You’ve seen it in the movies – sweet little Lexie runs down the stairs on Christmas morning to find her new puppy sitting under the tree with a big red bow around his neck.
Lexie squeals, runs to hug the puppy, who gives her a big a lick and the two live happily ever after.
While it would be great if such holiday surprises always worked out so well, that’s often not the case. More frequently, 3-year-old Lexie, who is too young to know what caring for a pet really means, cries the first time the puppy bites while the two are playing.
Mom and Dad then pile him up in the car and drop him off at the local animal shelter along with the three to five million other dogs and cats returned to shelters each year.
But with some forethought and a sincere commitment, pets can be a wonderful gift to give your family.
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:
- 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 so you might consider a guinea pig, which is easy to care for, likes to be held and rarely bites.
- Do your kids really want a pet? Contrary to popular belief, every little kid does not want or need a dog. Just because your little one enjoys playing with Grandma’s poodle does not mean they are ready or even want to take on full-time care of a dog.
- Have you thought about the cost? Many people don’t think past the initial fee required to adopt. But in fact, a cat costs about $350 to $400/year and a small or medium dog costs about $400 to $500/year, with larger dogs it an add up to be even more.
- 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.
- 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.
- Don’t get a pet to teach your child responsibility. If your child fails to be responsible, the animal may be harmed.
Bringing Home Your New Family Member
OK, so you’ve thought it through, and you feel that everyone is ready and committed. Now what? Before you go pick up your new pet, get your family involved in deciding what type, size and breed of animal you’d consider. It is also important to read up on which breed’s characteristics might fit in best with your family.
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.