How would the story have gone if Scrooge had a beloved cat? What if Scarlet O'Hara had St. Bernard in the middle of house training? What if Heathcliffe and Catherine had to argue over which one got the beta fish? Yeah, there's a reason why pets aren't very common in novels; they're expensive, time consuming, and little shit factories.

 

Or sometimes downright shit-your-pants scary, suitable only for Bond villains


 Oh, they are also our best friends, and the unconditional love of...a dog is a beautiful thing. I'm not a cat person, so even though I think they're cute I'll never understand owning a creature that lures you into rubbing its stomach just to maul you, nor will I understand owning fish. Still, people do it in real life all the time, so why isn't it common in books?

In short, pets are a responsibility which means you can't go gallivanting off for a week to catch the jewel thief without getting someone to change Killer's litter box, or boarding Fluffy. And who wants to delay a week of sex-crazed crime-filled adventure with a scene where you have to haggle over feeding schedules and treat allowances?

 

Plus they are masters of super-adorable emotional blackmail


 
Now, why should you have a pet in your story? Honestly, there are only 2 reasons why. One is that it is a plot device (such as Bob the dog in the Stephanie Plum novels of Janet Evanovich - Bob is often the only thing connecting Stephanie to her sometimes lover Joe) or because you want to show your character has a soft side/willingness to commit/won't go stir-crazy living alone.

So if neither of those fits, don't include a pet. Now, let's say you need a pet. What do you choose? Stick to the top 3: dogs, cats, and fish, in that order. maybe you like spiders or snakes, but most people don't, and it will turn them off. Unusual pets can belong to secondary characters, but be aware what they convey. A nerdy kid can own rats, a creepy kid can own a snake, and a rich twit can own a designer pet. Tough characters should never have cute & cuddly pets...would Dirty Harry have been so tough if he called a dog "lumpikins"? Keep in mind these rules are for fiction, not reality.

 

Sure, she named him "Argo" but they never played fetch
 


 
Now, which type should they get? It depends on your character, and the type of story. Here's your daily mindfuck: cats in romance novels. In erotic romances women may own cats, not in traditional romance novels. Seriously, re-read them if you must. Why? Because in truth owning a cat takes a...certain kind of person. If you like a creature that says "I love you" one moment and "fuck you!" the next, you're a cat person. In romance novels of the erotic variety you have to show a woman is open to casual sex at the start. Owning a cat demonstrates this desire for some affection but not deep abiding love. Again, not true in real life, but true in novels.

 

 
Owning this guy says more about your sex life than you knew 


 In any action-oriented story no protagonist should own a pet that doesn't help further the action or plot. A horse should only appear if the protagonist will need a means of transport other than a motor vehicle. A dog should be a guard dog or search dog that may aid in criminal investigations. Cats in this world are a waste of time unless in a secondary character's possession they walk through their owner's spilled blood and paw at the window just as the protagonist knocks on the door.

In science fiction or fantasy anything goes, but try to make up a creature similar to a cat or dog, or a power animal. Eschew fish. Seriously, try to imagine Conan owning fish, or Zaphod Beeblebrox. Nope, not happening.There you have the rules. In romance cats only if she's down-low, in mystery only animals that further plot or action, and in science fiction only things that are cute & cuddly or reflect the character. Dumbledore had a phoenix for a reason; it's after death he's Harry Potter's biggest help.

Now you've decided you want a pet in your story. Not quite yet, one last check:

  • Is your character flat broke? No pet.
  • Is your character a single parent with an only child? Pet: cat if the protagonist is lazy/busy, dog if he/she is sociable and outdoorsy. Small dog if he/she is lazy/busy/sociable.
  • Is your character open to casual sex? Pet cat.
  • Is your character open to a serious relationship? Pet dog.
  • Is your character happily celibate? Pet fish.
  • Is your character a happy loner? No pet.
  • Is your character a true Alpha? Pet dog (A true Alpha desires a pack).

Those are the general guidelines. You can prove me wrong if you like (I only ask you do it well) but for most of us this checklist works. Next you have to ask yourself how to write the pet in. Well, there's a simple formula for that.

If you want to figure out the specific breed, there's a good way to do that. I can't help you with fish, but try the Dog Breed Selector or the Cat Breed Selector both from Animal Planet. Simply answer the questions as your character and you get a suggestion. It's not 100% accurate (I keep getting Irish Setter but I am in love with my Siberian Husky and am also a Labrador Retriever fan) but it's a starting point.


 
  
ProTip: too lazy to take the quiz and don't want to own up to just writing "cat" in your favorite color (and yes, they do come in blue, Russian Blue)? Go here and talk to them, just say the character is a "friend"


  

First, is the pet important to the plot or character development? If so, the pet must appear 3-4 times for every period of time the protagonist is home for more than 2 hours. This means that if your character is home for 24 hours, the pet must be mentioned 3-4 times, even if it takes as many as 4 chapters to account for those 24 hours. This is still true even if the protagonist is home 2 hours between work and a date. If home less than 2 hours once or twice is enough.

If the pet is not vital to the plot or character development, it goes down to 2 times for every period the protagonist is home longer than 2 hours. Less than 2 hours at home the pet may be mentioned once or not at all.

We have at last come to what you mention the pet doing. The formula is simple. If the pet belongs to a child the mentions must be 75% play/bonding and 25% care/feeding. If the pet belongs to an adult it is 66.6% play/bonding and 33.4% care/feeding.

Why? I'm so tempted to say "Because fuck you, that's why" (I've written this entire post twice before and yola has deleted it both times because of server errors), but in short because pets are not for decoration or fun only, damn it. This should be reflected with more care. As wonderful as the Harry Potter novels are, Ms. Rowling forgot to explain that owls make exceedingly shitty pets, and people started buying them...and found out the hard way. Cats and dogs shit, and we have to clean it up. Chocolate is poisonous to dogs, turkey is to cats, and you never clean a fish tank with bleach unless you like being the nautical Grim Reaper...or would that be Grim Fishmonger? People need to know these things.

 

Keeping this fucker alive longer than a month requires Navy SEAL training or being a wizard 
 

 
By now you've seen how writing a pet can be more trouble than it's worth, hence why most authors forgo it. If you desire to have a pet in your story, try to stick to these rules. And for the love of all you may hold holy, do not use fiction as a soapbox upon which you tell people spiders can be loving too.

 

True or not 99% of you just scrolled to get this off your screen


 
Remember to stick to the classics: dogs are the most popular pet for a reason. Their love is unconditional, they worship you as a god, and they are trainable. Cats, while fuzzy and cute, are (imho) lesser demons from an alternate dimension sent here by greater demons as a practical joke (that's why they try to murder you when walking). Fish in my world are things you eat with tartar sauce, but people find them to be soothing. Hey, they don't bark or shred the furniture, so I kind of get it.

No matter what animal you like, think about what complements your character and/or story. Mention it often enough to have a sense of purpose, but not so much the reader skips the mentions. Or, keep it simple and ask yourself "What Eudora Welty Do?" and never include an animal unless it's a vital plot device. Go ahead, Google her now, it's worth it, I promise.



Here you go, a baby (puppy) picture of my Nikolai. Forgive me for the spider?