Cat & Dog - Selecting a Pet: Guidelines

A pet may be a part of your life for many years – cats can live into their late teens, even as old as 20, and depending on the size dogs can often live from 8-10 yrs (giant breeds) to 15-17 yrs (small and medium breeds) – and many behaviour and health problems can be prevented by seeking guidance before obtaining a new pet. Not only will such advice help you to select the best pet for the household, but it will also provide information on how to prepare in advance for the new arrival. For these reasons the species, breed, age, and sex of the pet all need to be carefully considered. It is also important to make an informed decision about where to obtain the pet and to carefully consider issues such as preparing the home, housing, bedding, feeding, training, exercise, and health care requirements.

This handout aims to give you a starting point when you are considering acquiring a new pet but we would advise that you consult many sources of information before making your final choice and we also encourage you to discuss your situation with us so that we can further advise you.

Please remember that all comments in this document are generalisations and that, as all animals are individuals, they may not fit into the general rule.

Should I get a dog or a cat?

Although choice of species is very personal the following few points are worth considering if you are unsure whether you would like a dog or a cat.

  • Cats usually require less training to fit into domestic life, but they will get onto tables and kitchen tops if given the opportunity.
  • Dogs can be trained for different disciplines and can allow owners to participate in different hobbies.
  • Cats do not need to be provided with as much off property physical exercise as dogs.
  • Dogs can act as enjoyable companions on walks and other outdoor activities.
  • Dogs generally require more social interaction than cats.
  • Both cats and dogs require mental stimulation.
  • Both cats and dogs can be noisy, although dogs tend to be more at risk for creating nuisance noise.

What breed is best for my home and family?

Once you have decided on acquiring a dog or a cat, the next decision is whether to obtain a pure-bred or a mixed breed. By selecting a mixed breed from a rescue shelter, an abandoned animal will be rehomed and there is also a chance that some of the genetic problems associated with inbreeding can be avoided. In most cases too the initial cost to acquire the pet will be considerably lower than when purchasing a pedigree puppy or kitten.

On the other hand, obtaining a pure-bred puppy or kitten from known parentage gives the best opportunity (but is not guaranteed) to predict the behavioural and physical attributes of an adult dog or cat. This is important when you wish to take on a young puppy since, unless the parents of a rescue puppy are known, it is extremely difficult to predict the size, health, or behaviour that is likely to emerge as the dog grows up.

If a pure-bred is chosen, it should be a breed whose physical and behavioural characteristics best suit the family and for this reason it is important that the family’s needs and what they can offer a pet are carefully and objectively considered. Physical characteristics will be fairly predictable and you will want to select a breed whose physical appearance, including coat type, size and shape of pet not only appeals to you but also fits in with your lifestyle and circumstances. It is easy to forget that long coated breeds take considerably more time and effort to keep clean and neat and that some coat types are best maintained by a professional groomer. The need for grooming is just as important in cats as in dogs, especially where cats have long coats.

Health risks are another important consideration so consult reliable and accurate books and internet sites, people who own the breed you are interested in as well as your vet to discuss the prevalence of diseases within breeds as well as possible screening tests which can be undertaken. It is also important to consider the expected life span of your chosen breed, since there is great variation between breeds, with the giant breeds of dogs living considerably shorter lives than the smaller breeds.

Behavioural considerations may be more difficult to assess due to the vast numbers of breeds available and the wide variation of behaviour types within breeds, especially where lines within breeds have diverged for different purposes over the years – a working type compared with a show ring type dog for example. Knowledgeable trainers and behaviourists as well as conscientious breeders should be able to guide you regarding any specific behavioural traits in a breed or family.

Behavioural factors to consider in dogs include activity level, exercise requirements and the origin of the breed with regard to its function, as this will influence the behaviour traits seen. However, generalising about breed characteristics can be dangerous and the best way of assessing the temperament is to look at the family lines of the dog or cat you are considering, rather than just the breed.

At what age should I obtain a pet?


The most important period of development for puppies, in terms of their social behaviour, is between approximately 4 and 14 weeks of age and in order for a puppy to grow up as a successful and acceptable member of society it needs to take full advantage of this period. In order to develop healthy social relationships with other dogs and learn to successfully communicate with other members of its own species a puppy needs to be socialised with other members of its own species and this process begins with the dam and litter mates. Spending time with the litter is therefore important but the puppy also needs to grow up in a human world and learn to relate to humans, other domestic pets, such as cats, and the environment. In order to do this successfully socialisation to people and other pets and habituation to the environment need to be carried out within the sensitive phase of socialisation i.e. before 14 weeks of age. Reaching a compromise between these two equally important aspects of a puppy's behavioural development has resulted in the generally accepted view that the ideal time to select and obtain a new puppy is around 9 weeks of age. This allows adequate time for the puppy to be in its new home, and bond to its new family, before its primary socialisation period ends, but it is important to remember that the puppy also needs to be learning about people and animals outside of its own social group as well as the environment in which it is going to live. The first few weeks in the new home are therefore critical to the puppy's development. Socialising and habituating your puppy at this stage must therefore be a priority.


