cocker Spaniel
  • Golden Retriever
  • Great Dane- but sheer size means they are better for older children
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Maltese/ ShihTzu cross – while not officially a ‘breed’ these crosses are usually great with kids
  • Pug
  • Whippet

Cats

Cats are slightly easier to choose, the vast majority of cats in Australia and New Zealand are moggies and most moggies and pure breeds of cat will adjust well to family life. Some breeds of cats such as Abyssinians and Burmese are usually playful and energetic and adapt well to a life with active children. Others such as Siamese can be very vocal and demanding of attention, so not necessarily the best choice. Be sure to do some research if you want a purebred and ask the breeders opinion about whether the breed is kid friendly.

Cats are a lot more independent than dogs and some cats just do not want to socialise with kids – it is best to just give them the space that they want and not try to force your children upon them.

  • Try to choose a kitten which seems interested in people and is happy to be held
  • Avoid kittens or cats that are very shy or growl and hiss when you approach
  • If you have young children, consider adopting a kitten older than four months. Young kittens are very tiny and could easily get hurt
  • Adopting a mature cat is a great option for a family. Ideally adopt a cat where you have a good idea of its history and know that it has previously lived in a family environment. Failing this, spend as much time as possible with the cat prior to the adoption and see how well it interacts with your children.

Where to Get Your New Pet

If you’re having trouble choosing between breeds it can be useful to attend a dog or cat show. You’ll be able to see how the various breeds appear and behave all in one spot, and you can talk to the breeders about the suitability of their breed for your family.

You could also visit the website www.petnet.com.au and use a free service called Selectapet which provides information to help you select the right breed of dog or cat to suit your lifestyle. Remember to always buy purebred animals from registered breeders.

When it comes to crossbreds, many wonderful dogs and cats in need of a home can be found in welfare shelters such as the RSPCA, Animal Welfare League, Cat Protection Society and the Lost Dogs’ Home all have pets available and many of these facilities will help you to choose an appropriate pet for your family.

If you are considering adopting a pet visit www.dogmatch.com.au or www.cat-match.com.au – a free online service bringing you dogs and cats from all over Australia that need new homes. They have animals from welfare agencies, pounds, the public, vet clinics, breeders and pet shops all waiting for someone to love them.

Please make sure you take plenty of time to find the right pet for your family. Manage them responsibly and lovingly and your family will be rewarded with unconditional love, loyalty and companionship.

For more information see Kids and animals or Parenting.

This article was written by Dr Katrina Warren