Pet for Christmas?

With the Christmas only days away, many kids will find that long asked for pet as a gift. But, should they?  One vet takes a look at this question.


pet giftWhen is the right time to select a new pet to add to your family?  The answer is of course quite complicated.  It is sometimes easier to think of some of the reasons when it is NOT a good idea to make such a drastic change.  Getting a pet brings many benefits and also many responsibilities.  Some pets may make little impact to your daily life, such as a goldfish perhaps, and at the other extreme, an African Grey parrot can live as long as a human (sometimes in excess of 80 years) and must be added to a person’s will since it can be expected to outlive the original owner!  Pets are often given as gifts, symbolizing a deep expression of love that a gift card may not be able to match.  So when is a pet appropriate to give as a gift, or how do you know you’re ready to add a pet to your family?

Giving a pet to children can bring up many life lessons that practically no other gift will ever match.  There are the obvious tasks that need to be done, from picking up or scooping pet droppings, to routing cleaning of litter boxes or aquariums.  What better illustration of cause and effect is there, when an un-scooped litter pan suddenly starts having urine and feces around the box instead of IN the box?  Children will be able to see, (and smell!), the consequences of not keeping up with their chores.

Yet teaching children life’s lessons shouldn’t be the main reason to get a pet.  Most vets will agree that the biggest criteria for getting a new pet for a child is the most obvious: the child (or children) should ASK for the pet.  Getting a pet on the assumption that your child wants a pet and the responsibilities, not only can make for an unhappy child, but an unloved pet as well.  Rather than providing companionship, it can be easily seen as a burden and a source of resentment.  These pets are then much more likely to be neglected, have health issues that go unnoticed and untreated, and can live pretty miserable and solitary lives stuck in a crate or get prematurely euthanized.

The next criterion recommended is that the children (or boyfriend, girlfriend etc.) should participate in selecting the pet.  A pet’s personality (speaking of dogs, cats and most birds) varies widely.  Some cats are very docile and will show signs of being perfect lap cats, even when they are kittens, and other cats are more typical of the stereotype of cats, aloof, independent and a throw back to when their ancestors were king of the jungle. Always try and get a good feel for the pet’s personality before committing to bringing them home.  A pet’s personality is heavily influenced by genetics, so certain species of cats and dogs may be more appropriate to your home environment.  Remember the adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover”?  The same goes for a pet.  You may like the way a German Shepherd looks, but your home environment may include the presence of lots of strangers, strange noises, other pets or wildlife etc. that a protective-breed, like a Shepherd, may not be appropriate for.  And there is almost a counterintuitive relationship with size: often small-stature pets are purchased for small kids, when in reality smaller pets (dogs especially) tend to be more aggressive and are more prone to injury by rough play or carelessness of children.  Some of the smallest dogs, like Chihuahuas and Yorkshire Terriers, can be virtual wolves in sheep’s clothing, while the much larger Newfoundlands and Golden Retrievers are akin to couch potatoes on 4 legs.

Cost is naturally a consideration in any purchase, but should not be used as a criteria in selecting a pet.  Higher cost does not reliably indicate higher quality.  A higher cost pet is more likely to be pure bred, which the American Veterinary Medical Association has noted are more prone to genetic problems (such as expensive knee and hip problems) than mixed-breed pets.  The new designer-breeds may be the exception, such as the mix known as Labradoodle, Goldendoodles etc. which are purposeful mixed breeds to take the best of different species (such as low shedding of poodles and docile disposition of a Golden Retriever.)  A mixed-breed pet from a breeder or an “unintentional mixed-breed” from a shelter can help minimize the cost of a pet’s healthcare.

Making sure in advance that the timing is right, will help the pet become a valued member of the family.  Surprises are nice for gift cards and video games, but an unwanted dog, cat or bird can mean a decade or more of family problems.  Doing research in advance, talking with your children, spouse or partner, these are all keys to making and growing a happy family.


Written by
DR.HANH CHAU has been in practice for the past 11 years in the DC metro area. She is trained and certified in Veterinary Acupuncture and as a Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. She recently opened Family Veterinary Hospital of South Riding in Chantilly ( 703-327-8425.

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