Since the most receptive period for kitten socialisation is 2 to 7 weeks of age a kitten should ideally be obtained by 7 weeks of age. However this is not always possible and the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy actually states that kittens should be at least 13 weeks old before they leave the breeder. In cases where owners are obtaining pedigree kittens which are affected by this ruling it is very important that they question the breeder carefully to ensure that the kitten has had adequate and appropriate socialisation to humans prior to 7 weeks of age. In particular attention should be paid to the style of human handling that the kitten has received. Handling should include touching the kitten all over, lifting it frequently and gently restraining it in order to increase acceptance of human interaction which is potentially threatening from a feline perspective. In addition kittens need to be handled by at least 4 or 5 different people before they are 7 weeks of age in order to generalise their acceptance of humans rather than being socialised specifically to one or two human individuals.

Considering an adult pet

Acquiring an adult dog or cat can avoid some of the problems of bringing a new puppy or kitten into the home. This is especially true for dogs where the time and commitment required to train a puppy are considerable. Fulfilling the play, feeding, elimination, and exercise needs of a puppy or kitten may be impractical for a family who spends much of the day away from home and an adult may seem like the perfect solution. However, an adult dog or cat that has had insufficient or inappropriate training or insufficient socialisation may have behaviour problems that are difficult to resolve. For owners who are ready and able to meet the demands of a growing puppy or kitten, obtaining a pet during its primary socialisation period is strongly recommended.

Should I consider a male or female pet?

In many respects the choice of sex of your new pet is down to personal preference, but there are some factors that you may wish to consider. In dogs, males tend to be slightly larger in stature than females of the same breed and they may be somewhat more assertive within the social group. There are certain undesirable behaviours which are known to be more commonly displayed by male dogs such as mounting, roaming, urine marking, and aggression directed toward other male dogs although castration may reduce the incidence of these behaviours.

Similarly castration in cats will reduce behaviours which are more typically represented in the male of the species such as roaming, fighting, and urine marking.

On the other hand, unspayed females will come into oestrus (on heat, in season) and therefore, unless they are spayed they will need to be carefully managed during these times to avoid unwanted pregnancies.

Where should I obtain my pet?

Perhaps the most important reason to obtain a pet from a breeder or private home is to observe the physical characteristics, health and behaviour of the parents. Choose a breeder who is open and willing to answer questions, and who will allow you to tour the kennel and meet the parents. A reputable breeder will also be concerned that you can offer an appropriate home for their puppy or kitten, so expect to answer questions regarding the type of home you can offer. When a puppy or kitten is obtained from a breeder or private home you are also able to observe the early environment and assess the exposure to people that the pet has had. A personal relationship with the breeder may also be helpful should later problems arise.

Dogs or cats acquired through pet stores, puppy farms, irresponsible breeders may have received insufficient early socialisation and habituation and be at higher risk of developing behavioural disorders. They may also carry a higher risk of contracting disease. It is highly unlikely that the parents can be observed and a lack of information about the genetic input limits the opportunity to predict future behaviour.

Dogs and cats acquired from rescue centres and organisations may also have inadequate socialisation and habituation and some may have ben surrendered because of behaviour problems, which may or may not have been identified and managed by the centre. However, many will have good background experience and be at no greater risk than any other pet.

How do I decide which pet to choose?

The value and effectiveness of performing assessment tests on young puppies and kittens is highly debatable since many behaviour and health problems do not emerge until the pet matures. Perhaps the best approach is a simple common sense evaluation. Dogs can be observed and handled to determine which ones are the most sociable, playful, or affectionate. Those with undesirable traits such as shyness, or uncontrollable biting may be less suitable. Different puppy temperament tests have been detailed in the literature, but there is no good available evidence that they are predictive of future behaviour, with the possible exception of fear. What puppy testing can do is identify problem areas that may need attention from an early age.

For cats, three personality types have been described: (a) sociable (b) timid and unfriendly or (c) active and aggressive. Because the socialisation period for litters ends earlier than in dogs, early handling is extremely important. Kitten assessment tests can be a valuable tool in determining the effects of genetics, socialisation and early handling. If the cat tolerates handling, lifting and petting with little or no fear or resistance it is likely to make a good family pet. Fearful, timid, hard to restrain or aggressive cats should be avoided.

If you are obtaining an older puppy or kitten, or an adult pet, assessment tests (although still controversial and dependent on the skill of the assessor) are likely to be more reliable and therefore more valuable. You will be evaluating the effects of previous socialisation and habituation, previous training, previous experiences and some degree of maturation and development. It is important always to be aware though that how an individual behaves under a specific set of circumstances may not predict behaviour under different circumstances. This is especially important if you are assessing a dog in a stressful environment such as in a rescue kennel.

Used and/or modified with permission under license. ©Lifelearn, The Penguin House, Castle Riggs, Dunfermline FY11 8SG

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