Guest Post by: Deborah Kaufman
When my husband Jim was 8 years old, he raced down the stairs on Christmas morning to find his new puppy, Buffy, sleeping peacefully in a soft dog bed, surrounded by cozy blankets and a small, ticking clock, to mimic the pup’s mother’s heartbeat. Jimmy jumped for joy, squealed, and gently pet the sleeping puppy. And the two live happily ever after: Buffy was a strong addition to the family, and remained a loyal, loving companion for 16 years.
While it would be great if all holiday surprises always worked out so well, that’s often not the case. More frequently, 8-year-old Jim, who would have been too young to know what caring for a pet really means, may have balked at walking the dog, and howled the first time Buffy bit him on the hand while the two were rough-housing. Often the scenario is that frustrated Mom and Dad then pile Holiday-Surprise Puppy Buffy into the car and drop her off at the local animal shelter, along with the estimated three to five million other dogs and cats returned to shelters each year…after the glow of the holiday season has faded.
Experts agreed that pets should never be an impulse purchase. According to Veterinarian Gary Richter, “When you take on a pet (either a dog or a cat) you are taking on 10 to 20 years of responsibility. That is an unfair burden to give to someone without their knowledge. What I recommend is to give pet supplies with a card that states that if they want to select a pet from a shelter you will pay for it. That way, the person receiving the gift makes the decision to have the pet and to take on the responsibility of owning a pet, plus, they get to choose what pet suits their lifestyle.”
Animal Companions & the WOW Factor
Maria Dales is the founder of German Shepherd Rescue Orange County (GSROC), located in Newport Beach, California, a non-profit organization dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating and re-homing German Shepherds. Dales explains, “There is still a disturbing trend toward ‘surprising’ children with pets as a “WOW” factor holiday gift. Many reputable rescue groups suspend the placement of puppies and kittens during the holiday season, suggesting that families opt for a gift certificate instead. That way, that they can choose a new family member together, after the hoopla of the holiday season subsides.”
According to Dales, “Sadly, every year, January brings us calls from parents telling us that they didn’t think it through when they got a Christmas pet, or from senior citizens who say that they were presented with a puppy that they didn’t want and have no ability to care for. There are always those post-holiday calls from parents who tell us that their daughter was given a puppy by her boyfriend, without the parents’ approval, so the puppy has to leave immediately. This happens more often than you might think!”
Pets selected as holiday gifts are exciting in the instant, says Dales, but not valued over the long term. “The danger of pets as an impulse decision is that when the reality of day-to-day care and ongoing expenses set in, will the thrill turn to regret, or even worse, resentment? Parents who think that surprising their children with a pet as a holiday gift are sending a bad message, putting living, sentient creatures at the same level as inanimate objects. They miss an important opportunity to take their child to the local animal shelter; adopt responsibly; and give an animal companion a good home. In this way, children can participate in and enjoy the happiness of adding a family member, regardless of what date it is.”
Animal Companions: It’s a Family Affair
Dr. Aubrey Fine, Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI) pioneer, author, professor at California State Polytechnic University; and licensed psychologist, agrees that caring for an animal companion can and should involve the entire family, especially committed and responsible parents. In his book, Our Faithful Companions: Exploring the Essence of Our Kinship with Animals (2014), Dr. Fine explores why we create enduring bonds with our companion animals; and the role that animals have in promoting a warmer and kinder world. Throughout the book, Dr. Fine weaves in powerful anecdotes of people who have been affected by their interactions with animals, as well as scientific evidence to support the importance of the bond. Chapters on choosing the right pet, children and pets, and considerations for parents, are accompanied by helpful charts to help you make the right choices for your family.
“While children can help with age-appropriate responsibilities, pets also require the support of adult caretakers, “ explains Dr. Fine. “Children must be reminded that their pets are very dependent on the family for care. The entire family must realize the responsibilities that it takes to have a pet join the family. Even the most eager and bright youngsters typically don’t have the strength, attention span, self-discipline and physical strength to care for a dog on their own.”
“Older children may initially have good intentions,” says Dr. Fine, “but may redirect their time and attention to other social activities, friends, school, sports and eventually dating and planning for college. In this manner their engagement may drift from supporting a pet which will need their attention and nurturing.”
