Pets are more popular than ever, bestowing easy, emotional intimacy and health benefits on their humans.
Taking the leap is not unlike marriage. The dating years expose you to some handsome options. You explore the cornerstones of the animal landscape and begin to identify what you like. Then you make a commitment to stay together forever, for better or worse.
Like people, pets are judged by their beauty and their status in society, right or wrong. The majority are thinking about everything but the cuddle factor. Kids will be the first to say that's a mistake.
There are 74 million dogs and nearly 91 million cats in this country, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturer's Association. Small dogs will snuggle, but they feel like sticks and stones and jaws and fur and drool. They woof, which is nice, but can't compare with the purr of a cat.
Cats provide a lush landscape of upturned tails and noses, with the added benefit of nuclear clouds of cat fur. Many of them chirp when you surprise them, a really fun sound, but not every cat will deign to provide creature comfort in the form of willing proximity.
Which brings us to the small-animal category, 18 million animals lumped together, including rats, hamsters, ferrets, bunnies, mice and my favorite, guinea pigs. Viva la pig!
Also known as cavies, these sweet little animals make great, inexpensive, responsive pets. When you reach in their cages they run, but when you scoop them up they calm down. They like attention, don't bite and love to cuddle against your neck.
The beating heart of a cavy (guinea pig) rumbles throughout their bodies, which are warm against your chest and hefty in your hand, with a heavy bottom like a baby. They get to know you quickly and percolate wonderful sounds known as wheeks, squeaks, chirps and burblings, an integral part of cavy life.
Elizabeth Nye, the animal caretaker/pigs keeper at Two Turtles in Akron, Ohio, scoops up a brown and white Abyssinian, a juvie who found his way there a few weeks ago, and plops him in my eager hands - after I beg.
Cavies are neither pigs nor rodents, she said, while the little guy strikes up a staccato melody and gently tests my finger to see if it is edible.
"They make good pets and they do interact," she said. "They squeal when you come home and purr when you pet them or open the fridge."
Domestic rats are more intelligent than cavies, but don't satisfy the cuddle factor. Mice and hamsters are "bitey" and hard to hold. Rabbits like to be held but don't make noises.
Nye loves the brown and white Abyssinian namelessly. I'll call him Picasso, for he is a lopsided art form. He looks untamed, with cowlicks that appear to have been whacked by a lawn mower driven by an alien, but is sweet as candy.
The oddball `dos of Abyssinians are an enhancement, like gingerbread on a house or lace on a dress, but other breeds look more coifed. There are many, including Teddy Bear, American, American Satin, Peruvian, Peruvian Satin, Silkie and White Crested.
They live at least a decade, a very long-term commitment for a small pet. Nye suggests parents test the waters with a fish and see how that goes before bringing home a cavy.
Cavy food is inexpensive - they need dry grass and cavy pellets - but set-up will cost at least $100, said Nye. Guinea pigs chew on wires and piddle often, so they need to live in spacious cages or an outdoor hutch that is well protected from the elements.
Even so, the point of having them is to pick them up and play with them. I once wrote about a couple of young sisters who played their pigs like violins, running their fingers down the creatures' backs when it was the time for the "pop" in the "Pop Goes The Weasel." The pigs squealed in delight right on cue.
"If a regular pig could produce that much noise in proportion to its body size, it would be a terrifying creature," writes Sara Stein in "Great Pets!" (Storey Kids, 2003).
If you fall in love with them, think about recycling a life. Homeless cavies are a rich commodity. Two ready sources include Ohio Cavies Rescue and Adoption at and the Guinea Pig Adoption Network, a global resource.