‘CRITTER CANDIDATES’ FOR FAMILY PET

Every fall, my house becomes campaign central. Speeches are given; promises made. The lobbyists scramble to show their candidate in the best light. But this year, it’s a tough sell. The candidate is a rat. Literally. Because in my house, the campaign season is all about holiday pets.

Like their taller and more seasoned counterparts in the political world, my kids paint a very rosy picture for me: Clean water bowls and spotless cages for all. Generous, allowance-based subsidies for food. Absolutely fair and equitable division of care and feeding. Experience tells me that my kids, like all good politicians, will fulfill some of these promises, compromise on others and shamelessly wiggle out of one or two. But all in all, my children are capable pet caretakers and I’m thinking of voting for the rat.

If you’re thinking about a pet this holiday season, consider the physical and emotional needs of your intended. There are a multitude of choices beyond dogs and cats, some of which can be surprisingly engaging. Every animal responds to your presence. Granted, there are levels to this response. Cats and dogs are more obviously affectionate than a hamster or ferret, and it may take a trained eye to fully appreciate the subtleties of lizard joy. But if you learn to listen with your eyes and speak with your actions, you can have a wonderful relationship with any pet.

Here are some choices:

DOG

Highly intelligent, social and emotionally demanding, dogs are high- maintenance pets that are not ideal for busy or working households. Dogs who are sidelined in a crate or isolated become loud, destructive and fearful or frustrated in their attempt to escape and explore. If you’re truly interested in getting a dog, come check out my website (whendogstalk.com) or buy my book, “Puppies for Dummies,” in which you’ll find advice on choosing and caring for this wonderful but demanding pet.

CAT

Cats can be terrific pets. Somewhat less labor-intensive than dogs, cats still need socialization and stimulation to stay healthy and fit. If you’re away from home a lot, consider two cats, preferable from the same litter or a mother/kitten combo. Kids and cats need to be socialized mindfully: Cats can misinterpret a child’s enthusiasm.

RABBIT, GUINEA PIG OR FERRET

Smaller pets can still pack a big emotional punch. Members of this group will happily alert you to their presence with a repertoire of very endearing sounds, twitches and dance moves. It’s important to socialize, nurture and properly handle these little guys so that they can spend time outside their enclosures. Keep in mind that in the wild (yes, there are wild guinea pigs), these small creatures are prey animals and may suffer stress in the hands of an overexuberant child.

LIZARD AND FISH

While lizards and fish don’t appear to be particularly emotive creatures, each of these species can make an engaging and entertaining pet that will imprint (perhaps “bond” is overstating it) on their caregivers. Tropical fish and lizards need heat-regulated enclosures to survive, as well as consistent food and water. In my house, we have a bearded dragon lizard named Lizard Boy. We socialized him like a dog and LB appears to enjoy our company. We even take him with us on our walks during warm-weather months.

BIRD

In the market for a long-term buddy with excellent conversational skills? Think birds. Though most don’t talk, all birds are social creatures who communicate with what I call feather talk. Busy and bright, birds provide an endless stream of interaction and do best in a household that appreciates and engages them. Like a dog, a lonely bird can become frustrated and destructive. Birds need to be protected from other pets – kitties, I’m talking to you – and small children. If handled with respect and included in family routines, birds make excellent companions.

Whichever pet you chose, think of your new addition as a foreign exchange student. Be patient as you introduce him to your unfamiliar culture. Socialize and acclimate him to people, sounds and activities; stay consistent with routines; and provide as natural a habitat as possible. Your reward will be a pet that depends on you with unconditional abandon.

A final note: If you are choosing a pet for the holiday, consider giving your “package” a few days after. The big day is often full of the kind of noise and distraction that can unnerve a young animal. I recommend a wrapped gift containing a photo, collar, cage or book to hint at the upcoming arrival.

And anyway, anticipation is always the best part, isn’t it?

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