The challenge of choosing and naming pets

Veterinary Pet Insurance company just released their list of top pet names for 2010. Bella led the charts for dogs. Max, for cats. Other popular names were Bailey, Lucy, Molly, Buddy, Maggie, Daisy, Charlie, Sophie, Chloe, Baby, Sunny, Jack, Kiwi, Bandit, Gizmo, and Sammy. The most unusual names included Pickle Von Corndog, Badonkadonk, Purr Diem, Chairman Meow, and Admiral Pancake.

Picking out a name is only one of the challenges when acquiring a new pet, especially if you have children. When our kids were small, they really wanted a puppy. Before agreeing, we gave long parental lectures about responsibility. “A puppy isn’t a toy to play with for a few months, then discard for something new,” I cautioned. This happens all too often, and, sadly, not just with children.

Before succumbing to the impulse to adopt an adorable, fluffy bundle — be it kitty, puppy, bunny, or chinchilla — research that species’ life span and needs. Then take a moment and consider. That cuddly kitten will soon mature into a regal, aloof cat. The puppy becomes a dog. The bunny, a rabbit. The chinchilla, well, an adult chinchilla.

Are you prepared to take care of this living, breathing creature for its entire life? Can you provide years of food, veterinary care, and a stable home? Who will be in charge of feeding, watering, grooming, walking, housebreaking, cleaning up? Don’t say “the kids.”

We can enlist pets in our efforts to teach our children life lessons, but we must not do so at the animal’s expense, be it great Dane or hamster As I tell all parents, the ultimate responsibility rests with the adults. It’s one thing to let your kids’ laundry pile up until they have no clean clothes for school. It’s another to let an animal suffer without proper care. Again, this happens too often, particularly with “pocket pets” like hamsters or guinea pigs. “It’s Opie’s job to keep the cage clean,” the mother says reproachfully as I lift the little rodent from his nasty, urine-soaked bedding to examine the sores on his feet. Okay, maybe so. But it’s your job to make sure Opie does his job. Before adopting a pet, be sure you’re game for picking up the slack — not to mention picking up the pee and poop. My girls had been lobbying for this puppy for years, but I knew my limits. “When all the people in the house are housebroken,” I declared, “then we can get a puppy.”

True to my word, once everyone was in big girl pants, we started looking for the right puppy. Not surprisingly, my children demanded diametrically opposed types of dogs. Now I can appreciate wanting a specific breed, but I explained to my children that I wanted us to adopt from a shelter. I won’t belabor the statistics. On second thought, maybe I will. Three to four million dogs and cats are euthanized in the United States every year. Three to four million.

Ethical dog and cat breeders make many positive contributions to the animal world, and I would never begrudge anyone that gorgeous Irish wolfhound they’ve always wanted, or the goofy labradoodle. But me? Twenty-five years ago I did a relief job at a veterinary practice that doubled as the local pound in a small New Hampshire town. My third day there, the technician told me some dogs had been impounded the required ten days and now needed to be put down. I accompanied her to the kennel to find a mother golden retriever with a romping litter of ten-week-old puppies. I refused to euthanize them, but later that day the technician did her job without me. I think of those puppies every time someone buys a pet instead of rescuing one.

At the shelter, our family’s next challenge was not to take the first dog we saw, or every dog we saw. No matter how good the care, it’s hard not to feel sorry for each and every inmate. But you must make your decision with your head, as well as your heart. Live in a tiny apartment? Skip the Newfoundland. Run a day care in your home? Don’t take the high-strung dog who’s not good with kids. Do not let anyone talk you into taking an animal that is not just what you want.

Picking an inappropriate pet is one of the main reasons animals are given up later. My older daughter really wanted the puppy with Rottweiler markings who was clearly the dominant male in the litter, growling playfully, strutting, and acting tough. A perfectly lovely pup, but not for a home-based veterinary practice. “Our dog is going to need to naturally tolerate lots of other animals and people coming in and out of our house,” I explained.

There are many different methods for “temperament testing” puppies, although it is more art than science. Use your common sense. If you have a lot of experience with dogs and want a protector, that Rottie or Doberman can make a loyal, loving watchdog. If you are not home much, avoid energetic breeds needing lots of exercise and entertainment — like poodles, Portuguese Water Dogs, or border collies. Or maybe you are better off with a small dog you can carry easily.

Our family eventually picked a female labrador-golden retriever mix, neither fearful nor fierce, just friendly. Because I’m not fond of barking, I proposed naming her “Sheket Bavakasha!” That’s Hebrew for “Be Quiet, Please.” I could picture shouting out the back door. “Sheket!! Sheket Bavakasha!”

My kids had other ideas. They voted for Rainbow Sprinkles. Here’s where all my parenting skills came into play. Do I insist on a unique and clever moniker to impress and amuse my peers? Or unabashedly let the kids call her Rainbow Sprinkles? Or lobby for a compromise? Whatever you plan to name your new pet, start by doing your homework, preparing the family, and choosing your new companion thoughtfully.

I hafta go. Our dog, Flower, is barking. Come here, Flower! Good dog!