Q: Our grandkids have embarked on a campaign to get a pet — any pet — for Christmas. Should we indulge them with a surprise pet?
A: As a grandparent myself, I know the urge to indulge! But as a veterinarian, I have to say the decision depends on several factors — most of which should be cause for a pause, and some of which may be deal-breakers altogether.
Remember that a pet for the kids is likely to be a family responsibility in many ways: when it comes to pet-care chores, even the most responsible children are likely to make promises they won’t keep. Parents should be ready to pick up the slack, since pets can’t be neglected in order to make a parental point. Never get a pet as a way of teaching children responsibility; rather, as ASPCA science adviser Dr. Stephen Zawistowski suggested to iParenting.com, “it’s a great way of rewarding responsibility.”
In general, when it comes to adding animals to the family — whether small or large, furry, finned or scaly — surprise is an obstacle to success. All pets require planning, preparation and consideration of care and cost. And think about this: Surprise robs kids of the chance to participate in the process of choosing a pet and preparing to bring an animal home to stay. I suspect that kids who help choose a specific kitten, puppy, turtle or guinea pig may be more willing to take an active part in the care and feeding to follow.
A few things to think about before choosing to get any pet:
How old are the kids? What are their personalities, and how mature are they? Not all pets are appropriate for all ages. Kittens and puppies may scratch or bite; guinea pigs are reputedly less likely to nip than hamsters and gerbils. The last thing any parent wants is a young child afraid of a new pet.
Some animals don’t do well around boisterous kids and are better suited to children who are more calm or gentle. Part of being a child is to have a fleeting and evolving attention span — will your grandkids get bored with a pet sooner rather than later?
Are their parents completely on board with the decision? Surprising parents with an unexpected pet could bring on the chilliest holiday dinner in family history. Take the time to discuss all possibilities with the parents before any decisions are made. As much as kids may beg grandparents for a pet, their parents may have a better measure of whether that desire is genuine or temporary.
How crazy are the holidays for the household? Opening presents is exciting for kids, with new toys and games to play with and clothing to show off. A new pet is likely to get lost in the shuffle, overstimulated or overlooked — a poor introduction to a new environment.
How long will a pet live? Many pets require a commitment of a decade or more in terms of care — and expense. Dogs and cats commonly live 10 to 15 years or more, so that puppy or kitten given to a 9-year-old will probably still be home (and getting elderly) when that child heads for college. Even house rabbits can live 8 to 12 years.
A few suggestions:
Discuss the pet possibilities with parents first. Get a better sense of whether the kids really want a pet, whether they’re ready, and what kind of pets might be suitable and welcome. Then, rather than giving an actual pet as a gift, give books and videos about the pets under consideration. Or, if a specific kind of pet has been chosen via the conspiracy of grown-ups, you can also give some of the equipment the pet will need — leash, collar, cage or tank, toys, etc. — along with a “pet-promise” card, or a gift certificate from a local animal shelter or rescue, to be redeemed at a suitable time after the holidays.
With puppies, especially, wait until spring or summer, when the many walks involved with potty training will be more enjoyable. Kids will also have more time to devote to pets during summer vacation from school.
Be as generous as you can. With pets, as with many pleasures of life, it’s not the initial cost — it’s the upkeep! Beyond purchase price or adoption fees, plan to pay for such things as the cost of needed equipment, early health care bills (with kittens and dogs, especially, those early visits to the veterinarian can add up to several hundred dollars), a puppy training class, etc.
Above all, resist doing anything impulsive. With patience, thought and preparation, the gift of a pet can be a great way to enrich the lives of the grandkids we love so much.