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It started with the elephant – how we chose our family pet

Neil the vetVet Neil McIntosh talks about how he finally gave in to his kids’ appeal for a pet, and what they plumped for in the end



“Can we get an elephant, Dad?”

I looked down at the expectant, upturned faces of my three-year-old son and his older sister. You always know that some furtive discussion has preceded a request when you are presented by this joint delegation. “No, you can’t.”

“Aaawww. Why not?”

“Because elephants are too big and we need the space for Mummy’s shoes.”

“Okay then. A mouse?”


“Aaawww. Why not?”

“Because mice are too small.”

They stuck their necks out. “How about a giraffe?”

“No. Too tall.”

“Right. Can we get a rhinoceros?”


“Aaawww. Why not?”

“Because, my dear children, rhinoceroses are not thick skinned enough to live in this house.”

Thereafter, the theme was revisited from time to time. Much whispering would occur then the crafty pair would sidle up, grinning and coy. “Daaaad. Can we get a hamster?”


“Aaawww. Why not?”

And so I would take the time to explain that hamsters are solitary creatures that sleep all day and usually only come out to play at night. When little people are asleep. And hamsters tend to get dropped by very young children. Granted, if they were ten and eleven instead of three and four, the hamster might just fit the bill. As long as they could put up with the short two year life span. But not for now.

The same can be said for guinea pigs. They are more sociable but need to have access to hay, which would be a problem for my hay fever-prone boy. And they live for around six years, which, to my reckoning, has them dying just around the time the children start senior school. Always something to consider with pets. Still, despite the initial outlay for a decent cage, guinea pigs are cheap to feed.

Rabbits, by far the worst looked-after animals, are always a problem. First, they really are much better kept in pairs. Solitary animals can have a miserable existence, starved of company for most of the day, then subjected to a mad half hour of petting, which tends, anyway, to last for only the first fortnight. Then the novelty wears off and Mum or Dad is left to do the looking after.

Keeping rabbits together generally requires early neutering, which will significantly add to the cost. Thereafter, they need good hay and a complete pelleted food. Feeding them a muesli type mix of peas, maize and assorted flakes is like offering children a huge finger buffet. Just imagine which bits they would pick. And beware, poor diet often leads to dental problems, which can result in expensive surgery.

Cats, of course, are becoming more popular. Less expensive to feed than most dogs and far more independent, they require much less owner input in the way of exercise and general care. But again, think about their welfare. They need a few fifteen-minute sessions of play per day.

Children can teach them hunting behaviour with a toy mouse dangled from a cane or a pen torch on the wall. And budget for about £400 in the first year, what with vaccinations, food and neutering.

And so, eventually. “Daaaad. Can we get a dog?”


I had thought it through. They needed and deserved a loyal companion.

In the next article we’ll talk about how to pick one. Even though sometimes it feels like the elephant would have been much less trouble…