Sooner than later, one of your kids is going to throw you a disarming smile and utter the question you’ve been dreading since the day he was born.

“Mom, can we get a puppy? Please?”

If you’re unequivocally opposed to the idea, consider the following response: “No, Timmy, we can’t get a puppy right now. You know, only about one-third of all Americans are pet owners, so while it may seem like we’re the only family without a puppy, the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association says we’re not. In actuality, only about 40 percent of all households have dogs.

“And of course, having a canine can be very, very expensive – it costs about $620 a year to care for a medium-sized dog, not including medical emergencies.”

Enough said?

Pets are great, but use common sense

It’s OK if you balk at bringing a puppy or a pet into your home, says veterinarian and medical doctor Lana Kaiser, because it indicates you’ve got some understanding of what owning a pet entails.

“Dogs can be a wonderful creatures,” says Kaiser, a professor at the MSU College of Human Medicine. “But they can be a burden, especially for the mom in the household.”

What makes the decision complicated, Kaiser says, is there is probably a part of you that understands how important pets are to children.

“Pets offer kids unconditional love,” Kaiser says. “They don’t care if you’re dirty, if you wear glasses, or if you smell bad.”

Additionally, Kaiser says, there’s evidence that pets can improve a child’s social skills and self-esteem.

What’s needed to make it all work, she says, is a common sense approach.

“Animals don’t come perfect,” Kaiser says. “If you do decide to get a dog, you have to take the time to train it, and you must pick a breed that’s appropriate for your family.”

Sweet tweets

For some families, however, owning a dog (or cat) is out of the question. Sometimes, allergies or asthma make it impossible; the landlord won’t allow it; or a hectic family dynamic makes it unwise.

That doesn’t mean all pets have to be off limits.

“We’ve had all kids of pets, including dogs, cats, fish and hermit crabs,” says Lansing area resident Rita Hale. “But we wanted and needed something easier, so now we have parakeets.”

With four kids between the ages of 2 and 10, and a husband who is allergic to cats, low maintenance birds like parakeets are a practical pet, says Hale, 37.

“We like the idea of having pets the kids can take care of and interact with,” she says. “But with birds, you really don’t have vet bills and when you go on vacation, someone just has to check on them every two or three days.”

Hale also appreciates the fact their birds may live as long as 18 years.

“It’s so much better than watching fish die all the time,” Hale says. “We thought fish would be so easy, and after my daughter brought home a goldfish from a birthday party … we went out and spent $150 for a tank, and the fish died the next day.”

They got more fish, Hale says, but got tired of explaining about the “circle of life” each time one of them floated to the top of the aquarium.

“Birds are so much easier,” she says. “I tell everybody they should get birds.”

Get real

When it comes to pairing kids and pets, says Rick Preuss, owner of Preuss Pets in Lansing, parents need to be realistic.

“You have to think about what you want to accomplish by bringing a pet into the family,” Preuss says. “If you want to teach a child responsibility, but that fails, are you prepared to step up to the plate to care for that animal?”

Parents should also research prospective pets in advance.

“For example, for kids under 5, we don’t recommend reptiles because of the chance kids could be exposed to salmonella,” Preuss says.

If you’re considering a reptile for older kids, do so with caution, says Preuss.

“Leopard geckos and Bearded Dragons are hardy and easy to keep,” Preuss says. “But they are more for observing than handling.”

Rats are good

Small mammals such as guinea pigs are great pets for kids ages 5 to 10 because they easily adapt to and thrive on consistent, gentle interaction with their owners. Hamsters, on the other hand, are more defensive by nature and better suited to kids 10 and older.

Preuss’ top small mammal pick for kids, however, is one that most parents might hesitate to consider: a rat.

“Rats are fantastic pets,” Preuss says. “I highly recommend them.”

If you and your child still can’t agree on a pet, Preuss says to consider a cost/benefit analysis. “There are certainly tangible benefits to pet ownership, but there the intangibles, too,” Preuss says. “Maybe owning a lizard will make a child more aware of ecological diversity.”