Beginner pets: Doing the research. Part 2 of 3

Posted in Philosophy at 1:30 am by ACR&S

This is a series looking at some overall questions about the concept of beginner pets.

In Part One I talked about how we define beginner pets, and considerations for beginner pets for adults and for kids. In Part Two I’ll talk about how to do enough research to determine whether a certain pet is right for you, and also some considerations about the costs of caring for a pet.

How much research should someone do before selecting a beginner pet?

The short answer is way more than you expect.

Most people, if they have never cared for a pet before, have NO idea about the amount of care involved. At the very least, they need to do enough research to be able to say whether a pet makes a good beginner pet, by answering all four of the questions we discussed in Part One:

  • What are the animal’s basic needs?
  • What is the time commitment?
  • What is the average/expected cost of care?
  • What are the common mistakes people make (and/or what are common problems people encounter when owning these pets, either behavioral or health issues)?

You want to learn enough about each of these topics that you are certain the animal fits your own definition of “good starter pet”, don’t harm the animal through ignorance, and that you can spot behavioral or healthcare issues early enough to resolve them. For some animals it takes almost no research at all; for others it’s quite a damn bit.

Where should I do my research?

There are a number of places you can find out about pet care. Here’s my take on a few sources:

1. Your own childhood experiences, or, “Everybody knows that cats/dogs/gerbils need X Y & Z”


“Common knowledge” is almost always wrong. Whatever you learned about pet care as a child is WRONG. Whatever “everybody knows” is also WRONG.

How many of us kept our childhood gerbils on cedar shavings? How many of us had intact dogs and cats, who were allowed to roam free outside, who never went to the vet and never even had a rabies vaccine? How many people “know” that rabbits are good pets for kids (they are NOT) and that hermit crabs can be kept in birdcages (they can NOT)?

Husbandry standards have changed dramatically, even in the last 5 years, certainly in the last 10-20. It’s now well-accepted that ALL animals need vet care, and that they need preventative vet care, not just emergency care. Foods have been developed that are formulated to meet an individual animal’s nutritional requirements, rather than to be cheap and filling.

Seek information which is more up-to-date, and grounded in medical science.

2. Friends who have “always owned” this type of pet?

Probably Not.

This type of information falls under “common knowledge”, which is almost always wrong. Anyone who has been keeping pets for 20 years is probably still keeping them according to the husbandry standards from 20 years ago. Again, there may be exceptions, but it’s best to look elsewhere.

3. Pet Stores?


Pet stores have one purpose: to make money for someone. Eventually, they will try to sell you a product that’s not good for the animal, but which has a high profit margin.

I have only found one or two stores in all my life which are exceptions to this rule. In every case, they do not sell animals in their store. However, there are many stores which do not sell animals, which still give out very bad advice, so you can’t even go by that criteria.

It’s quite simple: if you want good information, do NOT use a pet store as your first resource for pet care information.

4. Books?

Probably Not.

The information in most pet care books is 10-15 years out of date. Additionally, many pet care books are written by photographers, who have lots of lovely photos of animals, but no actual experience caring for them.

Pet fancier magazines are even worse. They are almost always published by pet supply companies, and are little more than glossy, 30-page advertisements for crappy pet products.

5. Veterinarians?

Mostly yes.

Vets are, for the most part, a good source of basic care information for novice owners. Their care instructions are usually detailed enough that you learn how to prevent the most common health problems.

There are two cases where a vet’s advice may not be the best. First, most nutritional information taught to vets is funded by the big pet food companies like Purina. These companies PAY for the right to teach vets and vet students that their product is best, so that they can sell more products. The vet may regurgitate this information without knowing if there is other research showing Purina or whoever is NOT actually the best.

Secondly, do not accept advice from a vet on caring for an exotic pet (basically anything other than a cat or dog) unless the vet is an exotics specialist. Vet students who are dog/cat specialists may not even learn about small animal care while in school, and they are basing their recommendation on “common knowledge” (see point 1). I have had many, many experiences where otherwise excellent vets gave me very bad information about guinea pigs, for example.

