Pets as Presents – Planning Makes All the Difference

You’ve seen it in the movies – sweet little Suzy toddles down on Christmas morning to find her new puppy sitting patiently under the tree with a big red bow around his neck. Suzy squeals, runs to hug the puppy, who gives her a big lick on the cheek, and the two live happily ever after.

While it would be great if such holiday surprises always worked out so well, that’s often not the case. More frequently, 3-year-old Suzy, who is too young to know what caring for a pet really means, cries the first time Puppy bites her on the hand while the two are playing. Mom and Dad then pile him up in the car and drop him off at the local animal shelter along with the three to five million other dogs and cats returned to shelters each year.

But according to American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Senior Vice President Stephen Zawistowski, it doesn’t have to go this way. With some forethought and a sincere commitment, pets can be a wonderful gift to give your family.

Are You Ready for a Pet?
Before you decide to surprise your family with a new pet for the holidays, take into consideration the following to determine if your family is ready to take on the responsibility of caring for a pet:

  1. How old are your kids? Different pets are appropriate for different ages. For example, your 4-year-old who is pleading for a cat is not capable of taking on the responsibility. “Just because a child begs for a cat or kitten does not mean that they are ready to have one,” says Barb Wills, who operates Cats Haven, a no-kill shelter for cats in Indianapolis, Ind. Instead, says Zawistowski, you might consider a guinea pig, which is easy to care for, likes to be held and rarely bites.
  2. Do your kids really want a pet? “Children like animals, but not all children really want to have them around the house,” says Zawistowski. Contrary to popular belief, every little boy does not want or need a dog. Just because your little one enjoys playing with Grandma’s poodle does not mean he’s ready or even wants to take on full-time care of a poodle himself.
  3. Have you thought about the cost? “That’s one of the things people often fail to anticipate,” says Zawistowski. Many people don’t think past the initial fee required to adopt. But, he says, a cat costs about $350 to $400/year and a small or medium dog costs about $400 to $500/year, with larger dogs even more.
  4. Are you committed? Pets are not something that you can take home, try out and return if they don’t suit you. You’re taking on a commitment to care for that animal for the rest of its life. If your child is a teen, remember that the animal will be with you when your son or daughter heads off to college. “A cat can live to be at least 15 years – we have one here who is 21 years old,” says Wills. “The family has to realize that it is a lifetime commitment with vet visits, supplies needed for its care, with time and love to be spent on the pet.”
  5. Are you educated about what caring for an animal entails? Don’t forget that an animal’s an animal. That means cleaning up bathroom accidents and vomit, picked at furniture if you want a cat and dealing with other typical animal behaviors. “There are going to be bumps in the road,” says Zawistowski. “Be ready and committed to work through those bumps.”
  6. Don’t get a pet to teach your child responsibility. If your child fails to be responsible, the animal may be harmed. Instead, says Zawistowski, “It’s a great way of rewarding responsibility.”

Planning the Surprise

OK, so you’ve thought it through, and you feel that everyone is ready and committed. Now what? It’s probably not the best idea to have Fido or Socks waiting under the tree on Christmas morning – and of course, don’t EVER wrap them up, as we’ve all seen done on TV a million times.

Belinda Clarke, a mom living in Evanston, Ill., decided to surprise her mom with a new cat on Thanksgiving. “She was slightly apprehensive at first, since it was sprung on her, but since we had had a cat before (which had died several months before), I knew she would love it,” she says. “And she did – after about two minutes. Now both my parents absolutely love her.”

While Clarke’s holiday surprise did work out, many times the apprehension she describes doesn’t go away. So rather than have to take Kitty back to the shelter or find her a new home, Wills recommends purchasing a gift certificate from the shelter to give to your loved one. (You can also give a Pet Promise Certificate.) That way you still keep the element of surprise, but in case it’s unwanted, no animals are affected.

Another idea, according to Zawistowski – which may be more fun for kids – is to buy a stuffed dog or cat and have it sitting with the gifts. You can purchase some of the equipment for the pet like a carrier, leash or bed and have the stuffed animal all decked out in gear. Then you attach a note (or Pet Promise Certificate) saying everyone will go together to pick out their new pet after the holidays.

Bringing Home Your New Family Member

Before you go pick up your new pet, get your family involved in deciding what type, size and breed of animal you’d consider. Take a trip to the bookstore or library, and read up on which breed’s characteristics might fit in best with your family.

Once you’ve got an idea what you’re looking for, where should you go? An animal shelter. According to the ASPCA, each year millions of dogs enter shelters, yet of the approximately 59 million owned dogs in this country, less than 20 percent are shelter adoptees. By adopting at a shelter, you’re giving a homeless pet a new chance at life.

But there are other great reasons for going to a shelter. The cost is low, and there are often discounts on spaying and neutering. “They’re in the business to help animals have good homes, not to make money,” says Zawistowski. They also have a good selection of pets and knowledgeable staff to make sure you’re getting the right animal for your family.

Zawistowski also suggests logging on to, either at home or at the library, which 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, looking at pictures and profiles to find the perfect pet.

“You can turn this whole experience into an extraordinary experience for the kids,” says Zawistowski. “It’s fun to surprise, but it’s as much fun to have kids be a part of the process.”

When you’ve done it right, your child will likely end up with a longtime friend and companion. Says Zawistowski, “A child who can have a pet, it can be one of the most magnificent parts of their life.”

Age-appropriate Pets
Use the following guidelines when choosing pets for your children, as provided by the ASPCA:

  • 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.
  • 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.