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Puppies and kittens are babies. All babies are cute, cuddly, and fun to watch playing and sleeping. It’s wonderful to see a baby grow, explore, and learn. But we cannot predict what kind of personality that baby will have as an adult.

It is impossible to look at the rows of human babies in a hospital nursery and know who will be athletic or academic, who will be artistically or mechanically gifted, who will be talkative or quiet, who will be high- or low-energy, and who will be sociable or will prefer to be alone.

Many physical traits of certain types or breeds of dogs and cats can be fairly predictable – some good (size, coat, hair types, etc.) and some bad (through over-breeding, certain types may be prone to specific health problems). Some do have very general personality traits (retrievers like to have things in their mouths; terriers like to dig; Siamese-type cats tend to be talkative and rather possessive; etc.) which can be predicted to a limited degree. However, it is hazardous to make too many assumptions about any infant’s individual personality based solely on what traits its group is expected to have.

Each baby – human, canine, or feline – will develop into an individual with a unique personality and special characteristics all its own. That personality will be based on some inherited and some learned traits, but the combination will be what makes that individual special.

When we choose our friends, we look for certain characteristics which fit into our lives, traits we share, and attitudes which help us mesh. Physical characteristics may play a part in those choices, but the real “click” comes from those combined traits which make each individual unique. The same is true when we choose animal friends to share our lives for 10 to 20 years.

How do I decide what pet age would be right for me?

Many people assume that young puppies or kittens are the only “right” age for a new pet to be introduced into the family. In fact, there are many situations in which an older pet would be much more suitable.

There are important differences between the needs and abilities of puppies and kittens and those of dogs and cats. Puppies and kittens learn many of their most important skills – how to be a dog or a cat – from their mothers and litter mates until they are ten to twelve weeks old. Baby animals taken from their families before that age need specialized lessons and care. Just because they can eat grown-up food doesn’t mean they’ve grown up!

However, those first few weeks aren’t the only time for learning. The first six months of life are vital to these babies, and all puppies and kittens require a great deal of time, care, and energy. Many households are not able to provide properly for this busy period of high-rate learning and growing. Baby animals who are not properly taught and cared for during this time will find it difficult to develop the proper social skills, and poor social skills can lead to aggression later.

Depending on the type of cat or dog, most pets can be considered “teenagers” or young adults at six months to 16 months old. These puppies and kittens are still growing and developing (through adolescence) but are beginning to show the direction which their individual personalities will probably take. They are still high-energy “kids” and will test your patience at every turn.

If you seek a pet with certain personality traits, it is much more likely that you will find the right companion to fit your lifestyle if the candidate is at least six months old. If you don’t have the patience or energy for a teenager, you should consider an adult dog or cat – at least a year to eighteen months old. They learn quickly, have more coordination and control over their physical functions, and have more predictable natures.

But first you must decide if you have the time, energy, space, and money to give to any pet – a huge decision and commitment. Then you need to determine whether a baby animal or a more mature pet is appropriate for your lifestyle.

What do you really expect from this new member of the family? Ask yourself some important questions to help you weigh the “pros” and “cons” of dogs and cats vs. puppies and kittens for your lifestyle.

How much time at home should I spend on average with my pets?

Puppies and kittens need more physical and emotional involvement with their people than you can give if you are away from home more than six hours a day (see SmartHeartsm pamphlet on puppy training).

Most adult pets can easily adjust to your schedule. However, they also need time to learn what is expected of them. Some dogs never grow accustomed to being left alone. If you are away from home more than eight hours most days, you should re-consider whether your household is appropriate for a dog’s life (see SmartHeartsm pamphlet on dog care).

Please ask for other pamphlets in the SmartHeart series for information on training cats, kittens, dogs, and puppies.

What if I have children in the household?

While many families think that they want “a pet for the children,” it actually takes a very special combination of parent/child/pet to have a successful relationship if the child is younger than six and the pet is younger than four months. Puppies and kittens play “hard and rough.” Without careful supervision and training, one or both of these babies will have a nasty experience which could have serious consequences.

An adult pet is usually past the stage of becoming overly excited; you can better gauge how hardy and tolerant the animal will be toward childish enthusiasm. While a family pet offers children a wonderful opportunity to learn about responsibility and caring, regular pet-care duties must be carefully supervised by an adult. No pet can be totally “for the children.”

Also consider what will happen as your child’s life and interests change over the next ten or fifteen years. The ultimate responsibility for the animal’s care and safety is that of the adults in the household.