6. Shelters and Rescues?


Shelters usually are not good sources of information, but rescues can be, in certain situations. Make sure the rescue is highly regarded in the rescue community and has a good relationship with a veterinary practice, or that they can provide lots of sources for why they recommend certain practices.

A rule of thumb here is that less is never more. If they tell you “well, SOME people say you need X, but I don’t feel they do” and they don’t give you a medical reason why X is not required, they probably practice husbandry according to “common knowledge”.

7. Internet?

Generalist sites, no; specialist sites, usually yes.

There is such a wide variation in the quality of information on the internet. Some of it is utter garbage, recycled by idiots who can’t even justify their position. Some of it is amazingly well-researched and validated information based on years of experience from multiple owners.

Generalist sites like about.com, wikipedia, yahoo groups, google answers, livejournal, etc, are typically NOT good sources of information. These are sites where anyone can post advice with little sourcing or credentials required. These sites are the worst offenders for perpetuating bad information.

Sites written and maintained by specialists are usually good sources of information. These sites usually have many other sites linking to them, provide references for their information (often from scientific journals), and often provide incredibly pedantic and detailed bulleted lists explaining why their recommendations are better than other people’s.

As always, in both cases, there are exceptions to the rule. Here are a few links to get you started:

Dogs & cats: ASPCA

Rabbits: House Rabbit Society

Guinea pigs: Guinea Lynx

Rats: Rat Guide

Hamsters: Hamsterific

Birds: Companion Parrot Quarterly

Reptiles: Anapsid.org

Hermit Crabs: HermitCrabs.com

So how do I know I’ve gotten the correct information?

Based on the points above, you should seek information from multiple specialty sites on the internet, then verify that information with a knowledgeable veterinarian.

People who fail to research correctly and completely, fail because it requires something that most people hate: you need to get involved with your own learning as an active process, rather than waiting to passively be spoon-fed the information.

Once you think you know the animal’s basic needs, and the time commitment, etc, start asking around to see if you are right. If you read ABC three times and XYZ four times, don’t just pick the one that “looks right”, ASK someone why you are reading conflicting information.

What pets are the cheapest (to buy and care for properly)?

I’m pulling this out separately because in this economy, cost is the biggest decision point for people looking for a starter pet.

Animals that don’t require vet care are going to be the least expensive. So a fish, maybe. (But did you know that there are vets who can diagnose, treat, and even do surgery on a fish?)

Any other animal (including cats and dogs) might only need $100 or so of vetcare per year, if you get lucky; but if they develop cancer or joint issues which require surgery and you want to go all the way, they may require thousands of dollars in care.

Rather than gambling on your pet being low-end in terms of cost, you need to consider how common it is to have high-end costs. This is also where research comes into play – a little research will show that most rats get tumors, most guinea pigs end up with stones or malocclusions, etc. These so-called starter pets are actually quite expensive if you look at how likely they are to need high-end vet care.

If you aren’t prepared to face these issues, and by that I mean, to pay for their treatment, then the responsible thing to do is to get a pet which has less incidence of expensive healthcare.

Let’s take Guinea Pigs as an example. The ASPCA’s page on guinea pigs (which is surprisingly accurate otherwise) claims that yearly care will be under $600 a year.

However, after eight years of guinea pig rescue and ownership, I’d actually ballpark it at around $3,000 per year, assuming you buy the best quality products, and that nothing goes wrong medically. Yes, this is a higher-end estimate for two pigs. But it’s still very accurate. I’ve been tracking my per-pig costs since 2003, I have a fair amount of data accumulated now. At right are the breakdowns for this and two other estimates.

