A dog playing in the sea with his owner

There’s no doubt living with a pet enriches our existence and brings unquestionable rewards. Animal ownership is a rite of passage for a child, a source of lifelong memories and a comfort to the elderly and those who live alone.

A survey from 2008 revealed Australia has one of the highest pet ownership percentages in the world, equalled only by the US, with more than 63 of families owning at least one pet, and over 43 two or more.

Cats and dogs are the most popular choices for their obvious people-friendly qualities, but birds, fish, rabbits and various reptiles and rodents are also found in many homes.

It’s easy to go for big eyes or a fluffy coat but owning a pet is about more than this. Our quick guide will help you make the right choice for you and your family.

Four-legged friends

Dog ownership is high Down Under, with an estimated 3.7 million in the nation’s backyards. While dogs can be the most rewarding pets, they also need the biggest commitment.

Taking the time to honestly assess your lifestyle is crucial when choosing a pet. And as tempting as it is to get a dog for the kids, experts recommend that waiting until children are at least six or seven years old is best.

The huge variance in breeds means there is one to suit most people, but mismatch at your peril. An estimated 25 of the pets we buy each year in Australia end up in animal shelters, and the majority of those are dogs.

When it comes to our 2.2 million pet cats, it’s a slightly different story. Less demanding, cats are great pets for apartment dwellers, singles and retirees, and many breeds are child-friendly. Personality is very important for making a match with a cat as their natures vary widely.

Cats are generally clean and low-maintenance pets that will often engender a lifelong love and a serious YouTube habit.

Cute dog in a brace

Dogs are the most popular pet in Australia

Birds of a feather

Impulse often rules getting a bird as a pet because they can create an emotional connection that no other animal can match, particularly the species that can be trained to talk.

You can fall in love with the rainbow-coloured macaw who chatters away like a best friend, but the reality of caring for one can be a shock.

Big birds like these can live staggeringly long lives, even reaching the 100-year mark, and general care can be very demanding. Two main components that set birds apart are food requirements and mess.

Birds have very specific dietary requirements that vary from breed to breed, and failing to provide the exact nutrients they need can spell disaster. They can be very messy too, necessitating frequent cage cleaning.

The way your bird relates to you will be an important factor in the quality of your ownership experience.

Generally, the larger the bird, the more interaction and exercise it needs. Smaller birds like canaries, budgies and finches are more independent but can still live up to 15 years.

Tropical birds on a perch

Some larger birds can live for up to 100 years

Going swimmingly

Almost everyone will have owned, and possibly mourned, a goldfish or three at some point in their lives.

For this reason you might be amazed to learn that these sociable, lively fish can actually live for a decade, with some varieties living up to an astonishing 30 years.

Unfortunately, the reason so many goldfish die very young comes down to poor breeding and care.

They might be comparatively low-maintenance but fish still need good conditions in order to thrive and survive.

Round fishbowls are too small for even one fish to inhabit and the general rule is to go for the biggest tank and filter possible.

A 10 to 20 partial water change and a gravel clean per week is necessary to keep them healthy.

Don’t over-populate the tank or overfeed the residents, and check regularly for ammonia and nitrates.

Tropical fish need specialised care, so only buy them from a reputable source and research the particular species you are buying.

A goldfish in a bowl

Fish tanks need to be regularly cleaned and well maintained

Bunny love

Rabbits appeal to young children who love the idea of a fluffy bunny to play with. But while most of the 30 or so varieties of domesticated rabbit are sociable and curious, they don’t like to be held or rough handling, making them better suited to older kids.

Rabbits need a big hutch and plenty of space to move around. If they are to be kept outdoors, climate control is absolutely essential as overheating and cold snaps can easily and quickly kill them.

Rabbits can be trained to be indoor pets, but they must be protected from cats and dogs. If you’re happy to spend a lot of time down on the floor, your bunny will repay you with 10 to 15 years of fun and companionship.

A cute rabbit in a bandage

It is essential to ensure rabbits are warm enough if they are kept outside

Boo, the cutest dog in the world

The world may have gone crazy for LOLcats but it’s a dog that has stolen the title of ‘Most Friended’ on the internet.

When Irene Ahn posted pictures of her very photogenic Pomeranian on Facebook, her friends were so enthusiastic in sharing that American reality TV star Khloe Kardashian picked them up too and the rest, as they say, is history.

Now, 10 million likes later, Boo is a bone fide star himself.

Clipped to look more like a teddy bear than the typical longhaired style of a Pomeranian, he’s been a guest on Good Morning America and photographed with countless celebrities, and is the subject of many media stories and blog posts.

Boo: The Adventures of the Cutest Dog in the World was released in 2011, quickly becoming a bestseller, and is now translated into 10 languages. A second book, Boo: Little Dog In The Big City, was released in 2012.

Boo, the cutest dog in the world

The Pomeranian Boo has 10 million followers on Facebook

Insuring your pet

Designed to help cover the costs of accident or illness, pet insurance is a lot like health insurance for your four-legged friend.

Most big insurers offer provision alongside other policies, but as with all insurance, satisfaction comes from reading the small print.

The main factors to consider are the percentage rebate covered, exceptions and exclusions.

The best policies offer varied levels of cover for all budgets, and up to 80 and above of total vet bills.

Policies mostly focus on cats and dogs, so look around if you need to insure another type of animal. Age is also a factor, with most either denying or requesting large premiums for cats and dogs over eight years old.

Breed also plays an important part in assessing risk, and these factors all affect the bottom line.

Consumer group Choice recently compared premiums and benefits from a range of providers.

They reported that the premiums for cats average at about $200 per year for accident cover, and $410 for accident and illness cover.

For dogs, the average cost is about $390 for common breeds, but for more high-risk breeds such as bulldogs, accident and illness cover averages about $550 per year.

If you have private health insurance it’s worth checking whether your provider also has a pet policy as most offer a discount on four-legged family members.

A cute rabbit on his hind legs

All pets require proper care and attention

Paying the bills

No provision for vet bills is one of the main reasons animals are abandoned, says the RSPCA.

Statistics released by the two main underwriters of pet insurance in Australia, ANZ and Hollard, show that an average claim is about $2500, but that treating multiple fractures or cancer might cost up to $20,000.

If you have a no expenses spared attitude towards your pet, and they are accident prone or predisposed to certain health conditions, it is worth setting aside money weekly or monthly to cover future expenses.

An alternative to insurance is setting up a savings plan, but this very much depends on your existing saving style.

If your animal is older, with no health problems and mostly kept indoors, pet insurance may not be necessary. If you have multiple animals, look for discounts on premiums that may make it more cost-effective overall.