‘Tis the season for giving, and that means shopping for special, unique gifts for our loved ones. Who doesn’t have visions of a spouse, friend, or niece or grandchild opening a beautifully wrapped box with an adorable kitten inside, or of covering their eyes and leading them into a room where a puppy or a cat wearing a big bow is waiting. We aren’t to blame—we have these very images of holiday serenity lingering from our own childhood as well as sentimental TV commercials. In a pet, it seems we can give the gift of unconditional love, especially to a child.
Now, here’s a dose of reality: right now, animal shelters are getting ready for a flood of animal surrenders right after the holiday season. The intended happy surprise turns out to be just a surprise—and not necessarily a pleasant one. The solution to the problem for many families is to get rid of the unwanted pet. What’s up with that?
• The holidays are already hectic; it’s not a good time to bring in a new pet that needs to feel safe and secure in its new environment, and more importantly, needs quiet one-on-one time with its new family.
• The recipient—even though he or she may have said that they’d love to get a pet, doesn’t actually want such a serious commitment in an already-busy life, especially a schedule- and travel-disruptor like a pet that needs to go outside on time.
• A household member may be or become allergic to the new pet.
• Some children become frightened of the strange new creature, which in turn spooks the new pet, creating an air of distrust for all involved.
• Even though children ask for pets, the parents must be involved in the decision; not all kids are ready for the responsibility, and the parents may not want to get stuck with it either. Ultimately, no one takes care of the pet, and it ends up shut in a basement, tied up in the yard, abandoned, or relinquished.
• Although the previous guardian’s paperwork might say the pet was good with kids, its actual socialization might not have included what the next child wanted from a pet when begging for a live Christmas present (playing dress-up, putting in a stroller, etc.).
• Resident animals in the home also get the short end of the stick. If any significant holiday activity was going on in the home, i.e., family staying over, holiday parties, etc., resident pets (especially cats) were already having tough time adapting their sense of “stable-sameness” to the unusual activities. Add another animal, especially of the same species, and—more often than not—disaster is imminent.
• Winter is not puppy or kitten season; the young animals that are available at Christmas time very likely come from puppy or kitten mills—and may continue to surprise the new guardian with serious health and behavior issues. This is virtually guaranteed to be the case if the puppy is a breed that was recently featured in a movie, such as 101 Dalmations, Marley and Me, or Beverly Hills Chihuahua. To avoid pets from mills, never ever buy a dog or cat from a pet store.
Now you know the reasons not to surprise family and other loved ones with animals as gifts, the good news is that there are many ways to bring four-legged love home for the holidays without such risk.
For a creative surprise, give a gift certificate for pet supplies; or present them with a collar and leash or a package of cat toys. When the recipient looks confused, you can reveal that the real present is a trip to the shelter plus the adoption fee, to choose a furry friend.
Many animal shelters have gift certificates you can buy to place in a box instead of an animal. These generally cover the cost of adoption, and may include spay/neuter and initial vaccines (but be sure to read our article on vaccination first!). If your local shelter doesn’t offer gift certificates, make one yourself. That way, the next day or next week—or whenever the time is right—your loved one can look for a new companion.
Nowadays, many shelters have websites with pictures of their adoptable animals, so the whole family can go online and check out the choices. Or browse Petfinders, the original online adoption site. There is also empowerment in a child in going to a shelter and picking out his or her own companion. It’s also a perfect time to let them know that caring for a living being requires responsibility. It’s never too early to instill the concept of stewardship.
It is essential to introduce everyone who lives in the home, from children to housemates to other pets, to the new pet before adoption. In fact, many shelters require this. There’s nothing to lose, but important lessons to gain. For instance, the adoptive family may discover that the resident dog requires a bit of work on the “down-stay” so that it doesn’t relentlessly pursue the new addition. A housemate’s allergy may or may not act up in the presence of specific animals.
This method also allows time to prepare the home itself before bringing a new pet in.
Remember, no surprises are good surprises when it comes to animals this holiday season. Have a great one, and congratulations to all of you who bring a homeless pet into your heart and home this year!