In all cases, I’m assuming that the owner buys high-end hay and veggies. I’m not recommending buying cheaper bulk pellets, because the vitamin C in them degrades before it can be used. In the higher estimate, I assuming the owner is paying a premium for organic veggies at a traditional grocery store, because that’s what’s most commonly available to most people.

Obviously, if you buy in bulk, go to farmer’s markets and feed stores, or don’t ever get blood work or x-rays or anesthetized molar exams, your costs can be much more towards the low end. Just don’t go into this thinking that the low end is the high end. Many people make this mistake. They can afford $500 a year, so they just tell themselves “well, he probably won’t get sick”. You CANNOT count on that.

In July, I had an adopted pig returned to me, because the adopter (a grad student) could not afford medical care. She willingly dropped $150 on an emergency vet exam when her pig became listless and had trouble breathing, but that was her entire vet care budget. After paying that much, she couldn’t afford even the simplest diagnostics (x-rays), couldn’t even afford euthanasia. I dropped $400 on a comprehensive exam, just to find out that the poor pig had multi-system organ failure (lungs, liver, and kidneys – probably metastatic cancer) and then had to spend another $100 to have her euthanized.

The vet care for pigs is more expensive than for cats and dogs, because the vets must have specialized training, use specialized diagnostic and surgical equipment, and buy specialized pharmaceuticals to use on them. And unfortunately “let’s wait and see if she gets better” is always, always a plan destined for failure with a pig.

About once a week I get an email from someone wanting to surrender a pig because it has mites, and they can’t afford treatment. They waited for a couple months, but he’s just getting worse, and now he’s having seizures! It’s only EIGHT DOLLARS to buy a month-long course of ivermectin. But dear god, they go on to say, the vet wants nearly $50 for the physical exam, that’s highway robbery on pet we got for free off Craigslist! It’s only $10 at the shelter to get the dog vaccinated!

It’s fine if you go into it knowing that you’re not going to be able to afford vet care, and have just enough money saved to euthanize your pet the moment they get sick. If we hadn’t euthanized the pig above, she may have lasted another week or so. As her lungs filled with fluid she would have slowly drowned. As her liver and kidneys failed, she would have been wracked with pain as toxins built up in her body. There’s nothing wrong with euthanasia, and it’s certainly the kindest option when you can’t afford to treat and cure. But it’s unconscionable to get a pet, knowing you can’t afford vetcare, but planning to just “hope they get better”, which ends up condemning them to a slow, painful death. You need to think about the worst-case scenario before you get the pet, not after you are faced with a $500 vet bill.

Don’t forget, you also have to build in precautions for unexpected non-medical issues, too. For example, if you live in a humid climate, a big box of hay may not last 6 months without getting moldy. You’ll have to pay more to buy it in smaller amounts. You may need to go to an emergency wedding or funeral and pay for a pet-sitter.

Tune in next time for Part Three, which will finally answer the question of what animals do and don’t make good beginner pets.

1 Comment

  1. Sarah said,

    August 22, 2008 at 9:50 am

    Thank you for a very informative article.

    I think it is a great idea to actually check out the cost of vet care before you buy an exotic pet. The only vet that sees reptiles within 500 miles of us, happens to be in the town next to us and charges $75 for you to walk in the door.

    That in itself will keep a lot of people from taking their pet to the vet.

    I also think that researching where and how often you will have to buy food for your pet is a great idea – especially if they need live food.

    Leopard geckos are often recognized as good beginner reptiles, but I just adopted a leopard gecko that was dropped off at Petco because the former owners couldn’t afford to drive the 45 minutes a week to get live crickets for the gecko.

    That is a lot of time taken out of the weekend, and a lot of driving.

    It’s also a lot of stress wondering what to do if some of the crickets die before it’s time to feed them to your pet.

    I’m really glad that my leopard gecko’s former owners put him up for adoption instead of keeping him, and not feeding him enough – some owners wouldn’t be that nice.

    It’s also nice to make an alternative plan in place in case you do realize that it’s too much trouble to keep driving to find live food for your pets.