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Holiday movies, television programs and advertisements seem to make it seem like the best time to give or get a new pet is under the tree on Christmas morning. Cute little puppies and kittens festooned with big floppy ribbons, who can resist? But what we are seeing is a very well orchestrated and edited best case scenario. Not all Christmas pets live up to the hype, and bringing a new animal into the home during such an exciting holiday can be just the opposite of a positive beginning. There are a lot of variables to consider before bringing an animal into your home.

Are You Ready for a Pet?

Before you decide to surprise your family with a new pet for the holidays, take into consideration the following to determine if your family is ready to take on the responsibility of caring for a pet:

1. How old are your kids? Different pets are appropriate for different ages. For example, your 4-year-old who is pleading for a cat is not capable of taking on the responsibility. “Just because a child begs for a cat or kitten does not mean that they are ready to have one,” says Barb Wills, who operates Cats Haven, a shelter for cats in Indianapolis, Ind. Instead, says Zawistowski, you might consider a guinea pig, which is easy to care for, likes to be held and rarely bites.

Age-appropriate Pets
Use the following guidelines when choosing pets for your children, as provided by the ASPCA:
• Under 3 – Focus on introducing Baby to your current pets. It’s not appropriate to bring in a new pet at this point.
• 3 to 5 – Guinea pigs are a good choice, as they like to be held, seldom bite and will whistle when excited or happy. Your child can help fill the water bottle or food dish.
• 5 to 10 – Choose shelf pets like mice, rats or fish. Kids can help clean cages with adult help, though you should always check to ensure that pets have food and water and cages are secured.
• 10 to 13 – Your child is now ready for the responsibility of a dog, cat or rabbit. Your child can help feed the pet, walk the dog, clean the rabbit cage and clean the cat litter, but you should always check to be sure pets have everything they need. Participation in dog training classes is an excellent learning opportunity for children.
• 14 to 17 – Your child may have more activities competing for his time and less time to spend with a pet. Birds or aquariums are a good choice. Remember, you will have the pet once they leave to go to college.

2. Do your kids really want a pet? “Children like animals, but not all children really want to have them around the house,” says Zawistowski. Contrary to popular belief, every little boy does not want or need a dog. Just because your little one enjoys playing with Grandma’s poodle does not mean he’s ready or even wants to take on full-time care of a poodle himself.

3. Have you thought about the cost? “That’s one of the things people often fail to anticipate,” says Zawistowski. Many people don’t think past the initial fee required to adopt. But, he says, a cat costs about $350 to $400 a year and a small or medium dog costs about $400 to $500 a year, with larger dogs costing even more. In our experience, these numbers are often far greater.

4. Are you committed? Pets are not something that you can take home, try out and return if they don’t suit you. You’re taking on a commitment to care for that animal for the rest of its life. If your child is a teen, remember that the animal will be with you when your son or daughter heads off to college. “A cat can live to be at least 15 years – we have one here who is 21 years old,” says Wills. “The family has to realize that it is a lifetime commitment with vet visits, supplies needed for its care, and with time and love to be spent on the pet.”

5. Are you educated about what caring for an animal entails? Don’t forget that an animal’s an animal. That means cleaning up bathroom accidents and vomit, picked-at furniture if you want a cat and dealing with other typical animal behaviors. “There are going to be bumps in the road,” says Zawistowski. “Be ready and committed to work through those bumps.”

6. Don’t get a pet to teach your child responsibility. If your child fails to be responsible, the animal may be harmed. Instead, says Zawistowski, “It’s a great way of rewarding responsibility.”

7. Determine whether or not you have time for a pet. This means not only do the children have time, but also do YOU have time. Once the newness of this type of gifts wears off, someone is still going to have a time commitment toward it. Unlike the toy that got broken or the jeans that are soon out grown, this new pet (regardless of what type it is dog, cat, fish, bird, etc) is going to require attention for a lot longer.

