Updated November 29, 2020
So, you asked your kids or partner what they want for Christmas and they said: “a puppy”. That’s awkward.
You want them to be happy but you know you shouldn’t give pets for Christmas. Maybe you even want a pet yourself. What do you do?
The answer to this moral choice is: “it’s complicated”. I’m not going to say it’s always a bad idea (later I’ll discuss how you can give pets ethically). First, though, there are some important issues with the giving of pets.
The Problems With Giving Pets For Xmas
Giving a pet on any special occasion creates practical and ethical concerns:
Stress and Danger
Puppies, kittens, rabbits, rats or guinea pigs form special bonds with their parents, litter mates and nest. Anyone who’s done it before knows how wrenching their first day away from that safe and secure environment can be.
Imagine now adding the noise, confusion and activity of any Christmas morning to that stress. The kids will inevitably all want to hold and cuddle their new pet, and may even fight. Adults will be distracted and unable to supervise closely enough.
There will be great risk of being dropped or trodden on, and the dangers from Christmas food are well-known. Ever tried to get a vet on Christmas day?
The biggest problem we used to see at Christmas was animals being given to unsuspecting adults. There was no preparation, not enough passion, and often no idea of the costs to come. This was the pet that often ended up dumped at a shelter or the vet.
We all know that no pet should be a surprise. You’ve got to be ready to commit your emotions and finances for the lifespan of that animal (15+ years for dogs, cats and rabbits).
Children are not capable of taking full responsibility for any pet and should not be expected to do so. Ask Justin Bieber. Getting kids shorter-lived animals like guinea pigs or rats only means animals cooped up in a hutch their whole lives. What have they just learnt?
Animal, Not Object
Pets are a great way to teach our children some of life’s responsibilities. Caring for another being is a big part of that.
If you give a pet as a gift, the child could view the pet in the same way as their other gifts. Possessions that you can get bored with. Impulse purchases that lose their appeal.
The road to pet ownership is a long one (see later), and going down that path together helps children and adults value their pets as independent beings. Imagine missing out on all this just for the sake of the gift experience.
No good breeder or shelter will agree to make one of their animals into a Christmas present. Even if they did, there’s very little chance that there will be a litter born exactly 8 weeks before the special day.
The sorts of places you will find last minute pets for sale are likely to be the dodgy ones. That means you may end up with a poorly bred pet from an environment full of suffering.
How to give pets as gifts
I think you can give a puppy or kitten for Christmas or a birthday, but possibly not how you think. If it’s done well, you will make that special day remembered forever as one of the best. Here’s how:
A chance to educate
The request for a pet as a gift will bring up many wonderful opportunities to raise children to be responsible adults. Kids just wanting a pet is not a good enough reason to own one. The path you take should include all the following steps:
- Discussing the advisability of pet ownership. Is the whole family ready to take responsibility for an animal in the house? There will be sacrifices like where you go on holidays, keeping floors tidy, committing to daily exercise, grooming, allergies etc.
- Considering the needs of other pets.
- Selecting a suitable species. Is your lifestyle suitable for the pet you want? Dogs especially are social animals who will need more time than some families can give.
- Choosing the right breed. Breeds aren’t 100% predictable, but you should try to select the characteristics that best suit your family. Click here for 20 good dog breeds for kids.
- Do you buy a pet from a breeder, or adopt from a shelter? I’ve done both at different stages of my life.
- Finding a breeder or shelter. The RSPCA knowledgebase has resources to help.
- Setting up and pet-proofing the house and yard.
- Waiting for the birth or checking the shelter.
- Choosing the pet.
- Educating the children on how to behave around their new pet.
You can’t hurry
The process of deciding on a pet is a long and happy one. If someone wants a pet, they either need to tell you a long time before Christmas, or be prepared to wait.
One thing is certain, a pet as a Christmas present should never be given on Christmas day. You may nominate the new puppy or kitten as a Christmas present, but they should get at least a week to settle in before the 25th of December.
If you have crate trained your puppy or have a rabbit or kitten house, they will have somewhere safe they can be on the day. They will also be over the stressful settling-in period, when they need gentle, patient care.
Be prepared to wait. If the decision is made only a few weeks before Christmas, it’s very unlikely the right pet will be available for you in time. That’s OK. How fun could Christmas be if the kids open presents only to find one is a puppy bed, or a rabbit lead, or a kitten toy, and finally they open a card with a letter and photos from the breeder, or even just a voucher from you. As a parent, I can picture the excitement as they realise what all these things mean; anticipation can be as much fun as getting.
Someone takes full responsibility
Pets who start out as gifts can end up in the gap between the giver and the receiver with neither assuming full responsibility. If you give a pet, that animal needs a guarantee from you that you will always be there for them. That’s why you should only give a pet to a close family member who lives in the same house.
With any luck the new owner will be a responsible owner, but until then, you are the one who manages:
- housing, bedding and toys
- vet visits and vaccinations
- bathing and parasite control
- house rules
You may always need to do these things. That’s the risk you take.
So, can you give a pet for Christmas AND for life?
Yes you can.
You’ve just got to take it as seriously as you should any time you want a new pet.
Thanks to Moggles for her always photogenic self.
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These articles are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!