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Is a New Pet the Right Gift for the Holidays?

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The holidays are all about giving and unwrapping wonderful surprises in packages both big and small. But one Yuletide surprise you should think twice about foisting onto an unsuspecting recipient is a new puppy, kitten, bird, small mammal or other pet -- the kind of Christmas gift that can open a Pandora 's Box of troubles, say the experts.

While it may be exciting to choose a new pet companion for a child or loved one during the holiday season, the timing couldn't be worse, according to Adam Goldfarb, an issues specialist in the Companion Animals Department of The Humane Society of the United States.

"The holidays are such a busy time for people, with all the travelling, shopping, decorating and such that goes on,'' Goldfarb said. "When you bring a new pet into a household, you want to make sure it has an easy time adapting. But with all the hustle and bustle of the season, it's harder for the pet to adapt.''

Linda Register, DVM, a veterinarian from Tampa, Fla., said that a new furry or feathered friend is probably an unwise Christmas gift for several reasons. In addition to the holidays being so hectic and stressful for families who may be home less than usual, giving a pet as a present may be sending the wrong message, especially to children.

"It may give the child the impression that the pet is a commodity rather than a member of the family,'' Register said. "Also, you need to be sure that the loved one really wants a pet. For example, some retired people don't want pets so they have the freedom to travel on a moment's notice. Or if a loved one has lost a pet, they may not be ready for a new one.''

Other considerations

Additionally, if the new owner "has allergies or pet fears, then the individual's well-being is also at risk,'' said Meghan E. Herron, DVM, Behavioral Medicine Resident, Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. "One big risk of providing a child with a surprise pet is that some pets have an unknown history with children. If an adult is not able to observe the pet's interaction with this child before the purchase or adoption, the child may be at risk for injury should the pet become aggressive.''

It's one thing to get a dog for your family, Goldfarb said. "But when you're talking about acquiring a pet for someone who's not a part of your immediate family, it may not be a very fair gift to give. There's so much responsibility that comes with caring for a pet during its lifetime. With a kitten, you're looking at up to a 20-year commitment, and a dog could live 15 years or more. Then, consider that the owner will spend thousands of dollars in food, toys and veterinarian bills and have to commit to the time and effort of caring for a pet. For instance, a dog needs training, socialization and at least two walks a day.''

Set on a pet

If you're still determined to give an animal as a gift to someone, follow these tips:

  • Be sure it's not a complete surprise, Goldfarb said. Check with the future owner first to be sure they want the breed and have the willingness, resources and schedule to care for the animal.
  • Avoid buying a pet from a commercial pet store, many of which purchase puppies or kittens from high-volume mills where the animals' health and safety may be at risk. Instead, adopt from an animal shelter or rescue group or purchase from a responsible breeder that you research carefully first.
  • Prior to giving the pet as a gift, be sure it is evaluated by a veterinarian and appropriately vaccinated and dewormed, Herron said. Having a microchip installed is also highly recommended.
  • Don't "wrap up'' a new dog, cat or other pet in a box, ribbons, bows or other paraphernalia, which can be dangerous to the animal, Herron said.

Animal alternatives

Still insist on rewarding the pet lover in your life with an animal-minded gift this holiday season? Consider these alternatives:

  • Wrap up a stuffed animal of the pet you want to give and have your recipient trade that in for the real thing when the time is better, suggests Maxell Conn, DVM, a veterinarian in Pismo Beach, Calif.
  • Give the person a pet toy, leash, cage or other accessory as a "down payment'' gift on a pet that will come at a more convenient time.
  • Purchase a gift certificate to an animal shelter or pet supply store.
  • Donate to the person's favorite animal charity.
  • Buy him or her a gift membership to their local zoo.
  • Give a child a virtual pet toy or video game that encourages care for an electronic pet, such as the Petz series by Ubisoft or Nintendogs by Nintendo.
Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D. 
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