Behavior Management: Pet Selection Guidelines

By Ellen Lindell, VMD, DACVB; Monique Feyrecilde, BA, LVT, VTS (Behavior); Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB & Gary Landsberg, DVM, DACVB, DECAWBM

Adopting a pet is a big commitment: your dog or cat will be part of your family for many years. Some pre-adoption planning is involved. All members of the household should understand their pet-care responsibilities. The home environment may require some modifications to ensure your new pet will be physically safe and behaviorally successful.

You need to make some decisions: Do you want a dog or cat? Do you have a breed or breed type in mind? Are you prepared for a youngster, or would you prefer a more mature pet, or even a senior? The decision-making process can be daunting. You will need to do some research; your friends may offer their own opinions.

Consulting with a professional who is familiar with the personalities of different breeds and has had experience matching pets and people is a great option. Your veterinarian can also be a good resource. Veterinarians are familiar with the degree of care required for different species and have usually worked with many different breeds of dogs and cats. Professionals can help you select a pet that is most likely to fulfill your expectations and become a cherished family member.

How Do I Choose an Appropriate Pet?

Keeping a pet healthy and happy requires an investment of time as well as finances. Expenses associated with health care, behavioral care, and training can vary depending on your choices (species, breed, age). The size of a pet can even affect the cost incurred: large pets typically require more food and larger dosages of medication than smaller pets would. Pets with higher energy require more exercise than sedentary pets, and young pets require more training than mature ones.

When choosing a pet, consider the amount of time and financial resources available to you and your pet. The family should prepare for the following:

Exercise: All pets require physical exercise, social interaction, and attention. Individual requirements differ from pet to pet. Some breeds of dogs, particularly those bred to work long days, tend to be more active than other breeds. If your pet will not have access to a fenced yard, or if you prefer to not devote regular time for walks and outdoor play, consider a less active dog or a cat that may be content to play indoors.

Training, social interactions and attention: All dogs and cats require some training. Certain breeds of dogs, particularly dogs bred to work, and many active and social cats, benefit from additional training and social enrichment to satisfy their behavioral needs.

Grooming: Consider the time and financial requirements needed for coat care. Long-haired breeds of dogs and cats require brushing or combing every day. Many also need professional grooming every 4-8 weeks.

Veterinary care: Your veterinarian can advise you of the degree of care associated with a specific breed of dog or cat. Some breeds are prone to allergies or skin disorders that may require special medication or frequent baths. Pets with flatter faces and smaller snouts (brachycephalic), such as the pug, French bulldog, and Himalayan cat, as well as pets with shorter limbs (achondroplastic), such as the corgi, dachshund, and Munchkin cat, may require additional veterinary care and adjustments to their exercise routines.

Housing and enclosures: Fenced areas provide opportunities for enrichment. When choosing a pet, consider the potential costs you might incur to enclose an outdoor space such as a yard or patio.

Consider whether your new pet will fit your family’s lifestyle and routine. For example:

  • If you live in an urban area, your dog will need to be social and comfortable near unfamiliar people and dogs.
  • If there are children in the home, your pet must be calm and not easily excited.
  • If you entertain frequently, your dog or cat will need to be calm and social with guests.
  • If you would like a running partner, choose an athletic dog with good conformation (a body structure that isn't predisposed to injury).
  • If you seek a companion that is relatively sedentary, choose a pet that can settle easily.
  • If you live with small pets or livestock, avoid breeds selectively bred to hunt and kill other animals.
  • If you plan to travel with your pet, consider one small enough to be portable, and that can easily fit into your vehicle or under an airline seat.

Animals bred for special functions will reflect those purposes in their behavioral tendencies. For example, herding breeds of dogs may chase or bark at things that move, including vehicles and runners, and may therefore require additional training. Hunting breeds such as beagles typically follow their noses when outside and may not be suitable companions for off-leash hiking. Sighthounds such as greyhounds instinctively chase prey and may not be safe around small animals. Working breeds selected for guarding property may exhibit territorial behavior and require training to accept visitors to the home.

Socialization, training, and behavior modification do a great deal to shape behavior, but genetic programming for certain traits is what makes breeds who they are.

Should I adopt a purebred dog or cat?

An advantage of adopting a purebred dog or cat is that you can select a breed whose innate behavioral tendencies are harmonious with your family’s needs. When you adopt from a breeder, you can often meet the parents and possibly even the close relatives of a puppy or kitten. This can be helpful in predicting your pet’s future personality. Each pet is an individual, and their early experiences will further shape their personalities, perceptions, and abilities. Many breeders know the importance of socialization and provide an enriched physical and social environment for their puppies and kittens.

Puppies and kittens should not be ordered online or purchased from a pet store. Supporting online, sight-unseen pet ordering and pet stores creates demand for unethically sourced pets, such as puppy mills, and should be avoided.

"There are many wonderful puppies, kittens, dogs, and cats
of assorted parentage that are in need of a home."

There are many wonderful puppies, kittens, dogs, and cats of assorted parentage that are in need of a home. When you adopt from a shelter or a rescue group, you may not know the genetic make-up or breed. There may be physical traits that suggest an underlying breed. With an adult dog or cat, there may be some behavioral traits that point to a breed tendency. Additionally, genetic testing is available and may give you an idea of future behavior.

Choosing an individual pet: dogs and cats

Regardless of how the dog or cat looks on the outside (their phenotype) or DNA (their genes), it is very important to pay attention to the behaviors they exhibit when you seek to meet your match. Some behavioral tendencies and personality traits persist even after adoption.

For example, a dog or cat that is shy, timid, or slow to approach will most likely need extra patience and training to thrive. They may always need a quiet environment to be comfortable. Similarly, an overly enthusiastic, easily excitable pet may not settle well and may require advanced training skills. Pets that are fearful or overly excitable are typically not well suited for households with young children.

Before you make a final selection, be sure to handle the potential adoptee and note their response to being gently petted or lifted into your lap. Be cautious if the dog or cat becomes rigid, struggles, or displays aggression (snarls, growls, snaps, swats) during handling. These behaviors often reflect underlying fear or inadequate socialization. Special training and handling techniques may be required to ensure these pets remain comfortable.

Are there advantages to adopting an adult pet?

One major advantage of adopting an adult pet is that their size, coat type, athletic prowess, and behavioral tendencies will be evident. In contrast, puppies and kittens change both physically and behaviorally as they develop. Their adult personality will be determined by their genetics and their early life experiences. Adopting an adult pet allows you to select a pet that fulfills your needs.

At what age should a new puppy or kitten come home?

Most puppies are ready to go to a new home around 8 weeks of age, and kittens around 7 weeks of age. Puppies 8 weeks old, and kittens 7 weeks old, should be curious, willing to approach and interact, and relatively easy to handle. Puppies or kittens this age who are easily frightened or tricky to handle will need owners with special knowledge and skills to be successful family pets. The primary socialization period for puppies is generally between 6 and 16 weeks, and for kittens is between 3 and 9 weeks.

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