Maureen Pratt

I stood in line at my local pet shop to buy some fish tank supplies. A young girl and her mother were ahead of me, buying bags of purple shavings, probably for the family guinea pig or hamster. Suddenly the girl fixed her eyes on a fawn-colored, short-haired dog. And then she uttered that question that children throughout time have asked.

“Mom, can we get a dog? Please?”

Everyone smiled. St. Francis would have smiled. Not Mom. She took great interest in the door, but the idea of dog ownership, once planted in a young heart, was strong. The daughter stood her ground.

“Please, Mom. I want a dog. Please?”

Ah, I remember. My brother and I pestered our parents for months until, finally, one day, they caved. Our Scottish terrier was a firm member of the family for years. There were many lessons learned from that stubborn, feisty dog: loyalty, persistence, appreciation for the repetitive responsibilities that come along with pet ownership, as well as how tough it can be to say a final goodbye.

Dogs are wonderful, but beyond the emotional pull, there are practical things to consider before jumping into the deep end of the pet pool.

Take cost, for example.

A recent American Veterinary Medical Association survey says that for households with dogs, the mean number of veterinary visits per dog per year is 2.6, with the mean veterinary expenditure per dog coming in at $227. On the other hand, the mean veterinary visits per cat per household per year is 1.6, with a mean veterinary expenditure per animal of $90.

Veterinary services are more complex than they used to be. Sophisticated diagnostics, procedures and medications are more widely used, and vet bills can quickly climb. So, one of the first things to determine is whether the household budget can afford a large pet, one that will probably live many years and need constant maintenance and care throughout its lifespan.

Other familial considerations that need to be carefully weighed before purchasing a pet include whether the children are old enough to assume responsibility for the pet. Does the family schedule allow enough time for pet care, socialization and training? Does the household have the right kind of space to accommodate the pet’s needs? Does anyone in the house have pet-triggered allergies? What arrangements will you make if you will be gone for any length of time?

Animal shelters, breed associations and other pet owners can help answer before you buy a pet.

After I paid for my purchase, I met up with the mom and daughter in the hall leading to the parking garage. The girl’s eyes were now riveted on the corkboard filled with fliers about animals available for adoption.

“Mom! Mom! Look,” said the girl, pointing to a flier with a picture of two adorable bunnies. “They need a home! Mom, can we have rabbits? Please?”

Pet ownership can be one of the highlights of childhood, as long as the childlike wonder is tempered with parental practicality.