With the holidays right around the corner, parents are starting to give serious thought to the presents they’ll leave under the tree (under the guise of Jolly Saint Nick). But if your child has added a puppy or kitten to their Christmas list and sent it off to Santa’s Workshop, should you really make their holiday wish come true?
Most households in the U.S. have at least one pet. And those viral video compilations showing unsuspecting recipients unwrapping their furry friends are so irresistibly sentimental that many of us would love to recreate that magical moment for someone we love. But whether you should is another question entirely.
Despite media portrayals that show how wonderful giving a pet as a gift can be, you may already have heard that this isn’t the best idea. Many shelter volunteers and representatives stress the fact that pets are a huge commitment — and therefore shouldn’t be treated in the same way that a new toy would be. Those who give animals as gifts might not realize just how substantial a responsibility the recipient will be taking on. Pet owners are responsible for their pets every hour of the day. Although most puppies can sleep through the night by 10 weeks old, not all of them do. Many people don’t realize how often puppies and other pets wake owners up during the night, which could theoretically lead to problems down the line. You might even be concerned that a pet given as a present might end up being given up to a shelter, where so many animals are already waiting for new owners.
Interestingly, that’s not actually what the data supports. According to a 1996 study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, dogs received as gifts were actually less likely to be relinquished to shelters than dogs who were adopted or purchased directly by the owner. And a 2013 study conducted by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) found that 96% of people who received pets as gifts felt the way they adopted their pet had no impact on their love or attachment to it — even if the gift was a surprise.
In other words, there can be situations in which giving pets as gifts may be advised. The ASPCA officially recommends “giving of pets as gifts only to people who have expressed a sustained interest in owning one, and the ability to care for it responsibly.” The organization also emphasizes the importance of adopting animals from rescue organizations and shelters. Ultimately, that means that giving pets as gifts isn’t inherently wrong; it’s more about whether the recipient wants an animal, is motivated to care for it, and has the means to do so.
So while it’s actually okay for a parent to give their child a pet for Christmas, the next question to answer is whether your child is ready for one — and whether your family is willing and able to take on that responsibility. It’s important to examine the logistics first. For instance, if you’re one of the more than 111 million renters living in an apartment somewhere in the U.S., you might not be able to give your child a dog or cat for Christmas. Depending on the terms of your lease, these animals might not be allowed (or might necessitate an extra monthly fee). Be sure to estimate the potential costs of an animal over time, as many families forget to factor in veterinary bills, the cost of food and toys, and other considerations.
If you’ve determined that owning an animal is feasible for your family, you can start thinking about the type of pet that would be an appropriate match for your child. Many families choose to start with a fish, as they’re relatively low-maintenance. Other families might start out with a rodent of some kind. In spite of the fact that rodents consume or contaminate 20% of the world’s food supply, creatures like guinea pigs, hamsters, and gerbils can make great pets. Birds and reptiles are also popular options. However, dogs and cats tend to get all the glory — and come with the biggest obligations. It might be wise to start out small, especially if you have younger children at home. Over time, your children may be able to prove how responsible they are and show that they’re ready for the next step.
Keep in mind that some children may also be eligible for emotional support animals or service animals, which can provide even more benefits than a pet might. Since two to three out of every 1,000 children are born with some detectable hearing loss, these animals can be incredibly valuable for a child’s functionality, safety, and comfort. Overall, you should ensure that the pet you choose fits in with your family’s lifestyle and that you’ve devoted ample time to researching the animal and their needs before bringing it into your home.
Giving a pet as a Christmas gift is a decision that should not be taken lightly. While it may be appropriate in many cases, it’s not a choice that should be made without careful consideration and planning. But if you feel confident that your child is ready for a pet and your family is comfortable with making the commitment, there may be nothing better than unwrapping a pup on Christmas morning.