The scene has been replayed so often in popular culture that it has come to symbolize the holidays as much as tinsel and candy canes: A shopper, with freshly wrapped packages bulging out of two different bags, casually walks by a pet store window as the snow falls gently around her. The puppies behind the glass, all floppy ears and paws, madly scramble over each other trying to capture the shopper's attention. The temptation is too great. The shopper whisks into the store and impulsively purchases an animal for her beloved.
The classic Hollywood scene, unfortunately, has roots in reality. This season, many shoppers will buy a dog or cat to give to a friend or loved one. Their motivations can be as varied as the snowflake: Some will buy an animal on impulse, some because they're caught up in the spirit of the season, and some just because the doggie looks so darn cute in the pet shop window.
None of them is the right reason to add a new pet to the family.
Adding a pet to the family is a serious, long-term commitment. It's a decision that needs input from everyone who would be involved in caring for the animal.
There are many questions that need to be considered thoughtfully: What type of animal would have a personality most compatible with a person or family? Who would be the primary caregiver of the pet? How much will it cost to feed and provide veterinary care? Who would look after the animal during trips? Could someone be allergic to the pet? It is extremely important that the primary pet caregiver-whether it's you, a friend or loved one-is 100% involved in the adoption process.
Instead of buying a puppy or kitten as a gift, consider waiting to adopt a pet after the holidays. You could even build some excitement for a post-holiday adoption. You could give a loved one a "gift certificate" from a local shelter, or a snapshot of a shelter pet, or even a stuffed animal representing a shelter pet-all which can be used as "passports" to adopt an animal later. You could also wrap up some useful pet supplie-a dog bowl, a cat collar, a scratching post, or an exercise wheel for a hamster or gerbil (animals that are popular during the holidays)-and give those as "passports" as well.
This not only promotes responsible adoption, but provides a little fun, too. After the holidays, if your loved ones decide they are indeed willing and able to adopt a pet, you can bring them down to the local shelter where they can use their "passport" to adopt their new friend.
The alternative to this scenario can be sadder than the Island of Misfit Toys.
Toni Baker of the Louisiana SPCA remembers when a young man insisted on adopting a kitten for his mother as a Christmas gift. The SPCA strongly discouraged him, explaining all the reasons why it's not a good idea to adopt an animal for another person, but the young man was adamant. Against their better judgment, SPCA staffers allowed him to adopt the kitten.
The SPCA's initial concerns, as you might suspect, were well-grounded: That same young man turned up the very next day with the kitten and his mother, a woman who did not want the responsibility of owning a pet. In the end, the kitten was eventually adopted by a loving home, but as Baker said, that was a "miracle" that almost never happens.
Shelters too often bear the brunt of these unexpected gift decisions. When the recipient decides the pet is not that cute anymore, or too much work, or they just weren't ready for the responsibility, it is often the local shelter that takes in these animals. And because so many shelters are already filled to capacity, unless other animals are adopted out to make room for the new ones, euthanasia is a possible ending to an already sad tale.
As Nancy Peterson, a companion animal issues specialist for The HSUS, says, "It's important to remember that animal shelters, and their innocent charges, will suffer the effects of impulse purchases of pets as gifts. Deciding whether one has the time and resources to add a pet to the family needs to be made after careful thought. We need to remember that pets can't simply be returned or discarded like a broken toy."
If you're thinking about becoming a pet owner you must also consider the place from which you will obtain your pet. Many pet stores purchase their animals from "puppy mills," mass-breeding operations so bent on making a profit that they often disregard the physical, social, and emotional well-being of the animals in their facilities. Puppy mill-raised animals can suffer from severe physical and emotional ailments, and some may even die. The only way to put these facilities out of business is to hit them where it hurts: in the wallet. Don't purchase an animal from a pet store.
Instead, head to your local animal shelter and breed rescue group, which are wonderful places to find a new pet. Nationwide, one out of every four shelter dogs is a purebred, and there are millions of healthy mixed breed animals currently awaiting good homes, too. Most of these shelter animals have already been spayed or neutered, and have received all their vaccinations and up-to-date veterinary checkups. Shelters also screen animals for adoption so they can be sure of a perfect family match.
Adoption is the best way to add a new pet to any family. Just wait until after the gifts have been opened and the New Year's corks have been popped. Your decision to wait may be the best gift you give your family this holiday season.