Christmas Pets: Holiday Impulse Shoppers Beware!
It's the season for giving, and we all have good intentions when shopping for truly special gifts for our loved ones. Sometimes, we have visions of them opening a beautiful 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. With a pet, it seems we can give the gift of unconditional love, especially to a child.
Now, here's a dose of reality: in years spent working in animal shelters, we noticed a significant spike in animal surrenders right after the holiday season. The happy surprise became just a surprise--not necessarily a pleasant one--for all concerned, and the solution to the problem for many families is to get rid of the unwanted pet. What are the factors?
* The one presented with the "gift" didn't want an extra commitment (average 15 years) in an already-busy life, or a household member had an allergy where short-term exposure was not problematic, but the person could not live with a pet.
* Some children, especially those not exposed to animals previously, became frightened of the strange new creature, and in turn spooked pet, which created an air of distrust for all involved. Although the previous guardian's paperwork might say that the pet was good with their kids, their actual socialization might not have included what the next child wanted from a pet when they begged for a live Christmas present (playing dress-up, putting in a stroller, etc.).
* Resident animals in the home also got 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. Now throw in another animal, especially of the same species, and--more often than not--disaster is imminent. Once again, the paperwork at the shelter may have assured the adoptive family that the new pet would play well with others, but this assumes ideal conditions, which the holidays do not provide.
Now that we've outlined the reasons why you shouldn't surprise family and other loved ones with animals as gifts, there are ways to bring four-legged love home for the holidays without such risk.
Many animal shelters have gift certificates you can buy to place in a box instead of an animal. (You won't have to poke air holes in the box either!) These generally cover the cost of adoption, and you may be able to add the cost of basic supplies such as a collar, leash, brush, bowl, or litterbox. If your local shelter doesn't offer gift certificates, make one yourself. That way, the next day or next week, you and your loved one can find the perfect 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. (Check out Petfinder.com, where you can search all shelters in your area.) 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 thing 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 dog requires a bit more training in the "down-stay" so that he or she doesn't relentlessly pursue the new addition. A housemate's allergy may or may not act up in the presence of specific animals.
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 will adopt and bring a homeless pet into your heart and home!
If you have questions about giving pets as gifts contact Dr. Norette Underwood at firstname.lastname@example.org