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Print Illustration by Maya Chastain

So you’ve been fantasizing about having a cuddle buddy, and now it’s finally time to adopt your first furry (or scaly or feathery) friend. Becoming a pet parent carries a lot of responsibility, but with the proper research and prep, you’ll welcome the right critter into your home for the next 1 to 20 years!

Adopting a cat or dog are obviously the more popular options, but maybe something like a rodent or a lizard is more suited to your lifestyle. Regardless, there’s still plenty of prep involved.

We break down how to get ready for your first pet and what gear you need to give them the care they deserve.

Despite the fact that it sounds pretty simple, adopting a pet is definitely not a purr of the moment kind of deal. It’s a *process*. And often, this process doesn’t end when you bring the little critter home.

That said, there are some essential steps you need to check off your list before getting too far down the road.

Do your animal research

Before becoming a pet parent, you’ll want to take a hard look at what you really want in a pet… and what you have to give. Consider your budget (adoption fees, food, and long-term costs like veterinary care), space (teeny city apartment or 2 acres to roam?), time (will you be home enough to keep your buddy healthy and happy?), and commitment (can you see this doggo in your life for the next 10 years?)

You’ll need to dig deeper into the needs of particular breeds and species, but here are some general starters when it comes to caring for the most common pet categories:

  • Cats and dogs. Pups and kitties are popular pets because they’re great for reflecting all your love and attention back at you. Don’t underestimate the commitment they require, though. Cats can live up to 20 years and dogs live 10 to 15 years. Both need daily play, regular grooming, and plenty of entertainment. Dogs will require a little more in terms of training and activity. Take advantage of the expert advice at animals shelters and vet clinics to help you determine which breed meets your lifestyle best.
  • Small mammals. Rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, rats, and mice. You might think of these little critters as a kid’s starter pet, but they have pretty specific needs in terms of environment and attention. A rodent or rabbit could make the perfect pet for you if you’re short on space but have plenty of patience and curiosity to learn about their lifestyles. For example, guinea pigs need time out of their cage every day for play and snuggles. Some rodents are nocturnal, and might not be a good fit for homes that are very active during the day.
  • Reptiles. It’s important to learn as much as you can before bringing home a reptile. Lizards like geckos, skinks, and bearded dragons or snakes like ball pythons and corn snakes can make great first pets. Make sure you understand what they need in terms of a secure enclosure, lighting and heat source. Also, consider your comfort with maybe having to feed your cold-blooded friend a frozen mouse once a week.
  • Birds. Who doesn’t want a glorious parrot to make pirate jokes with? However, birds are needy creatures and may not be the pet to start with if you’re inexperienced. They can also live for a really long time. Lovebirds, for example, can live 25 years, some parrots can live 50 years, and some cockatoos can get up to around 60. They will need plenty of toys and a cage big enough to spread their wings. Birds are very sensitive to scents and chemicals as well, so consider your Febreze habits before bringing one home.
  • Fish. For the smallest of pets, fish can come with a steep initial investment in equipment. Plopping your beta in a bowl will probably not do it. Once you get all the equipment and learn how to maintain their habitat, fish don’t require a lot in terms of attention and energy (compared to a golden retriever). Just keep in mind that starting an aquarium is probably more of a hobby or accessory than an opportunity for long-term companionship.

Personal prep

Once you pick the perfect type of pet, it’s time to prep your schedule and your space.

Here are 10 pet prep tips:

  1. Secure anything you don’t want consumed and/or destroyed by a curious new pet: Does the garbage can have a lid? Are the houseplants safe? Is there anything dangly or shiny or expensive exposed? Are there strings or shoelaces they could try to eat and choke on?
  2. For free-roaming pets, put a cozy bed or cushion in every room to discourage them from sitting on furniture.
  3. Invest in scratching posts and high perches for curious cats.
  4. Use gates and crates to keep dogs safe when unsupervised.
  5. Set up cages or habitats before you bring your animal home so you both don’t get stressed by assembly hiccups.
  6. Try to bring your pet home when you’ll be around for a day or 2 to help them adjust.
  7. Schedule a vet visit soon to get your pet checked out and adjusted to their new vet.
  8. Don’t invite all your friends over to meet your pet the first day. Too much activity can be overwhelming at first.
  9. Make a firm, but flexible schedule for feeding, walks, and playtime so you can both get comfortable with the new routine.
  10. Depending on your pet, potty training can take time. For dogs, try to designate a starting space that’s easy to clean, and then set up a game plan for transitioning them outside. For cats, you’ll obviously want to go the indoor litter box route, which is a bit of a different process. Give yourself and your pet grace. (If you don’t have a ton of time to commit to house training a puppy, adopt a more mature, experienced dog.)