Dr. Fine explains, “Unlike other holiday presents, owners cannot put the pet away in the attic after the novelty wears off. In nearly all cases, parents must be considered as the primary caretaker. Parents should think of strategies to keep children engagement including teaching them better ways to interact with their new family member. By teaching family members that their relationship with their new pet must be nurtured, parents may get a better buy-in from the entire family.”
“When families make plans to adopt an animal, they must take into consideration their lifestyle and a ‘goodness of fit’ to their family. Then, the new pet’s integration may become more smooth and successful,” says Dr. Fine.
Guidelines: Animal Companions & Families
If and when a family makes a deliberate and informed decision to take on the forever responsibility of an animal companion, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) recommends using the following guidelines. Guidelines stress that parents must be ready and eager to assume the life-long care for the animal. This is especially important during the holidays and other busy times:
Under 3 – Focus on introducing your infant or toddler 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 must always check to ensure that pets have food and water, and cages are secured.
10 to 13 – Your child, in partnership with a responsible adult, 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 must 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.
Experts recommend adopting animal companions from animal shelters, rescue organizations, friends, or family – not from places where the source of the animal is unknown or untrusted, such as puppy mills.
How to Properly Pick Out a Holiday Pet
Jim Hanophy, CEO of Operation Kindness, the largest no-kill animal shelter in North Texas, thinks pets can make perfect presents for the holiday season, if parents give careful and responsible forethought. Hanophy offers the following advice to would-be adopters on how to properly pick out a pet for a holiday gift:
Selection & Fit – If an adult wants to give another adult a pet, then we recommend they pick it out together. “Whoever is going to be the main caregiver should be involved in selecting their pet. This helps ensure that the person is invested in and prepared for the responsibilities involved, and it allows pet and owner to start bonding right away, “ said Hanophy.
“The situation is a little different for parents who want to bring home pets for their children because the parents usually end up being the main caregivers,” explained Hanophy. “However, when children are part of the adoption and decision-making process, they are more likely to feel a greater sense of responsibility for their pets and take a more active role in their care. By purchasing a gift certificate for adoption, the parents are able to include their children in the adoption process. “
Age of Animal Companions – Keep in mind the age of the pet. “Kittens and puppies generally have more energy and need to play more often than adults. If the person adopting does not have enough time or energy to commit to playtime, then that person may prefer a more mature cat or senior dog,” said Hanophy.
Breeds & Needs – Hanophy explains that “Size, breed and grooming habits should be factored in to the decision. For example, some dog and cat breeds require more grooming or exercise than others; some are better with children than others; and some are more adaptable to change. Before adopting, people should think about their family’s lifestyle and make sure the pet is a good fit.”
Other Gift-Giving Options
Other holiday gift options are available at local shelters, ranging from Gift Certificates; to Shelter Donation Support Programs, which can help defray medical, food and costs and other associated expenses that shelters typically shoulder. For example, at Operation Kindness, they offer:
Gift certificates for a pet – this allows the recipient to receive a gift on the holiday and the chance to participate in the adoption process. Each gift certificate covers the adoption fee of a dog or cat and comes with a food bowl and accessories. The gift certificate is valid for 90 days after the initial purchase to ensure that the perfect pet is available.
Happy Tails Society Memberships – for those who are passionate about animals but are not looking to adopt, a membership to Happy Tails Society provides a monthly gift to help pay for medical care, medicine, food, shelter, nurturing, and behavior training, and anything a pet needs to have a second chance at life. This monthly gift starting at $19 a month saves lives all year long. The recipient will receive a one of the kind holiday card featuring an animal from Operation Kindness, information about their membership, a Happy Tails Society decal and monthly e-newsletter featuring a Happy Tail of how their membership is making a positive impact.
Check with your local animal shelter, to explore donation programs that could spread holiday cheer by helping to support the shelter’s mission.
Research & Preparation Is Key, Regardless of the Date on the Calendar
According to Heidi Ganahl, CEO of Camp Bow Wow, a growing pet care franchise that specializes in dog daycare, boarding, training and in-home pet care, “Individuals and families thinking of getting a pet should research, prepare and then, when the time is right, seek a pet that realistically complements their lifestyle, schedule and energy level,” since many people do not have the time, energy or money to care for a dog over the long term.
