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What's the Best Pet for You?

Whether you're thinking of buying a bird, adopting a puppy or rescuing an older cat, here's what to consider

En español | The secret to staying young in mind and body may be just a purr, tail wag or chirp away. But with all the breeds of dogs and cats, not to mention birds, selecting the right species and the pet with the right temperament can be daunting.

See also: Here's a guide on small- and medium-sized birds.

I'm here to help. In my 30-plus years as a veterinarian, I've treated just about every kind of dog and cat you can imagine, from the tiniest Chihuahua to the tallest Great Dane and from the super-small Singapura to the mountain-size Maine Coon. And, I've interacted with all kinds of birds.

Burmese cat on a sofa with tail on womans face.

Choose a pet that complements your lifestyle. — Bertil Hertzberg/Nordic Photos/Aurora Photos

Whether you're 50, 60 or beyond, you're never too old to share your life with a pet and reap the countless healthy dividends they offer. Just ask Flo Frum, an on-the-go 87-year-old from Oceanside, Calif., who adopted a miniature Schnauzer puppy a few months after Frank, her husband of almost 60 years, died from lung cancer.

That was six years ago. Today, she hurls tennis balls down her hallway and plays friendly games of tug with her spirited dog, Buddy. She dishes up healthy meals for him and sports as many photos of Buddy in her house as she does of her great-grandchildren. Friends and family marvel at her energy and optimism and she quickly credits Buddy for her ageless outlook.

"The house was so lonesome without Frank and I couldn't stand the quiet, so I adopted Buddy, knowing full well that Schnauzers are yappers," Frum says. "I wanted a dog with spirit and spunk, but not one who would shed or be too big for me to handle."

I salute Flo for knowing how to pick a pet that complements her personality and lifestyle. That's the first step in successful adoption of a pet: know thyself. If you want a lap lounger, then mellow-tempered Cavalier King Charles Spaniels (nicknamed the Love Sponge) or quiet Persians are better bets than leaping Labrador retrievers or play-all-day Bengal cats.

Other essential tips in finding the right match include:

Be picky and patient. Most people invest more time in picking out their version of a Range Rover than they do in finding the right Rover. Pets, on average, outlast the life of two or three cars. Don't select a pet by looks alone. Take the time to know his habits, temperaments and health care needs.

Next: What type of pet can you afford? »

Start from scratch or opt for no surprises. Adopting a puppy or kitten is like starting out with a blob of soft, wet clay. You get the opportunity to mold his personality, but you also need to be a vigilant pet-proofing owner who is willing to be rudely rousted in the middle of the night for potty breaks and high-energy play demands. On the other hand, when adopting a middle-aged or senior dog or cat, what you see is what you get. Personalities are cemented. Older pets know and respect what "no" means. With mature pets, you usually get to enjoy uninterrupted sleep and steady affection for giving them a second chance at being in a loving home.

Factor in your family budget. Sure, pets are priceless in terms of the love and devotion they provide, but be sure to take into account a pet's food, bedding, toys, veterinary care and other costs before adopting. Certain breeds such as poodles and Bichons require professional grooming. Small breeds require more professional dental care than large breeds. If a special-needs pet like a one-winged Cockatoo or a diabetic Dachshund catches your eye and heart, tally the costs associated with his care.

To help you narrow your choice, I encourage you to educate yourself by attending dog and cat breed shows (many now feature mixed breeds up for adoption) and consulting responsible breeders, animal rescue leaders and your veterinarian. Arm yourself with knowledge before opening your arms to a new pet.

Sharing your home with a pet unleashes plenty of healthy pluses, especially in this high-tech, low-touch society we now live in. In a world with far too much contact without true connection, a trusted dog, cat, bird or other companion animal can bring out the best in you.

Dr. Marty Becker, "America's Veterinarian," is the resident veterinarian for Good Morning America and The Dr. Oz Show. His latest book, Your Dog: The Owner's Manual, became available this spring. Find him in the AARPPetPals forum of


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