8. Consider the amount of space you have. Is there room in your home for this pet? Some pets require minimal space, while others require lots of space. In addition to housing, large dogs will need a large area to run. You need to decide if you have sufficient room for the pet that your hearts are yearning for.

9. If you are renting, does your landlord permit animals and will he require an extra deposit to cover the pet? Check this out ahead of time – sneaking the pet in is not fair to anyone and will only cause heartache in the end.

10. Will this pet cause allergic reactions to anyone in the family? You should test this by visiting people with the same type of pets you are considering.

Research and Plan

Before you go pick up your new pet, get your family involved in deciding what type, size and breed of animal you’d consider. Take a trip to the bookstore or library and read up on which breed’s characteristics might fit in best with your family. I cannot express how important this step is! All breeds have very unique personalities and needs. Picking out a dog solely based on how cute it is often backfires. For example, Australian Shepherds and Border Collies are beautiful dogs, they also tend to be extremely high energy, require a whole lot of exercise and mental stimulation, and have a high herd drive that can be dangerous around young kids. Shiba Inus are growing dramatically in popularity for their gorgeous features and compact size, however, they are often very independent, stubborn, and notorious escape artists.

Once you have an idea what you’re looking for, where should you go? An animal shelter or rescue group. According to the ASPCA, each year millions of dogs enter shelters, yet of the approximately 59 million owned dogs in this country, less than 20 percent are shelter adoptees. By adopting at a shelter, you’re giving a homeless pet a new chance at life.

But there are other great reasons for going to a shelter or rescue. The cost is low, there are often discounts on spaying and neutering, and many rescues spay, neuter, and vaccinate prior to the pet’s adoption at no cost to the adopter. “They’re in the business to help animals have good homes, not to make money,” says Zawistowski. They also have a good selection of pets and knowledgeable staff to make sure you’re getting the right animal for your family.

Zawistowski also suggests logging on to Petfinder.com, either at home or at the library, which allows you to search more than 350,000 adoptable pets by breed, location, size and more. The whole family can get involved, looking at pictures and profiles to find the perfect pet.

“You can turn this whole experience into an extraordinary experience for the kids,” says Zawistowski. “It’s fun to surprise, but it’s as much fun to have kids be a part of the process.”

When you’ve done it right, your child will likely end up with a longtime friend and companion. Says Zawistowski, “A child who can have a pet, it can be one of the most magnificent parts of their life.”

Avoid The Surprise

A lot of people feel that the most wonderful way to present a new pet is by surprise, but the last thing you want is a frightened, cowering little animal that is overwhelmed by the kids’ squeals of excitement and clamoring for an opportunity to hold it. Christmas morning is an especially chaotic time, with everyone tearing into gifts, hazardous (to little animals) strings and wrappings all over, and the usual loud toys that can be disturbing to even the most seasoned holiday veteran. Worst case scenario? The new pet bites someone, bringing a pall of gloom to an otherwise loving holiday.

With all the holiday decorations, foods, and bustling around, a busy holiday-day can be a dangerous and scary time for a new dog or cat to be introduced. This is when bad habits can begin. Frightened animals will bite, soil on the floors, or will hide in difficult to reach places. Your pet’s first experience in your home with your family should be positive and calm. In addition, on Christmas day there are usually lots of ribbons and bows, candies and small toys littering the floor, all of which look to an animal like good things to chew on. You don’t want your first night (or any night) with your new pet to be in an animal emergency room with obstructed breathing or blocked intestines.

All new pets will need proper, calm, and slow introductions to the family to insure a safe and smooth transition into your home. Make sure that for the first few days of the new pet’s arrival you can be focused on their needs and training. The holidays are often filled with family, friends, and other social commitments, so it’s best to wait until the festivities are over and you have the time and patience to commit your energy to the new arrival. It is also recommended that you research introducing a new pet to the family, online or at your local library, prior to bringing home a new pet. The advice and training tips you will find will be invaluable.