Pets as presents? Think twice

A 4-legged gift may not be the best idea

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MIAMI - As the holiday season approaches, many families decide to surprise their loved ones with a Christmas kitty or a Hanukkah hound.  While the sight of a puppy under the Christmas tree may be adorable, there are many things to consider before giving the gift of a sentient being that will live for roughly 15 years.  Here are just a few things to consider:

Does the recipient want a pet?

If you are shopping for an adult, don't be afraid to ruin a potential surprise.  Many people love animals and gush profusely over them, yet lack the desire or the ability to keep a pet of their own.  Pet ownership requires time, effort, energy and commitment.  If your loved one cannot provide a suitable environment for a pet, or simply does not want to, please do not give them one as a gift.  Do not assume they will change their mind or make adjustments when they see that cuddly kitten in their Christmas stocking.  If they tell you they do not want a pet, respect their wishes.

Do the children understand that a pet is a responsibility?

Children tire of new things quickly, and younger kids may be frightened of a nipping puppy or a kitten's sharp claws.  Be certain that your children have had enough exposure to animals for you to assess whether or not they are ready to live with one.  Make sure your children are not allergic to pet hair or dander before considering adding a pet to your family.  Most importantly, be sure you are ready to care for the new pet yourself, and that *your* lifestyle is compatible with a new pet.  While bringing home a pet is a great opportunity to teach kids responsibility, prepare for the worst case scenario of having to pick up their slack, just in case.

Is now the right time?

The hectic holiday season may not be the best time to do an honest lifestyle assessment, or to  help a new pet acclimate.  New pets come with new rules, especially for children.  And the chaotic holiday season is not the best time for rolling out a new set of expectations. It is always our recommendation to add a pet to the family either before or after the holiday hustle and bustle. 

If you have decided you are ready for a pet, decide if you would like to adopt an adult, or bring home a puppy or kitten.  Puppies and kittens (especially puppies), whilst adorable, require a tremendous amount of patience and work.  They cry throughout the night.  They need to be potty trained.  They need to be socialized, and are constantly learning.  They chew, they jump, they make mistakes.  And just when you think the puppy nonsense is over, they morph into rebellious adolescents.  Our young Zohan was an easy puppy, but his adolescence was a nightmare.  Raising him from eight weeks was rewarding and fun, and was he ever cute!  But make no mistake - it was a *lot* of work.  Ask yourself if you have the patience for a puppy and be honest. 

The other option is to adopt an older pet.  The down side is that you miss out on the puppy/kitten phase.  The upside is that you miss out on the puppy/kitten phase!  While adopting an older pet can mean adopting a pet with an uncertain medical or behavioral history, reputable rescues do a great job of maintaining histories when possible.  A certified trainer or behaviorist will often offer pet selection services that can help you to assess an older pet's temperament.  Their trained eyes can easily spot behaviors and character traits that can help you to choose a pet with the right temperament for your family.  It is always wise to consult these caring professionals when bringing home a new addition, whether it be a youngster or an adult.

For the past few years, roughly 25 percent of dogs in shelters have been purebreds.  While the numbers are lower for cats, it is not at all unusual to find a Siamese, Himalayan, Persian or Manx in a shelter.  Consider a visit to your local shelter or rescue organization, or look for breed specific rescues that operate as a series of foster homes.  A simple Google search such as "German Shepherd rescue, Miami" is a great place to start.  In addition to older pets, these organizations have many puppies and kittens looking for permanent homes.

If you would rather purchase a puppy from a breeder, be sure to choose one that is reputable.  Such breeders are registered with the AKC and can provide references upon request.  They should be licensed and compliant with local ordinances, and willing to consent to a home visit. In Miami Dade County, it is the law for all breeders to be licensed, and for all dogs and cats sold to have a microchip and a health certificate signed by a veterinarian.  It is strongly recommended that you find a breeder who provides health testing for their animals.  These are genetic screenings that test for breed specific problems on animals that are used for breeding.  While the cost of these tests is ultimately passed on to the purchaser, it is well worth the money, as well as the peace of mind to know that your pet comes from a line devoid of common genetic problems.  In other words, more money spent at the time of purchase equals less money spent at the vet!

Puppies purchased from pet stores are more likely to suffer from both behavioral and medical problems.  Our little Grendel is a three-time rescue who originally came from a low-cost, high-volume puppy store.  While we love her dearly, her medical record is a litany of congenital problems that never should have been passed along to another generation.  Such stores are often breeding grounds for highly contagious, often deadly diseases such as parvo, distemper and canine influenza.  If you need assistance finding a reputable breeder, please contact the American Kennel Club before visiting a puppy or pet store.

It's a lot to think about - and that's the point!  Every January our shelters are flooded with discarded holiday "gifts."  Every pet deserves a forever home, not just a home for the holidays.

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