Christmas Puppies? Hanukkah Kittens?

by Mary Jane Checchi

When my neighbor, Betty, told me last December that she was picking up two kittens to surprise her children with on Christmas morning, I tried to talk her out of it.

"The children need to be part of the selection process," I argued. "And most shelters and rescue leagues will insist that everyone in the household - including the person receiving the gift - come and meet the animal before an adoption."

Betty was wavering, so I pressed on. " A holiday is the worst time to bring a new pet home, for you and the pet. There's already so much activity and stress. A new pet needs just the opposite: quiet time, lots of attention, a set routine. And you'll have even more to worry about, just when you're swamped."

Sitting tabby catAfter being reminded of the chaos that rules her house each Christmas, and her own exhaustion, Betty agreed. Instead of kittens under the tree, she bought a tall "condo cat tree," decorated it with tinsel and ornaments, and pinned a card to it that read, "Dear Kids, After Christmas, we'll pick out kittens together at the ASPCA Shelter."

After New Year's Day, Betty reported back to me. " I had planned on adopting some real young kittens, but there weren't any at the Shelter. The children picked out two six-month-old brothers that had been given up at the same time. They just fell in love with them. They weren't the kittens I would have picked out, but I could the see the chemistry. They're used to children and litter-box-trained. It's been so easy!"

Betty had avoided a common pitfall: surprise gifts, however well-intentioned, don't always work out, and can end up being returned - not a big deal if the gift is a sweater, but a very big deal if a live animal is involved. Each time a pet is adopted and returned, it becomes more confused and frightened, and more difficult to place in a permanent home.

BulldogEven though parents usually end up being a pet's primary caretaker, compatibility between children and pets is an important ingredient in a long-lasting relationship.

A ten-year old may beg for a dog just like that adorable Taco Bell Chihuahua she's seen on TV, but until she actually holds one, she may not realize how tiny and fragile this breed is. Until they do some research, her parents may not know that most Chihuahuas are high-strung and not partial to children. A face-to-face introduction and an informational session - for children and parents - with a shelter adoption counselor, veterinarian, or responsible breeder can lead to a better match.

As the director of one shelter commented, "It is not unusual for a family to come to us to adopt a dog. After a session with one of our counselors, they decide they want a cat instead. Why? Because of care issues. They didn't realize the time needed to care for a dog, and end up being much happier with a cat."

Timing, in addition to careful selection and planning, has much to do with successfully adding a pet to the family. Advises Dr. Michael W. Fox of the Humane Society of the United States, "The point I always make is that the home should be pet-safe and quiet for the newly arriving animal, which rules out Christmas and Hanukkah."

Nervous kittens climb and pull down trees. Frightened rabbits bolt out the door when relatives arrive. Excited children forget to walk the puppy, who then makes a mess on the rug. To add to the stress, holiday hazards for pets abound, especially with a new pet.

According to the American Animal Hospital Association, some of the more common hazards - for dogs, cats, small mammals such as rabbits and guinea pigs, and even birds - include:

Chocolate: Dogs love it, but it can be toxic and even lethal if consumed in large quantities. "This is one of the most common problems we see at the holidays," notes veterinarian Phillip Raclyn of the Riverside Veterinary Group in Manhattan. "Last year a dog got into a box of chocolates that was left under the tree and had to be hospitalized for three days."

Bones: Turkey and ham bones can splinter and lodge in a pet's throat, stomach, and intestines.

Fats, gravies, poultry skin: "Table scraps are okay in moderation," advises Dr. Raclyn, "but if pets eat them in larger amounts than usual, they can get very sick."

Pine needles from Christmas trees: If eaten, these can puncture a pet's intestine.

Holiday plants: Holly and mistletoe are poisonous if ingested. Preservatives used in the water at the base of a tree: The water is toxic if swallowed.

Ornaments: Tinsel, yarn, ribbon, string, broken glass and angel hair attract birds, cats, and other pets, and cause gastrointestinal problems if swallowed.

Electrical cords on holiday lights: These pose an open invitation to chew for dogs, guinea pigs, rabbits, ferrets and other pets. If an animal chews through the insulation, the result can be severe burns or electrocution. Dr. Raclyn reports that a canine patient who chewed through a cord at Christmas "did survive - after ten surgeries on his mouth."

It's easier on everyone concerned (animals and people alike) to bring a new pet home during a relatively quiet period. For Jewish families this may actually be during Christmas week: Hanukkah is over, schools are closed for the winter break, and parents can take time off from work. For others, the beginning of a long weekend or a quiet, at-home family vacation is ideal.

Remember that a new home is stressful for any pet, and a new pet is stressful for any family. To help you ease the transition, here are some things to do before you bring a new pet home:

  • Buy and read at least one book that tells you how to care for the pet.
  • Buy and arrange all the equipment you will need, and a supply of food.
  • Find a good, convenient veterinarian.
  • Discuss and assign pet care chores within the family.

As for the holidays of Christmas, Kwanza, or Hanukkah, they can still promise the joy and fun of pets to your children. But, instead of putting a puppy under the tree, put a dog bed, or a collar and leash, with a "gift certificate" good for a rescue league or animal shelter adoption after Christmas. Instead of a giving a canary during Hanukkah or Kwanza, wrap a big cage up into a mysterious package, accompanied by a written promise that you will help your son or daughter pick out that special parakeet or canary after the holiday.

The pleasure of adding just the right pet to your family, and of getting started on the right foot, will make your family grateful for a ‘petless holiday'.