We've all seen the scenes in Holiday movies when little Suzy rapidly opens a big red box and surprisingly out pops a beautiful yellow lab puppy. "Merry Christmas!" cheers the parents and the cute little family live happily ever after. Sounds fine and dandy but, in reality adopting a pet is a major responsibility and a decision that should not be made lightly. Sadly, what often happens to these defenseless pups is no happy ending. Mom and Dad 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.
First Ask Yourself: 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: How old are your kids? Different pets are appropriate for different ages. For example, your 4-year-old who is pleading for a pet is not capable of taking on the responsibility on their own. Instead, says Zawistowski, you might consider a guinea pig, which is easy to care for, likes to be held and rarely bites. 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. It is important to understand how much time and dedication is needed in animal raising and care-taking. Have you thought about the cost? One of the things people often fail to anticipate; cost. Many people don’t think past the initial fee required to adopt. But according to specialists, a small or medium dog costs about $400 to $500/year, with larger dogs even more. Between food, toys, and vet visits, dogs are not a cheap commitment. Are you committed? Pets are not a new pair of shoes. They 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. The average lifespan for dogs are 10-13 years. 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. 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, keeping chewable items out of reach, 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.” 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 Big 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. When getting an animal as a gift, it may be safer to take another route than jump to purchase a pet. If the recipient has second thoughts about the gift, the situation turns dimmer and may lead to an unhappy pet. So rather than have to take the lil pup back to the shelter or find her a new home, specialists recommend 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, which may be more fun for kids, is to buy a stuffed dog 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 Furry Friend 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, the next question is: 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 more 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 PetFinder.com, 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. When you’ve done it right, your child will likely end up with a longtime friend and companion. For child who can have a pet, it can be one of the most magnificent parts of their life.
Helpful Suggestions: Age-Appropriate Pets Use the following guidelines when choosing pets for your children, as provided by the ASPCA: Under 3 – Focus on introducing the 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.
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