What could be more fun than a frisky puppy or a new kitten under the tree for Christmas? Of course, if you weren't planning on adding a puppy or kitten to your household, or any other unplanned pet, you might just get a headache at the thought. Every year, shelters receive hundreds of unwanted "present pets" after the holidays.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals doesn't recommend that you give a pet as a gift, especially not as a surprise. Even when someone has expressed a desire for a puppy, kitten or other pet, it is a better idea to let the person connect with the animal and pick the companion. Many shelters offer gift certificates, which are a terrific alternative and can be given to someone when you know for a fact that he or she does want a pet.
However, ask the following questions before investing in a gift certificate:
1) Has your friend or loved one expressed interest in adopting a companion animal?
2) Does this person, or any members of the household, have allergies to cats or dogs?
3) Is this person aware of the responsibility and care associated with being the guardian of an animal? Is he or she aware that both cats and dogs can live for more than 20 years?
4) Would you feel comfortable if this person gave you such a significant gift?
5) Is your friend ready to deal with the late-night crazies and other high-energy antics of a kitten or puppy? Would an older cat or dog be more appropriate?
6) Will he or she be bothered by having hair on everything -- from clothes to toast?
7) Is he or she aware that cats need to scratch and dogs need to be housebroken? The cat will need appropriate surfaces such as scratching pads and posts. The dog will require a plan for housebreaking.
8) Do you know whether your friend's landlord allows pets? Will everyone in the household be happy to receive a new cat or dog?
9) Are there other pets in the home? Will the current pets welcome a new addition?
10) Does this person understand the financial responsibilities of caring for a cat or dog (cost of food, vet visits, medications, toys, etc.)?
11) Are there children in the household? How old are they? Consider that a rambunctious, teething kitten or puppy may not be a suitable pet for an infant or toddler.
12) Is the cat or dog a gift for a child? Getting a pet is not the way to teach a child responsibility, and the animal may be harmed if the child fails to take care of the new pet.
Bringing a new pet home can be expensive, and you have to be sure the costs can be afforded. According to the ASPCA, the average first-year cost for a pet ranging from a fish to a large dog is $235 to $1,841. These costs include food, licenses, spaying and neutering, carry cases, vaccinations, training classes, grooming, toys, etc. Birds and fish are the least expensive; dogs, cats and rabbits are the most expensive.
Another reason not to give a living creature as a gift along with all of the commotion of opening holiday gifts is the attention an animal, particularly a young puppy or kitten, would need. Any animal that is new to a household needs to know where the litter box or newspapers are, what surfaces are OK to jump onto, where the food bowl is. It takes time to introduce an animal into a household to avoid potential mishaps, accidental bites, nips or other injuries, and to bond with the human members of the family.
If the gift is meant for a child, putting the pet in a "box" in a pile of presents sends the wrong message. A pet is a living creature that definitely deserves more care than a new inanimate toy. If a new action figure is put to the side while your child plays with a new video game, no harm is done -- not so with a living, breathing being. Children can be taught to care for a pet, but they should never be solely responsible for a pet's care.
This holiday season, give a gift certificate, and enjoy the quality time you spend together at the shelter picking out a pet.