What to Consider When Adding a Pet to Your Family

Though the Glenn family had been thinking about getting a dog for a long time, it took the leap the first week of Illinois’ Stay-At-Home order.

The timing was perfect, Tonia Glenn says. Both she and her husband were working from home and the kids, Nehemiah, 9, and Emerson, 3, were e-learning. But she quickly discovered everyone else was thinking the same thing; with demand for pets through the roof, the family kept missing out on pets they wanted to adopt and had given up hope of getting a new family member.

Then along came 5-month-old Cleopatra at Wright-Way Rescue in Morton Grove.

Glenn expected having a new baby in the house would be harder, but Cleopatra is doing really well, she says. The real test will be when she and her husband go back to work and the kids go back to school.

“I hope she’s not too sad,” Glenn says, adding the family has already discussed hiring a dog walker to keep the pup active and happy.

Thinking ahead is a step Veterinarian Andy Rollo hopes all new pet owners who adopted during the pandemic took. 

“I think it’s great that we’re seeing so many new pet owners,” Rollo says. “One of the concerns, though, is that like Christmas puppies when January arrives, will a pet adopted during the lockdown still fit into the family’s life when school and work resume?”

The need is growing again

Facebook and Instagram feeds filling up with cute pup and kitty pics and FOMO filling your mind over not getting one for the quarantine?

It’s not too late.

While you might miss out on extended time at home with your new pal, the shelters are starting to get more animals in so you should be able to find one. Keep in mind that demand remains high. Shelters are seeing five to 10 inquiries when new pets become available so keep checking your local animal shelter’s website or try Petfinder.com, which can locate adoptable pets near you.

Glenn suggests involving the kids, but not too much until the adoption is nearly complete to avoid heart break. Before Cleopatra, her kids would get their hearts set on a specific pet, only for it to go to another family.

Experts also caution families to take their time in finding a pet.

While it can be hard to look beyond the cuteness in the heat of the moment, families should make sure they can commit to what it means to have a pet long term, including medical costs, training and busy, changing family schedules, says Emily Klehm, CEO of the South Suburban Human Society and chair of the Chicagoland Lifesaving Coalition, a consortium of animal welfare organizations in the Chicago area.

“Some folks expect a dog in a box. They just want to unbox their new pet and have it be perfect,” she says. That’s rarely the case; pets need to get comfortable with their new family and the family needs time to understand their new family member’s evolving personality, she says.

Her best advice: Do the research to understand what it means to add a pet to your life, then give the new pet time to adjust.

It also helps to remember what your family’s lifestyle was like before the pandemic and consider how a new pet will fit into that lifestyle, Klehm says. Active breeds of dogs are good if families are outside a lot, but if your life was more sedentary or spent inside before the pandemic and you return to it, a border collie or working breed is not going to be a good fit.

Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions at the shelter, she says. For those on the fence about whether a pet works in their lives, Klehm suggests looking for a pet in foster care instead of a shelter because the foster family can provide so much more information about their behavior in a home setting.

Klehm’s last piece of advice: Be patient with the shelter or rescue group, which is dealing with much higher volume than ever before. It’s hard to get to all the phone calls and emails immediately.

“We’re all trying to do the best thing for a pet,” she says.

What’s next

Tips to help your pal

We checked in with Sydney Bartson Queen, animal behavior counselor, of the ASPCA Behavioral Sciences Team, for tips to keep pets happy as family life gets back to normal.

“When our regular work and school routines commence again, your new dog or cat may be left confused and lonely once everyone is rushing out the door instead of spending time at home. Even while you and your family are home, start to prepare your pet now and designate time for them to spend enjoyable time alone throughout the day.”

She suggests families start by taking a walk or doing yard work without your pet. Start small and gradually increase the time you are apart from them.

Create happier alone time
  • Create a cozy, inviting place for your dog or cat to nap away from all the activity of remote work and school. You can put on some TV for auditory and visual stimulation, soothing music or the radio. Cats, in particular, really enjoy watching TV shows that feature animals.
  • When giving your pet time away from you, offer your dog tasty chews, such as bully sticks, tendons, scapulas and cheek rolls, to keep him busy.
  • There are many free game apps for cats to play with on their own. You can also find battery-operated toys that may keep your cat busy and happy on her own.
  • If you notice that your pet is showing signs of distress when you leave him alone, contact a behavior professional for assistance. Many are offering virtual appointments.
Boredom busters

Your pet may be used to midday play sessions or walks as a result of the extra time at home. Ramping down that exercise and interaction due to sudden schedule changes could leave your pet with pent up energy. Boredom and excess energy are two common reasons for undesirable behavior in pets. A few things to try:

For dogs
  • Use a snuffle mat for offering treats/dry food or stuff a puzzle toy with food like plain yogurt, peanut butter or their meal for a fun challenge. Cardboard boxes, paper towel rolls, PVC pipes with holes drilled into the sides, paper bags with food or plastic jugs can be used as well.
  • Set up a scavenger hunt so your pup can put her nose to work. Hide treats around a room in partial view. 
  • Engage your dog in short, empowering training exercises such as touching his nose to your hand or a particular object or learning “sit,” “down” and “come.” If your pup already knows the basics, look for trick training books or videos to learn more advanced skills like “spin” or “roll over.”
For cats
  • Offer their meals or treats out of food puzzle toys.
  • Provide objects for them to explore, such as cardboard boxes, paper shopping bags (with the handles cut off), bottle caps, packing paper and toys that encourage them to investigate. 
  • Train your cat to learn useful behaviors and fun tricks, like “sit,” “come,” “hand target” (touchingtheir nose to your hand), “shake” and “fetch.”
  • Position bird and squirrel feeders outside windows where your cat can observe animals coming and going during the day or even try playing videos of birds and squirrels on your TV, computer or phone.

Follow Chicago Parent on Instagram.  

This article also appeared in Chicago Parent’s June 2020 magazine. Read the rest of the issue here. Jacquie Goetz Bluethmann contributed to this story.

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