With Christmas fast approaching, I felt we should do a preemptory blog about pets as presents. We see it in the movies and on tv, the family gets a new puppy for the holidays and everyone is happy. Unfortunately, these holiday surprises rarely work out this well. Usually, the children who have been begging for a new puppy or kitten grow tired of it by January. By June, the cute little puppy is now a large puppy with no manners and ends up spending it's life in the backyard, if it's lucky. Or, it winds up one of the 3-5 million dogs and cats abandoned in our shelter system every year. It doesn't have to be this way, though. With some research, planning ahead and commitment, a pet can be a wonderful addition to your family.
If the animal is being given to another adult, it's important the recipient is involved in the selection process. Consider surprising your significant other with a gift card covering the adoption fee from your local shelter, or wrap up some pet supplies. Then both of you can go through the process of selecting the perfect pet together. Sadly, many of the animals purchased as a surprise wind up being re-homed within a few months because the recipient either wasn't ready for the commitment or it wasn't a good match.
If the pet is going to be a surprise for your children, ask yourself the following questions to determine if your family is ready to take on the responsibility of caring for a pet:
How old are your kids? Different pets are appropriate for different ages. Just because your child begs for the pet, doesn't mean they need to have it. Your 5 year-old who is pleading for a puppy is not capable of taking on the responsibility. The primary responsibility will fall on your shoulders. If you aren't ready for all the work, you might consider a pet that is easier to care for.
Do your kids really want a pet? Your son may love to play with your parents older lab when you visit them because he's known the dog for years, but that doesn't mean he is ready or even wants to have a dog fulltime himself. Not every child needs or wants a dog. A new pet, especially a puppy, isn't going to have the same personality. Shelter workers often see parents getting a dog "for the children" even though the child clearly isn't comfortable interacting with the animal.
Have you thought about the cost? Most people don't think past the initial fee for the dog or cat. A healthy cat can cost around $400 a year while a healthy dog can cost $1200. If the pet gets sick or hurt, this cost quickly rises.
Are you committed? Pets should not be viewed as an item that can simply be returned if it doesn't work out. They're a lifetime commitment. Cats can live 15-20 years. Dogs can live 14-20 years. If your child is 10 years old, that pet is going to be your responsibility when they leave for college 8 years later.
Do you know what is involved in caring for an animal? Accidents happen. Dogs vomit. Cats get hairballs. Litter has to be scooped and the backyard has to be picked up. Dogs are social animals and need lots of family time. If they are relegated to the backyard, they will bark, dig and chew. They need daily walks even when you are sick. Having a pet takes time and effort. You have to be prepared to give your pet the time, attention and exercise that they need. The animal is the one who suffers if your child forgets to feed it, so pets should not be used as a lesson in responsibility.
If you have thought it through and you feel your whole family is ready for the commitment, why not draw out the surprise? Instead of picking out a pet ahead of time, buy a stuffed animal that you can wrap and put under your tree. You could even put it in a carrier and wrap that so it isn't as obvious. When your children open the package, tell them part of their Christmas present will be researching a breed together online and then going to the shelter together to pick out their dog or cat. The whole family can be involved in deciding what type, size and breed of animal will be right for your lifestyle. You can check out books at the library or peruse books in the bookstore to read up on breed characteristics so you find the right fit.
Once you've got an idea what you're looking for, you can find that pet on Petfinder (http://www.petfinder.com). Petfinder has a wide variety of pets for adoption in your area. Logging on to their site allows you to search more than 4000 different shelters by breed, location, size and more for animals up for adoption. The whole family can get involved in the search, looking at pictures and profiles. Getting a pet at a shelter saves a life. The cost is low, they come with their shots and are already spayed/neutered. If you go with a foster based rescue, the puppy or adult dog has already been in a home. Most of the work is done for you. The pet often comes housebroken. The foster parents know the dog well - they are good with kids, good with other dogs, don't like cats, etc. Done the right way, your children have fun picking out their new family member and it will be a permanent match.
The ASPCA recommends using the following guidelines when picking out a pet for your family and children:
Under 3 – Focus on introducing Baby to your current pets. It's not appropriate to bring in a new pet at this point.
3 to 5 – Guinea pigs are a good choice, as they like to be held, seldom bite and will whistle when excited or happy. Your child can help fill the water bottle or food dish. Keep in mind, with proper care they live 8 years.
5 to 10 – Choose shelf pets like mice, rats or fish. Kids can help clean cages with adult help, though you should always check to ensure that pets have food and water and cages are secured.
10 to 13 – Your child is now ready for the responsibility of a dog, cat or rabbit. Your child can help feed the pet, walk the dog, clean the rabbit cage and clean the cat litter, but you should always check to be sure pets have everything they need. Participation in dog training classes is an excellent learning opportunity for children.
14 to 17 – Your child may have more activities competing for his time and less time to spend with a pet. Birds or aquariums are a good choice. Remember, you will have the pet once they leave to go to college.