5 reasons not to give a pet as a Christmas gift (and one idea how to do it, if you insist)

5 reasons not to give a pet as a Christmas gift (and one idea how to do it, if you insist) December 20, 2011

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care ... (photo courtesy of Gentle Shepherd Farms)

There’s nothing cuter than the image of a fluffy little puppy under the Christmas tree, big red bow tied around is neck, surrounded by brightly wrapped packages, just waiting for your children to pad downstairs in the their little jammies as they cry out with delight. Oooh! Aaaah!! A puppy!

That, my friends, is one dangerous image.

Christmas is not the time to introduce a new puppy to the family, especially if it’s a surprise gift. Unlike the ugly sweater Aunt Edith sent from Peoria or the rock tumbler Grandma Jones thought your spouse would love, a puppy isn’t a product that can be returned if it doesn’t fit. The same goes for kittens and gerbils and hamsters and lizards and fish and sugar gliders …

Here are 5 reasons why puppies make terrible presents (and, at the end, one fantastic way for you to give a pet for Christmas and do it in a humane way that benefits the gift recipient and the animal):

Too cute! But he's only going to stay this way for very little while.

1) That adorable little fluff ball everyone falls in love with today will very soon turn into an adolescent canine with more energy than brains and after that a full grown, adult dog with adult dog needs. Sure, today you can stick little Fido in a basket where he’ll fall asleep for 20 out of 24 hours (the other four he’s peeing or eating). But after about a week of that he’s going to be awake and ready for action. And after that, he’s not going to be 5 lbs anymore. He’s more likely going to be 40 lbs or 60 lbs or more.

That cute fluff ball becomes this drooling giant. Lovely and wonderful - if you know ahead of time what you're getting into.

A St. Bernard puppy is cute; a St. Bernard dog is still cute – but it’s a drooling, shedding, giant poops in the backyard for a decade kind of cute.  Make sure you’re being realistic; a cute puppy lasts a few months, but an adult dog sticks around for years. Make sure that when you’re adding a pet to your family – whether it’s a dog or cat – you understand that you’re making a commitment for a decade or more. A physical, emotional and financial commitment. 

Little tiny puppy, big scary new house. (This is Bailey, the day I brought her home from the shelter.)


2) Christmas is an exciting, stressful time, so now isn’t the best time for a puppy to make the transition to his new home. You’re off schedule, there are lots of people in and out (and some of them may be adding to your stress level), and things can be overwhelming and confusing for a little puppy. Imagine if you were suddenly plucked from your family and plopped into a completely strange environment where you didn’t know anyone or understand the language.

When you bring home a new dog, he needs time to settle in, get all the smells down, learn the routine, get a sense of where he is and what’s going on around him. Some experts estimate that it can take a couple of weeks before a dog settles into his new routine. For a shelter dog, it can take even longer – in the space of maybe a week he may have gone from the streets to a kennel to new home. That’s confusing, frightening, and very stressful. He needs a calm environment with patient people who can help him adjust, who will understand that he may need to bark or mark or chew or hide under the kitchen table for a week or more. What he doesn’t need is to be dragged around to visit relatives, where he’s constantly encountering more strange people and environments.

Dogs do dog stuff. Are you prepared for dirt, dog hair, and chewed shoes? (This is my dog Scout. We should have named him Mud.)


3) A puppy is cute but it’s still a live animal with live animal needs. He’s going to pee and poop – probably on your carpet, your furniture, your new sweater from Aunt Edith. He’s going to need to learn to go outside to do his business, which will mean trips to the backyard every hour – even through the night. Yes, friends, you need to get up with darling little fluff ball and take him outside to potty. Even if you crate train him, you need to help him learn that the best place to potty is outside. (As he grows, he’s going to bark and dig and run away and chew your shoes and destroy your laptop power cord and shed all over your house. We have two dogs that eat poop. Who could have predicted that?)

And there are lots more things a puppy can get into at Christmas time – from ribbon on packages (which can tie up a dog’s digestive tract faster than you can say, “Ho ho ho!”) to Christmas ornaments (think about what a wire ornament hanger can do in a puppy’s throat) to chocolate, cookies and plants (poison, poison, poison). Is Christmas really the time you want to be on 24/7 alert for the kids’ toys and stray candies and other puppy dangers?

4) It’s easier to fall for the puppy mill dog at Christmas. Oh, look at that puppy in the window at the mall! That purebred little darling is just ready to come home with you right now! Did you know that most dogs sold in pet stores come from puppy mills? Despite what the store owner will tell you, puppy mills pump out dogs for stores all across the country, dogs that come from inbred, inhumanely treated, filthy conditions. Oh, but you don’t see that on the store window. (The video above is from an undercover investigation by Companion Animal Protection Society of one of the country’s largest USDA approved dog breeding facilities. If you bought a puppy from a pet store, chances are it came from here.)

Believe it or not, you can find lots of purebred dogs at the shelter, dogs who are there for simple reasons, like their owner passed away or moved. Not all shelter dogs are strays or problem dogs. In fact, there are lots of dogs that were sold for hundreds and thousands of dollars at the pet shop that end up at the shelter after the owners realize that puppies bark and pee and chew – where you can fall in love with him for a nominal adoption fee.

This is my cat, Murphy. I wasn't sure I even wanted a cat the day I stopped at the shelter, and after visiting with several kittens I was pretty convinced I didn't. Then Murphy came into the room, and it was love at first meow.


5) Just because you like a puppy doesn’t mean he’ll like you – or the person you’re buying for. Adding a canine – or kitty, for that matter – to your household needs to be a family decision. Oftentimes people will go to a shelter looking for a specific kind of animal and instantly bond with another that looks nothing like what they’d imagined they’d bring home. That’s because, much like humans, dogs like certain people and they don’t like others. Most dog and cat lovers will tell you that when they met their animal soulmate, they “just knew.”  You can’t make that happen for someone else.

And you need to find a pet that matches your family dynamics – for example, if you’re bookworms who spend a lot of quiet time indoors, a Border collie is not the dog for you. (In fact, you need to be slightly crazy to own Border collies as pets; I speak from experience.) And just because you once had a chocolate Lab doesn’t mean every chocolate Lab is going to like you or act like your last chocolate Lab. Dogs have personalities, just like people.

And imagine how you’d feel if you really didn’t want a pet at all – but ta da! Someone handed you a live animal and expected you to be happy. And take care of it. For years.

But hey! We want to give a dog or cat as a gift – to our kids, to a parent, to a friend. All is not lost – there is a fantastic way to give the gift and do what’s best for the animal!

Give a gift certificate! It can be something you make up yourself, offering to take  your loved one to the shelter or rescue store and let them pick out the pet they want, and you’ll pay the adoption fee. You can even add in lunch or a trip to the pet shop to stock up on litter or dog toys or whatever else they might need. It’s a great way to spend time with someone you love, and help them meet the new furry friend they were meant to have! And even better, if the person decides not to get a pet, you haven’t spent money or put a live animal into a situation where it needs to be rehomed.




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