The gift of a pet requires thought, research

Posted Dec. 20, 2009, at 7:55 p.m.

What could make someone happier on Christmas Day than a gift of a pet?

And what could make anyone more unhappy than returning that pet to the shelter when things don’t work out?

Giving a pet to a friend or loved one might seem like a great idea. But you need to consider some hard realities. A young person may not be ready for such a responsibility, and an older person simply may not want a pet.

Granted, that adult may have mentioned in passing what a good friend a pet from long ago had been. But a casual sentiment is a long way from a commitment; just as we would not choose a car, house or other significant aspect of life for a friend, it’s much kinder to leave the selection of a pet to the individual.

There’s the matter of time: Does the person have enough time to devote to a cat or dog, especially at the outset? Puppies can require a lot of upfront time to get them squared away on minding their manners in a number of areas. Being with the young pup when it most needs the attention can save a lot of aggravation (and shoes).

Likewise, cats — notorious for their independence — need attention when they’re young and in a new environment. Some initial instruction on what’s acceptable behavior will help keep drapes and one’s sanity intact.

Then there’s the matter of space: Does the intended recipient have the room to let a dog run safely? Is there enough space for a cat to do its occasional high-speed jaunts through the house without destroying the crystal collection?

Perhaps the most serious consideration is expense. Pets need food, health care and supplies, all of which cost money. Cats and dogs live 10 to 20 years, and the cost can be considerable. In these trying economic times, it’s simply not fair to give a pet to someone who can’t afford one.

Many experts discourage pets as children’s gifts on Christmas Day. The noise and confusion can be traumatizing for a puppy or kitten; they can get lost in the celebration, with their basic needs unmet until an accident happens. Many decorations (poinsettia, holly, azalea) are poisonous to cats, even fatal.

Also, a child may be confused when given a pet as a gift. Once the initial delight wears off, the child may equate the animal with any other toy that can be set aside and revisited as desired. That’s clearly unfair to the animal and the other family members, on whose shoulders the care will fall.

A wiser approach to Christmas Day might be to give family members gifts related to pet adoption: a collar, water bowl, play toys, a good book on pet care. As they unwrap the gifts, the family discovers together what the eventual gift will be. After the excitement of the holidays is over, they can welcome the new pet with the shared responsibilities clear to all.

When it’s time to get the pet, seriously consider an animal shelter, where many rescued animals await loving homes. Most shelters will not allow adoption the week of Christmas. As Roberta Fowler, president of the Animal Orphanage in Old Town, says, “It’s the worst time for the poor animals.”

She suggests giving a gift certificate once it’s decided to give a pet. If the recipient cannot accept the pet, the money can be refunded. When buying a pet from a breeder, make sure to get the state-required certificate citing your legal rights and outlining the pet’s medical history. Avoid “puppy mills” and other outlets where the pets’ comfort is secondary to the operators’ profit motive.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or e-mail contacexdir@live.com.

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