This week: choosing the perfect pet
At a recent dinner party, I was asked about appropriate pets by a newlywed couple who wanted a new pet and weren't sure what they should get.
It took me a whole night's worth of conversation to go through all the issues that go into making the right decision.
They didn't have anything in mind and were quite open to suggestions. Well, it is lucky or unlucky, depending on how you see it, that we live in Hong Kong because there are fewer options here. Back in Melbourne, Australia, where I was brought up, you had the option of a horse or goat and you had to think about how to fence in a pasture to keep the animal, and of building a stable to keep it.
Even though Hongkongers are more limited in options, there are still myriad choices. But after careful consideration most people can shortlist their choices to a few - or even nil.
One problem with Hongkongers is their lack of imagination and open-mindedness when it comes to pets. Most people are either in the dog camp or cat camp and fail to realise that other species are available.
The first thing I want most people to do is to throw out their preconceptions of what they want or dream of and find a pet that is right for your lifestyle and situation. In the long run I have found that you will fall deeply and madly in love with whatever you choose, especially if that pet is something you can handle. But if you force the decision based on unrealistic wishes, then you will end up picking an animal you can't keep responsibly and you will very soon find it annoying and a chore.
A common problem I see in my clinic is when parents bring in their newly acquired dog for a check-up and mum and dad turn to their kids, who are totally distracted by the sick animals, their new pet and the unfamiliar surroundings, and say: 'Pay attention kids, listen to the nice vet, you guys will have to do what he says.'
At this I cringe, take a deep breath and come down on the parents like a tonne of bricks - as subtlely as I can. I know at that moment this poor animal was bought or even adopted at a whim without any consideration of the immense responsibility of caring for another living thing. These parents didn't consider that a pet has a long life and by the time their new pet gets into middle age, the kids are likely to be dating, at university or working - and who will be the ones looking after the new pet? It's the now aged parents.
While the kids are still young they will show interest, but that does not mean they can be fully responsible for a dog or cat's care and husbandry. They can help and learn from helping, but the parents will be ultimately responsible.
The children's ages are also critical to the right decision. Parents with infants or toddlers shouldn't introduce a new pet because parents have many responsibilities with the infant or toddler in the first place. Children around kindergarten age can't really comprehend the responsibility of complex pets like dogs, cats and rabbits.
Actually, rabbits are surprisingly poor pets for small children because they are not interactive and are difficult for a small child to hold, so I find guinea pigs, goldfish and hamsters good choices and low maintenance.
Children during primary school and early high school learn lots from keeping dogs and cats and they have time and the understanding to truly give their pet the time and attention they need. Those in the late teens do not really have the time or the long-term commitment it requires to look after a dog or cat, even if they really want one. I find a pet cockatiel or tropical fish a better choice.
Of course, these considerations are only true if you are getting a new pet for the kids. If you have the passion to keep it yourself, then go ahead.
Before getting your feet wet, consider the long-term commitment and plan for the pet in your future life. Your housing or financial situation may change and have a negative impact on keeping the animal. There is considerable cost in keeping an animal healthy, so find out the basic care costs per year, and probable veterinary costs.
If you already have pets then you should consider how your new pet will interact with the others. There may also be some health issues, so consult your veterinarian.
Match the overall exercise requirement of your pet with your lifestyle. Most people should pick something more docile and small.
Finally, remember your pet will affect your life and your life will change forever, so be prepared for the emotional consequences and changes in daily routine that will occur.