Pets: Family Members, Not Holiday Gifts

What would Junior really love to find under the Christmas tree this year? A wiggly little puppy, of course! And wouldn’t Hannah love a hamster for Hanukkah? Grandma Sally has been lonely since her husband passed away. A kitten would be the perfect surprise, right? It’s easy to be tempted to give a pet as a holiday gift. If you find yourself considering doing so, do me a favor: Complete your holiday shopping as far away from anywhere a pet can be purchased as possible. Pets make terrible surprise gifts.

But I Got a Dog for Christmas When I Was Five and It Was the Best Present Ever…

Many people are tempted to give pets as holiday gifts because of a fond memory from their own childhood. Usually, the memory involves being surprised with the perfect pet, which of course caused the family no trouble and grew up into a well-behaved companion who will be remembered with love by all who knew him or her. But, for every such idyllic memory, there are several pets who were given as presents and soon given away again, abandoned, put to sleep (“sent to live on a nice farm”), or dumped at a shelter when it became apparent that the surprise wasn’t as wonderful when it started peeing on the rug, bit the neighbor, the kids lost interest, or it scratched the sofa.

Why Pets Given as Gifts Rarely Stay in the Same Home for Life

Only 30% of dogs in America remain in the same home for their entire lives after weaning. For dogs given as surprise gifts, the statistics are even worse. Think about it: What makes your own pet so special to you? For most people, it’s the bond between pet and owner. Other people’s pets are perfectly nice, but you just don’t feel the same connection to them that you did to Fido or Fluffy right from the first time you saw him or her, right?

When pets are given as holiday gifts, the recipient doesn’t have a chance to pick the the perfect match from a shelter or a litter bred by a reputable, responsible breeder. The match might work out, or it might not. Then there’s the matter of preparedness. A surprise gift doesn’t leave much room for acquiring supplies, researching care, preparing for the change in one’s daily routine caused by a new family member, discussing vet care, diet, vaccinations, exercise, litterbox scooping… You get the picture.

Acquiring a pet should be a decision made with the full knowledge and agreement of every member of the household, and only after sufficient study of the new pet’s needs, and discussion of who will meet each need and how it will be met.

The One Right Way to Give the Gift of Pet Parenthood

Yes, there is a right way. But it doesn’t involve a warm puppy leaping out of a wrapped box with a ribbon bow on his head on Christmas morning. If you want to give someone you love the gift of a pet this holiday season, first make sure that they truly want and are prepared for a pet. Make sure everyone in the household is on board and ready to take their share of the responsibility for a new family member.

If the potential recipient is a child, be sure that the parents (especially if you are one of the parents!) understand that, when it comes to pet care, the buck stops with grownups. If a child forgets to feed or walk a pet, the pet must not suffer in order to “teach the child a lesson.” Parents can assign pet care chores to children,  but only with the understanding that, when it comes right down to it, the pet belongs to the adults in the household.

If you’ve determined that the recipient is ready to care for a pet and that the gift won’t make unpleasant waves in the household, it’s time to give the perfect present: Present your loved one with a wrapped package of pet supplies. As they puzzle over the contents of their package (“What? But I don’t have a dog!”), hand over an envelope containing a handmade gift certificate entitling the bearer to choose a pet available for adoption at their favorite animal rescue or shelter, with the understanding that you, the gift-giver, will pay all fees associated with the adoption.

This method is responsible, easy, and lets the new pet parent find their perfect new companion themselves, rather than leaving you to guess which available pet would be the best fit. As a bonus, it guarantees the recipient will be saving a life by adopting. Happy giving!

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