Children and pets go hand-in-hand, as Sharon Waldrop can attest. "Pets outnumber people two to one in our household," laughs this California mother of four. "We have one dog, three cats, three rabbits, three chinchillas, two parakeets, and an iguana."

With the kid-to-adult ratio already skewed, why would Waldrop bring more animals into her life? "Pets bring enjoyment to the family," she explains. They also teach kids compassion and how to care for others, Waldrop adds. "My children walk dogs, clean cages and litter boxes, change water, and fill food bowls. They know that pet ownership is a big job and a big responsibility."

Cats, dogs, lizards, and fish can indeed be a lot of fun, but they are not just playthings. "You are changing the dynamics of your family life when you bring a pet into the environment," says Vicki Folds, EdD, vice president of education for Tutor Time Child Care and a member of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

The desire for a pet typically begins around preschool age when a viewing of 101 Dalmatians or The Aristocats can have your son or daughter clamoring for a trip to the pet store. Before you grab the car keys and your wallet, take a step back. There are several issues to consider in order to make the right decision for your family.