By Iris Winston
If you are thinking how your grandchild’s eyes will sparkle when you give her a puppy or kitten for Christmas, complete with a red bow round its neck, reconsider. The vision is appealing — for a moment. But the consequences could be really upsetting for the animal and for a family that may not be sure they want the additional work and expense that are part of the long-term responsibility of owning a pet. Altogether, it is probably one of the worst choices you could make, particularly if you intend the gift to be a surprise.
In the first place, it is a bad idea to give a pet to anyone at any time of year, without making sure they are prepared to care for an animal properly. Choosing to bring a live being into the house should be a decision agreed on by every member of the family. Everyone should understand that they are making a commitment for the lifetime of the animal. That is 13 years or more for a dog and 15-plus for a cat. Time enough for kids to finish school and head off to university or college, so even if they really care about the animal and deal with the bulk of feeding, training, grooming, walking and even vet visits, after they leave home, their parents become the primary caregivers.
Therefore, it is very important that all family members are involved in choosing and caring for and about the pet. Every animal deserves to be more than the result of an impulsive acquisition or the whim of a gift giver.
Even supposing the family are quite certain they want a pet and are ready and waiting for the pup or kitten who is coming into their home, the holiday season is a bad time to introduce the new family member to a strange environment. Simply put, there is too much happening for the animal to receive the attention it deserves. All the noise and activity associated with the holiday season are likely to be very frightening for any animal in an unfamiliar place.
Children are preoccupied with new toys or electronic marvels. Parents are busy with food preparation and entertaining. Who will take the pup out 20 minutes after he has eaten to begin his housetraining routine? And it is important to take him out, rather than opening the door to the backyard. How will he learn unless he is praised for doing what you want him to do where you want him to do it? Who will watch to make sure a kitten doesn’t start playing with the tinsel on the tree and perhaps choke after swallowing a string? And, most of all, who will give the new babes the comfort and love that are a major part of helping them settle into their new home?
The new arrival deserves time, undivided attention and peace and quiet. It is unlikely that enough of any of these elements will be available during the chaos of the holiday season.
From another perspective, it is a sad fact that animal shelters usually have a greater selection of animals in January, February and March. Many of them turn out to have been gifts, delivered without checking on various recipients’ willingness to make an animal a meaningful part of family life for several years. Many are surrendered because of “behavioural problems.” It is likely this means no one paid enough attention to the animal’s needs or training.
If you are sure that everyone in the family wants an animal companion, wait until the holiday rush is over before going with them to the animal shelter, rescue organization or breeder. This special outing is not a shopping trip. It is an adoption excursion. And adoption is about making a connection between the animal in question and the family taking him into their home. Personalities, energy levels and type must be a good fit. So, no surprises. Grandparents may be happy to foot the bill, but the family that is taking the new resident into the home for the rest of his life must be sure the adoption is in everyone’s best interests — human and animal.
The holiday season is the time to present a food dish, a leash or a dog or cat bed — all to indicate that preparations are underway for the new family member. Just make sure the actions are in the right order and at the right time. Pave the way for the new pet to be properly welcomed and cared for. Then you will see how much love they have to give and how much joy they can provide for many years.
Almonte, Ontario, writer Iris Winston is a former Executive Director of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies. She has been an animal lover all her life. Her pets have always been important members of her family.