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Choosing a Support Pet

Life can be tough on caregivers, emotionally and physically. The added strain of caregiving for a child takes up a lot of emotional energy. Sometimes there’s another parent, and sometimes there isn’t. Even when there is, the other parent has their own struggles to deal with and can’t always be fully emotionally available to the caregiver. Support pets can be a huge help as long as you fully understand the commitment you’re making to yourself and the pet.

My recommendation as far as the best option for a support pet would be a house cat. Others have chosen dogs, birds, rodents, and even reptiles. It’s worth going over the pros and cons of each despite the inevitable length of the entry. I’ll start with my highest recommended pet and work my way down. Feel free to bail out once you’ve found your match.

House Cat (Adult)

An adult house cat is the easiest and most helpful overall addition to your family. I recommend against a kitten because their personality isn’t yet established. Once a cat is an adult, then you can evaluate whether or not they will make a good fit into your household. A kitten is a significantly higher time commitment because of the teaching involved. When I’ve owned kittens in the past, I’ve spent most of my time trying to teach them to scratch their post (not the furniture) and to stay off the table and counters.

Pros: Reasonable level of maintenance. Feeding, litter box upkeep, and additional vacuuming will likely take less than 3-4 hours a week. If you leave out the additional vacuuming and keep to your current cleaning schedule, you’re looking at less than 1 hour a week. Cats can generally be left alone, with adequate food and water, for the better part of a day.
Cons: Cats cuddle on their own timetable. Many seem to know when you need them and will come accordingly, but if they aren’t in the mood they’re going to be scarce. I still find their affection to be unconditional, but it’s very much on their terms. Potential allergy.

Indoor Dog (Adult)

Dog’s seemingly endless supply of love and affection has given them a reputation for being excellent support pets. They are wonderful if you have the time and energy for them. Dogs must be walked, taken out several times a day to the bathroom, and can be heavy shedders depending on the breed. Puppies are an even larger commitment. I would recommend strongly against a puppy unless someone else is available to provide it 24/7 care and training.

Pros: I’ve never met a dog that wasn’t ready to give you 100% of their affection at the drop of a hat. A dog will absolutely know when you need them. If you have no other sources of emotional support and the additional time and physical energy required they’re certainly worth the consideration. Bringing a dog into your home is like bringing a second child into your home without the additional complexity brought on by complex medical problems or special needs.
Cons: The time and physical energy commitment for a dog is huge. It doesn’t really matter if it’s 100 degrees or 0, the dog still needs to be walked. Even a fully trained dog needs to have the desired behavior constantly reinforced. If the dog is not trained you’ll need to go through obedience classes. Not everyone does this, but you’ll need your dog to listen when you have your hands full with your child and can’t spare any to correct whatever the dog is doing. You’ll also need someone to take care of the dog when you’ll be gone for the day. Potential allergy.

Bird(s)

If you’re not the type to want or need physical contact then a bird can be the perfect companion. They’re a constantly vocal presence and many sing beautifully. Some even talk. Their lifespans are quite long with proper care. With caged birds, I would encourage you to adopt more than one so they have a companion. Some uncaged birds, such as parrots, have a longer lifespan than us humans. You’ll need to have a godparent for them in case you’re no longer able to care for them for some reason.

Pros: If you’re not cuddly, they’re OK with that. They’re very vocal so you’ll rarely, if ever, feel like you’re alone in the house. Unlikely to cause allergy issues, though they can be a large source of dust and debris if not cleaned up after frequently.
Cons: Some people can’t stand the constant chatter of birds. They don’t take a lot of care, but they take very specific care. They’ll need to be covered every night in order to tell them it’s nighttime and protect them from drafts. They’ll also need to be uncovered every morning or they’ll get their days and nights mixed up and chirp away through the night whether they’re covered or not.

Rodent

It may sound like an odd choice, but rodents can make good pets. They need to be watched closely, as escapees are difficult to find. Do not try to trap and tame your own as they carry many different types of disease. Pet stores sell them. Hamsters are a common choice. A friend of mine had a rat and it was much more affectionate than a hamster.

Pros: Easy to care for and they take exactly as much time as you want to spend on them. Typical cage cleaning required, but no more than you would need to clean a litter box.
Cons: While you may be open minded enough to keep a rodent as a pet, your friends may not be so welcoming to the idea. Many people are terrified of them, especially rats. They can carry a lot of different dangerous illnesses, but if not exposed to them they’re safe.

Reptile

Check your local laws before adopting any exotic pets. Snakes, lizards, and turtles are your standard pets in this category. However, some are protected, so it’s still important to make sure what you get is something that’s legal to have. This is especially true with turtles.
I have the most experience with snakes. While many people don’t think of snakes as cuddly, they love the warmth of your skin and will sit with you for a long time. Many reptiles, especially snakes, don’t really form a relationship with you. They’re just as likely to bite or harm on day one of owning them as on day one hundred. With a child in the home, I recommend strongly against anything poisonous or any kind of constrictor. Poisonous snakes, even if the poisoning capability is removed, are more likely to bite. Constrictors kill their prey by squeezing, which could quickly overwhelm a special needs or medically complex child. Also, many reptiles grow to whatever length food and lifespan allows. Your cute little 10″ Boa may not be so adorable after several years have passed.

Pros: Easy to care for and they take exactly as much time as you want to spend on them. Typical cage cleaning required, but no more than you would need to clean a litter box. They’re good companions as long as you remember they don’t remember you, so you have to be gentle with them.
Cons: While you may be open minded enough to keep a reptile as a pet, your friends may not be so welcoming to the idea. Many people are terrified of them, especially snakes. Most reptiles eat either live food or something that was obviously alive at some point which makes many people uncomfortable. Snakes especially have a tendency toward getting lose more often than anyone who owns them would like to admit. You’ll find them eventually, but it’s difficult to say where or when.

If You’re Still Not Sure…

Just give it time. Choosing a pet is always a big decision, and it makes it even more difficult when you don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to a pet anyway. It’s hard on you and on the pet if you bring them home and then change your mind. Take all the time you need to be 100% sure you and the pet are a good fit.

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