5 benefits to pet adoption, once a family has done their due diligence
1. General Benefits – There’s a reason that they say dog is man’s best friend. Having a pet, not limited to dogs, is something that everyone should experience at some point in their life. Pets can be calming, mood lifting, empathetic, and so much more. They teach you how to be selfless and responsible as you are caring over another life (for those of you without children). Generally speaking, they make you happy.
2. Save the Life of a Shelter Pet – Only 29% of cats and dogs are adopted from shelters; the rest are left to live in the rescue centers or, worse – euthanized. Bottom line: Adopting a pet saves their life. Give a dog or cat a home they wouldn’t have otherwise.
3. Stress Reduction – Some studies show that people begin to feel less anxious after spending less than an hour with an animal. There are endless benefits from lowering your stress level and while the things that we find stressful in our lives are often hard to cut out, including an animal in your life can help.
4. Helps with Depression – In some cases, therapists suggest to patients suffering from depression that they adopt a pet. An animal will love you unconditionally and also be a great friend and listener. People with depression often benefit from having a pet, as the animal can help them get out of the house and out of their own head.
5. Engaged Mind – A key to a healthy mind, especially for those who are elderly, is staying engaged with others. A pet is often a conversation-starter; and being outdoors with a pet often invites questions or comments from passersby. Bringing your dog to a dog park is a great way to meet other people with similar interests.
Ganahl urges would-be adopters to make sure that they are financially ready for this responsibility. “A new pet can go from ‘free-to-a-good-home’ to several thousand dollars,” she explains. “A budget must be set not only for the upfront cost of taking the pet home, but also for immediate follow-up costs like veterinary check-ups, a training crate and pet obedience classes. Also keep in mind that your pet will need to be fed and groomed and will also need chew toys and additional supplies like food bowls, a dog bed, brushes, leashes, etc. Also keep in mind the necessary chunk of money needed for veterinary emergencies. You might also think about getting pet insurance for your new family member to help keep the cost of veterinary bills more affordable.”
Don’t Forget About the Cats
According to Shawn Simons, the Founder and Headmistress at nonprofit organization Kitty Bungalow Charm School for Wayward Cats, a 100% street cat rescue in Los Angeles, “Christmas is a crazy busy time for us with adoptions. Often I feel like I am working at the GAP and people are grabbing at sweaters on Christmas Eve, but in this case they are kittens on the table. Even with the frenzy, I have to say, I am absolutely pro this idea. In October, we were smack dab in the middle of another holiday adoption controversy with Halloween and black cats. I feel the same about that.”
Simons explains that “the onus is on us – the adoption organization – to understand people well enough, to ask the right questions, to counsel but pre and post adoption to know that this is the right match for the right house. That said, we are a very progressive organization. We don’t throw up impossible road blocks prior to adoptions, we don’t do home checks–but we do train our adoption counselors well and spend time with adopters in conversations and help to find them the right match.”
“In terms of the holidays,” says Simons, “for the most part it is parents coming to fulfill the wishes of their children. They are the adults and the decision-makers. Everything you need to know about the situation is right in front of you. What we don’t do is let boyfriends, sisters or other relations take the plunge for another adult decision-maker. For that we provide a Christmas special where the adult gets a kitten photo under the tree and gets to come to the Bungalow to pick out their kitten.”
Wrapping Up This Holiday Tail: Happy Endings
Buying an animal companion for a holiday surprise can be a surprising mistake, especially if you haven’t thought it through. Instead of buying a puppy or kitten as a surprise gift, give books on pet selection, training, care, health and diet, and individual breeds. Videos and subscriptions to pet magazines and newsletters also are good choices, as are stuffed animals and donations to your local shelter.
These presents are appropriate ways to introduce the commitment and the joys of adopting an animal companion. It’s a decision that everyone in the household should make together. Careful forethought and planning will benefit everyone – the gift giver, the family and the deserving animal.
Thank you to Deborah Kaufman. Deborah regularly blogs about Pet Health and General Healthcare Issues/Trends. You can follow her on Twitter @debhealthcare, and view her blog at healthcareprcommunications.blogspot.com