Communication with the whole family

Are there one or more additional humans living in your space? It’s really important to make sure they’re also on board with inviting a pet into the fold.

Discuss how a new pet would affect your roommate(s), determine how to share responsibilities, set realistic expectations with children (spoiler: they probably won’t be able to totally care for a pet on their own).

Discuss whether any parts of your home will be off-limits to the pet and how to secure those areas.

Many of these factors may change as you get used to your new family member, but it’s important to start with a plan.

Allergy and other safety prep

It’s not the wild kingdom, but pet parenting does come with its risks. The most common incompatibility issue is if you or someone you live with is allergic to pets. It’s also possible to be allergic to the materials in some rodent habitats.

For the safety of everyone involved, small children may not be a good match for small pets. Young kids can make little animals very nervous with sudden movements, loud noises, or rough handling. And a nervous animal may bite.

People living with reptiles should also be aware of the possibility of salmonella infection, especially for vulnerable small children, pregnant people, and folks who are immunocompromised.

And last, but certainly not least, here’s the basic gear you’ll need for your new friend, broken down by pet type:

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Print Illustration by Maya Chastain

Cats

  • collar with identification tag
  • a litter box, litter, and scoop
  • a carrier
  • beds
  • food and water bowls
  • scratching surfaces
  • toys
  • a cardboard box (IYKYK)
  • brush
  • food

Dogs

  • collar with identification tags: Flat collar or martingale collar, which tightens to prevent slipping out without causing pain or choking
  • a 6-foot nylon leash
  • poop bags
  • beds
  • crate and/or gates (a crate should be big enough for the dog to stand and turn around comfortably)
  • food and water bowls
  • toys: hard rubber toys for chewing, puzzle toys to keep them busy, stuffed toys for snuggling or murdering, balls and toys for outside play
  • brush
  • food

Rodents

  • a cage
  • bedding material
  • a box for nesting
  • food dish
  • water bottle
  • pellets or fresh vegetables, depending on their recommended diet
  • hay
  • toys
  • exercise wheel
  • brush

Reptiles

  • terrarium
  • habitat features like rocks, sand, branches, water
  • climbing structures
  • heating light
  • thermometer
  • humidity gauge
  • insects, mice, vegetables, depending on the animal’s diet

Birds

  • a cage large enough to allow flight
  • a cover for the cage
  • clean water and food containers
  • paper for lining the bottom of the cage
  • perches
  • toys
  • food

Fish

  • aquarium
  • net
  • light
  • thermometer
  • filter
  • pump
  • water conditioner
  • water test strips
  • habitat features like fake plants, rocks, caves, structures
  • pebbles for the bottom of the tank
  • fish food

You can find any of the above at a wide range of price points, according to what you want for your pet and how often your pet uses some of the gear.

Obviously, you’ll want to lean toward brands and materials that are safe and proven to be good quality. But once you have about a month or so of pet parenting under your belt, you can get a better feel for how to construct your budget around the priorities.

A pet can bring so much love and intrigue to your life, who wouldn’t want one? What kind of pet you get depends a lot on the time you’re able to spend time with them and the space you have.

Starting with the essentials, like doing animal research, taking inventory of your space for any needed adjustments, and communicating with others in your home will get you off to a good start.

Once you’ve chosen the perfect species and decked out their habitat, you’ll be ready to get the gear you need for your new friend. Give both yourself and your new pet some grace at the beginning. Remember, it’s a new relationship you’re forming and it takes time to find a rhythm.