Thinking about surprising the kids with a puppy for Christmas or showing up with a kitten on the eighth night of Chanukah? Giving the gift of a new pet is ever so tempting this time of year— the excitement is almost unparalleled. What fun it is to think about all of that cuddly cuteness, maybe when gathered around the tree on Christmas morning.
If you are contemplating adopting a dog or cat for yourself, or a loved one this holiday season, be sure to prevent your excitement from clouding your better judgment. There’s a whole lot to consider before making the commitment to care for a new four-legged family member.
Take some time to think about and answer the following questions. Your responses will help you sort out whether or not you (or the recipient of your holiday gift) are ready to tackle the responsibilities associated with caring for a new pet.
1. Is there enough time to care for a dog or cat?
Most people have a long list of commitments, and it’s super important that caring for a new pet land at the very top of this list. Dogs and most cats thrive on human companionship. Without a significant amount of it on a daily basis, they suffer profound emotional consequences and often develop negative behaviors that are sure to be bothersome to humans.
Whoever adopts a puppy must be prepared for a full time job. There will be puppy kindergarten classes, multiple veterinary visits, housetraining, multiple short walks throughout the day, obedience training, playtime, and lots of socialization with other animals, people, and new situations. In addition to learning about a litter box, a kitten requires oodles of playtime with hopes of distracting this wild child from destroying those expensive living-room drapes.
2. Are there adequate financial resources?
Responsibly caring for a dog or cat requires a significant financial commitment. Quality pet food is pricey and other expenses to consider are routine medical care (heartworm prevention, annual veterinary visits, vaccinations), unanticipated medical care (a health insurance policy may make good financial sense), microchipping, grooming, collars, leashes, harnesses, identification tags, pet beds, toys, treats, and boarding or in home care when the caregiver is out of town or working long hours. Do the math and figure out if the household budget can stretch to include the “pet budget” before making the financial commitment to care for a dog or cat for the next 12 to 15 years.
3. Will there be a commitment to training a new dog?
Behavioral issues are the most common cause of the demise of a new relationship with a dog. Barking, biting, fence jumping, soiling in the house, landscaping (doggie style), aggression, and destroying furniture, shoes and other valued objects can all be deal breakers. Bear in mind that, without appropriate training, a well-behaved dog is the exception rather than the rule. Canine good citizens (at least the type we humans prefer) are made rather than born that way.
Training a puppy or an adult dog requires motivation and time, and the training should begin on day one. Enlisting help from a professional trainer is usually required to accomplish training goals.
4. Is the living situation suitable?
If you or the person receiving your gift is a renter, double check with the landlord that a pet is allowed. If so, the landlord may impose breed or size restrictions.
While a fenced yard is not an absolute must for a dog, it certainly makes life a whole lot easier and ensures the dog’s safety when outdoors unsupervised. Be sure to consider the design of the fence. Is it tall enough for the size of the dog (or the size the puppy will become)? Might the dog be able to squeeze through or under the fence? Might the fence design inadvertently snag the dog’s collar?
While far safer for a cat to live exclusively indoors, if the cat will be allowed to go out, what hazards may exist in terms of cars, dogs, and other cats.
If the living situation is such that the dog or cat must live strictly outdoors, I strongly encourage you to nix the notion of getting a new pet at this time. Most dogs truly prefer to be indoors, whether or not their humans are at home, and cats and dogs are better off indoors during inclement weather. Those left isolated in the yard are far more likely to experience emotional distress and develop behavior issues.
Some folks assume they cannot get a dog because their living quarters are too small or the yard isn’t big enough. Keep in mind that, when not stimulated or interacting with their humans, most adult dogs spend the majority of the day sleeping. And, a sleeping dog does not require much space. If one is committed to giving a dog adequate exercise and attention, the size of the yard and living space should not be a significant concern.
5. Is there buy in from everyone in the household?
In an ideal world every dog and cat would be adopted into a “forever home.” Bringing a new furry friend into a household in which there isn’t buy in from everyone living there is a recipe for significant discord and has the potential to turn a “forever home” into a temporary “foster home”.
6. Are there children in the household?
If young children (under the age of ten to twelve) are in the household, I encourage adoption of an adult dog or cat rather than a puppy or kitten. Youngsters aren’t capable of providing the consistent training and reinforcement that a puppy needs. And, it’s really hard for puppies and kittens to resist jumping up, biting, and behaving like little maniacs in response to the natural movements and sounds of a young child. Additionally, children are more likely to cause injury by accidentally dropping or landing on a small young animal during play.
In advance of introducing an adult dog or cat into a household with children, ask someone with expertise to perform temperament testing. Some dogs and cats who interact wonderfully well with adults demonstrate aggression in the presence of children. Even those who have passed temperament testing with flying colors should be carefully supervised when interacting with young children.
Lastly, resist the temptation to bring home a puppy or kitten this holiday season simply because your children want one. Inevitably, the responsibility of properly caring for the youngster will fall squarely on your shoulders. Adopting a dog or cat when you don’t really want one is a setup for an unhappy outcome.
7. Are other pets involved?
It can be difficult to predict how a new dog or cat will fit in with already established pets. Whenever possible, arrange for a meet and greet between dogs on neutral territory, away from the house. If there are cats in the household, it is wise to make sure that the dog has already had a successful test drive with cats. It’s always difficult to predict how established kitties will react to a new cat. In general, female cats are far more reactive to the introduction of a new feline family member.
If adopting a puppy or kitten, it is important to protect the youngster from any aggression on the part of the other household animals. Don’t forget about the large animals such as cows and horses.
8. Will there be a move in the near future?
If relocation is in the forecast because of work or other life circumstances, is there certainty that the new situation will allow for a dog or cat? If not, it might be best to postpone adoption until the living situation is more permanent.
If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian -- they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.