Although an adult animal will generally be more tolerant than a pup or kitten of a child’s alarming movements and sounds, part of your responsibility to your pet and to your child is to monitor their interaction. The relationship between your pet and your child will be strengthened by your respect for the animal’s needs and feelings.

Your pet is not a toy or privilege to be used to bargain between parent and child. Teach by example that your pet is an important family member, not a toy to be neglected and tossed away when no longer new. What better way to teach your child responsibility?

Will this pet be a companion to another pet?

It’s best to introduce a younger animal to an adult resident pet in your household… but not too young. Your resident cat or dog may respond to a very young kitten or puppy as prey to be hunted. In addition, the older pet may not like the constant bother and play. Very young pets lack the social graces to read your older pet’s irritation and the reflexes to escape if the situation becomes tense. Four to fourteen months is a good age range to introduce a pup or kitten to your adult pet.

Most pets do like to have at least one “buddy.” A wonderful possibility for a household looking for a pair of pets is a “ready-made” family. Could you offer a home to a pair of adult pets, already accustomed to and attached to each other? Many families of this type (especially cats) are surrendered to shelters each year when their human families are no longer able to care for them. The benefits of keeping the family together would be innumerable… to the pets and to the household that adopted them.

Do you want a pet who will participate in outdoor activities?

If you want a dog to take hiking and camping, to play ball and swim in the lake, or to train as a famous catcher of flying discs you should consider a teenaged pup or young adult dog. For major outdoor activities the dog should have a certain amount of size and natural hardiness, and not all dogs (not even all retrievers) are naturally inclined toward catching things. This is an excellent example of finding the right combination of traits to fit your particular criteria.

In addition, dogs who are involved in these sorts of activities must have excellent manners. You must be willing and able to build a strong relationship with your pet and to work on constant, thorough obedience training.

Many pets, like many people, are bad travelers. Some reasons for chronic car-sickness can be remedied, but if you specifically want a pet to travel with you to local activities or on short vacations, don’t expect miracles of a young animal. There is no way to tell which pet has the stomach for it.

Do you want a “lap-pet” who will be physically affectionate and cuddly?

Most puppies and kittens will accept some physical affection, but they don’t all grow up to be pets who like to be cuddled. This is another good example of a specific personality trait which, if it is important to you, will be easier to find in an adult animal.

Do you have a preference for a certain physical appearance, coloring or coat?

If you like big cats, shiny dogs, or fluffy coats, you can do some “educated guessing” with a pup or kitten. But you’ll still be guessing!

By the time the pet is about six months old, these physical traits will be clear. And you will be much better able to judge what kind of personality traits go along with the package.

How large is “too large” of a pet for my home?

If you rent your home – Have you checked the pet policies in your lease – especially regarding size?

Puppies and kittens grow up. Thousands of puppies and kittens lose their homes each year because someone didn’t think a year ahead to what the pet’s adult size might be. If you have a specific size in mind for your ideal pet, don’t guess with a baby.

By the time cats and most dogs are six or seven months old, you can get a good idea of the size the animal will be when fully grown.

Many large dogs are surrendered to shelters because they were cute, fluffy puppies one week and big, clumsy teenagers the next… with the enthusiasm to match. It takes time to teach any dog (more time with puppies) basic manners – not to pull on leash, not to jump on people, not to play too roughly.

You can benefit from someone else’s poor planning if you adopt that adult or teenaged dog, but only if you’re willing to do what they did not… teach the dog what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. This training may take weeks or months, but it can begin very simply with a dog over six months old who is ready and able to learn quickly, with good muscular coordination and some knowledge of social skills.

Since adolescents and adults aren’t adopted as often as puppies and kittens, your choice of an adult shelter animal is an unselfish act of kindness, too.

An Important Note About “Bonding” With An Adult:

Every pet has a history, no matter how young or how old. Some backgrounds are mysterious, and some animals come equipped with detailed information about their previous lives. A pet of any age can bond with those people who love and care for it, giving as much in any relationship as it gets in return.

Some pets who have very negative memories of humans may need extra time to adjust and learn to trust. But the majority of adult cats and dogs can develop a bond with a new family as strong as that of pup or kitten raised from extreme youth.

This information is part of the Atlanta Humane Society’s SmartHeart Educational Series.

The AHS depends on friends to provide funding for our services and programs of animal aid, support for individuals with animal related problems, and community animal issues.

The Atlanta Humane Society and Society For Prevention Of Cruelty To Animals, Inc. is a private nonprofit organization for the purpose of preventing cruelty, relieving suffering, and providing humane treatment of animals. The Society’s mission is to eliminate causes of animal suffering with an emphasis on education and the human/animal bond.

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