A vet weighs in on what to consider when giving a pet as a gift, alternative gift suggestions for pets and owners, and some favorite animal-care books.
If dogs and cats could talk, I wonder what they would say about the way we humans behave around Christmastime. If you think we give each other a lot of useless junk for the holidays, consider the silly trinkets so often given to family pets! Before I suggest some alternatives, though, I'd like to mention yet another questionable pet-related holiday tradition.
I've always told my clients that there are two times not to give pets as gifts: 1) as a surprise and 2) for Christmas (or, for that matter, for any holiday; I hate to think how many innocent chicks and ducklings are given away for Easter).
It's always fun to surprise someone—but don't do it with a living being. When you give someone an animal you're also giving that person the responsibility for the creature's life—for its care and keeping, 24 hours a day. Unless you've talked to the "giftee," there's no way to know whether that person is willing to assume the responsibility. And if you're thinking about giving an animal to a child, not only should you be certain that the youngster is sufficiently mature to accept the responsibility, but you should also be ready and willing to help out and—if things don't turn out as planned—to assume the role of primary caretaker.
So please: no gift-giving surprises of living creatures. It's a different matter entirely, of course, if you've talked the idea over with everyone in the family, and all have agreed to share the responsibility on a continuing basis. But even then, I suggest waiting for a less hectic season than Christmastime. The winter holidays are unquestionably the worst time of year to introduce a pet into your home life. There's a constant rush of visitors in and out, the kids are home from school, there is lots of food on the table, and all kinds of decorations and wee heirlooms are on display that are not only breakable but potentially dangerous and often toxic to inquiring young animal mouths. Better to reconsider, and opt for getting a pet when activities around the house are at a more normal level—and when people have the time to adequately assume the responsibilities involved in caring for a new member of the family.
By all means, give your pet one frivolous gift to unwrap and keep for itself—a rawhide bone for Spot, a catnip toy for Calico. But I hope you'll consider, too, more practical gifts that can help improve your pet's (and your) quality of life.
For example, there's no better gift for a dog, in my opinion, than a training program that teaches proper social behavior. In today's world pets must be well mannered, for their own health and safety and for the sake of the people (and other pets) around them.
At the very least, Bowser needs to learn to respond properly to "sit," "stay," "come," and "heel"—and he needs to know how to do these on command, no matter what the distraction. These are the basic behavior lessons; you can teach him tricks later, such as fetch, shake hands, play dead, and roll over.
Many communities sponsor obedience classes that are inexpensive, if not free—check with your town's parks and recreation department or a local kennel club or pet store. Or ask your veterinarian.
Or, you be the teacher. There are any number of fine books that'll show you how to instruct Pooch in the basics of good behavior. Browse through the pet section at a bookstore, or peruse the 636s and 639s at the library.
And that brings me to my next gift suggestion: Give your pet a more capable, more understanding, more involved owner by educating yourself about animals and their care. There are literally stacks of informative books on pets. You can learn about specific breeds of dogs or cats, about the proper care and keeping of reptiles or rodents or birds, about pet exercise and animal psychology. If you like to cook, you might be interested in one of the many pet-food cookbooks on the market. There are even books on animal astrology for those who are interested in that field. The selection is virtually unlimited.
To help you choose, here are some of my favorites:
How to Be Your Dog's Best Friend: A Training Manual for Dog Owners, by the monks of New Skete.
The Invisible Leash: A Better Way to Communicate With Your Dog, by Myrna M. Milani, D.V.M.
Good Dog, Bad Dog, by Mordecai Siegal and Matthew Margolis.
When Good Dogs Do Bad Things, by Mordecai Siegal and Matthew Margolis.
No Bad Dogs: Training Dogs the Woodhouse Way,by Barbara Woodhouse.
Pet Aerobics: How to Solve Your Pets' Behavior Problems, Improve Their Health, Lengthen Their Lives and Have Fun Doing It, by Warren Eckstein and Fay Eckstein.
How to Have A Healthier Dog. The Benefitsof Vitamins and Minerals for Your Dog's Life Cycles, by Wendel O. Belfield, D.V.M., and Martin Zucker.
Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats, by Richard H. Pitcairn, D.V.M., and Susan H. Pitcairn.
Choosing the Right Dog, by John Howe.
The Four-Footed Therapist: How Your Pet Can Help You Solve Your Problems, by Dr. Janet Ruckert.
Another way to celebrate the holidays and the joy your pet gives you is to make a donation to any of the fine organizations around the country working to bring pets and people together. Most communities have a local chapter of the Humane Society, the staff of which is almost always underfunded and overworked; they are sure to appreciate your help.
There are so many other pet-related organizations around that I can't possibly list them all. One, though, that I think deserves special mention is Pet Partners [formerly the Delta Society], a nonprofit group involved in studying, and putting to work, the positive effects of the human-animal bond on the mental and physical well-being of people. Pet Partners' members include medical professionals, animal trainers and breeders, pet owners, psychologists, teachers, gerontologists, and others who simply share a love for animals. Among other activities, the organization provides training and support to help people set up programs that utilize animals in therapy—in places like hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, and schools for autistic children. Pet Partners is also involved in such projects as training assistance dogs for deaf people ("hearing-ear dogs") and for individuals who are wheelchair-bound. The work is producing extraordinary results and is well worth your support. Donations are tax-deductible; you can visit the Pet Partners website for further information on its programs and on becoming a member.
And finally, of course, don't let the busy holiday season make you forget that the simplest and most meaningful gift you can give any pet is genuine love and caring, every day, every season. Happy holidays to you, your family, and your pets!