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Pick a pet, but prepare the family first

For Malia and Sasha Obama, it was probably a bigger deal than their daddy becoming president and moving into the White House.

In fact, news that the Obamas would get a new dog created quite a buzz across the nation. Hundreds of thousands of votes were taken on various Web sites on what dog would be best for the first family.

And the hubbub has surely prompted kids across America to try to persuade their parents to let them get their first pet this year, too.

While Michelle Obama recently said the girls would be getting a Portuguese water dog, reports indicate the Obamas are taking more time to carefully choose a dog for their daughters.

That strategy is also advised by local pet experts, who provided these tips for parents considering getting a first pet.

Make sure your child is mature enough to care for the pet.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends that children be older than 4, as younger children lack the maturity to control aggressive and compulsive impulses and must be monitored with a pet at all times.

But even older kids might need to be taught how to care for a pet.

"Parents need to teach a child how to touch an animal gently, not to pull its ears or yank its tail," said Dr. Kimberly Jaquith, a veterinarian at Lansdowne Veterinary Clinic in Lexington.

Kids should be well aware of the responsibilities that come with owning a pet, including time spent exercising, grooming and playing. Kids with busy schedules should be encouraged to figure out how they will fit a pet into the mix.

One option for parents considering getting their kids a pet is to send them to the Lexington Humane Society's Critter Camp.

For kids ages 6-10, the summer camps cost $130 for a one-week session. Campers interact with shelter animals, meet animal workers such as veterinarians, and learn about responsible pet care and animal welfare, said Whitney Wilgus, volunteer and fostering coordinator at the Lexington Humane Society.

LHS also offers Critter Crew, a club for children who own or hope to own pets. For a membership fee of $65, members can receive a newsletter, discounts on LHS T-shirts and merchandise, and invitations to members-only events.

Parents should not expect children to take full responsibility for a pet.

"You need to be willing to shoulder the responsibility if the child can't," Jaquith said.

Remember that cats and dogs are not the only option.

While the Obama girls are expected to get a puppy, other animals also make great pets.

Melissa Whitten, owner of Most Valuable Pets in Nicholasville, said other pets may even be a better option for new pet owners.

Among her top sellers are guinea pigs, hedgehogs and rabbits, which can be easier for children to handle, are less likely to bite and require less space. Some pets might not be suitable for all ages but can be less expensive as they don't require vaccinations, routine medical care or as many supplies or toys. Also, some pets such as snakes, turtles and lizards are hypoallergenic.

Birds are another child-friendly favorite, as they can be taught to talk and perform tricks, Whitten said. But there is one caveat: Some of the pets have shorter lifespans. That can be a good thing — there are fewer vet bills for aging pets — or a bad thing for kids who grow very attached to the pet.

Whitten's store offers consultations for families to help them decide if a pet would be a good fit for them. The store's Web site, www.mostvaluablepets.com, also has care tips for pets.

Make sure you can handle the financial responsibility.

Karie Shrader, adoptions manager at the Lexington Humane Society, suggested that pet owners "set money aside to have if the animal needs medical care."

Go into pet ownership expecting to treat an animal just like a member of the family, she said.

Shrader said that pets need annual exams and vaccinations, food, toys, treats, beds, crates, leashes, collars. She recommends researching various breeds and talking to vets to find out which animals will be more expensive than others.

Pick the right pet for your family's lifestyle.

There's a pet for nearly every family, but it takes research — online, at a vet's office or at an animal shelter — to find the right fit, Jaquith said.

Some questions she asks prospective owners: "Do they have a lot of room for a big dog, especially a fenced-in yard? Will the animal be home by itself a lot? Are you so busy on the weekend with T-ball and soccer that the dog will be alone?"

"Cats are great for people who won't be home a lot," Jaquith said. "Adult cats are better for small children, for the cats can jump up or leave the room if they've had enough playing. Kittens can be rambunctious, with biting and clawing. An older child can handle that, but not a younger one."

For families who want large dogs, Jaquith recommended Labradors and golden retrievers — "they're usually very laid back" — or standard poodles, mastiffs and greyhounds, and Dobermans.

Small dogs that are good with children include poodles, Shih Tzus and Boston terriers, she added.

For children with allergies who want a dog, Jaquith recommended poodles, bichon frisés, Maltese terriers, and American hairless terriers.

Whether purebred or mixed breed, it's important that the dog is used to children and enjoys them.

Don't choose a pet on impulse.

The cute little doggy in the window might not be the best one for your family.

Talk to breeders, pet store owners and adoption workers at animal shelters to make sure the pet is a good fit for your family.

Also, visit a few pet stores, shelters and breeders and narrow your list of potential picks before taking the children along, then let them choose from the finalists. Doing so prevents an impulsive choice or a child's begging for an unsuitable animal.

Even if the pet is for the children in the family, Jaquith emphasized the importance of an adult making the final decision.

"It's truly (the adult's) dog. You buy the food, you take it to a vet, you tend to it if it's sick."

Many animal shelters and pet stores require potential owners to fill out lengthy applications and submit to interviews and consultations to guard against impulse adoptions.

The Woodford Humane Society also has a Foster to Adopt program for potential adoptive families that allows them to take a pet home to make sure it's a good fit.

"It's like a test drive on a vehicle," said spokeswoman Sandy Davis. "It allows families approved for adoption to take some time and make sure. ... Our goal is to find permanent homes for our pets, so we'll work with any family to make sure they find the perfect match."

Davis also recommends that families looking for their first pet consider getting an older pet.

"The puppies and kittens are cute, but they can be a lot of work," she said. "Often, older pets are house trained, follow some commands and have been socialized with other pets during their time at our adoption center. Some ended up homeless because their owners died, lost their homes, divorced or could no longer care for them.

"One misconception is that older, orphaned pets are more likely to have a bad history, that they've been abused or neglected," Davis said, "but they can be perfect pets for a family that doesn't have the time or expertise or patience to train a new puppy."

If you choose a dog, attend obedience classes.

New puppies or dogs should be enrolled in an obedience class. and every member of the family — including the kids — should attend.

This spring, Jaquith's 5-year-old son, Logan, will accompany her to obedience classes for the family's Boston terrier puppy, "so she'll learn to obey him and look up to him."

Mary Ann Zeigenfuse, director of Best Friends Obedience, said that obedience training "is the most important thing you can do with your dog."

"A dog needs mental stimulation and leadership. Obedience supplies both," she said.

If you decide not to get a pet for now, consider other options.

Owning a pet is a big responsibility. If your children are not ready, there are other ways to expose them to pets and help them become more responsible.

One option is to become a foster parent for a shelter pet. Often, shelters need families to take temporary custody of a pet that needs special care or a break from shelter life until they are adopted. Shelters prefer longer-term foster arrangements, but families can request to care for a pet for a few weeks at a time.

Another option is to spend time volunteering at a local shelter. Check with the shelter in your county first; in some cases, shelters would require children to be accompanied by their parents.

Cleaning cages, helping with laundry, walking pets and other work can be a great way to teach kids the responsibilities that come with owning a pet.

"Either option is a win-win situation for the pet, for the family and for the adoption center," Davis said.

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