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Critters for Christmas?

It could work, as long as the recipient is prepared for the responsibility and commitment that come with pet ownership

December 3, 2007
About a year ago, Debbie Simon encountered a senior whose grandkids bought her a puppy for Christmas. Only problem was, she didn’t want it.

It wasn’t that the woman was cruel — she just couldn’t take care of it. Her age-related physical problems did not permit caring for a young dog.

With the holidays approaching, giving pets as gifts would seem a great way to make someone happy. But what happens when the novelty wears off or the person is unable to care for it?

Simon of Altoona has been manager of the Central Pennsylvania Humane Society for close to eight years. In her time at the shelter she has seen her share of unwanted pets, and some were purchased as surprise gifts for friends and family.

“Most of the time people really don’t want a pet as a gift,” she said. “Most shelters report getting animals after the holidays. If people are considering buying a pet as a gift, they should at least ask the person they’re buying it for if they really want a pet.”

Dave Hopkins, director of fundraising and public relations for the CPHS, attributed the problem of pets given as gifts winding up at the Humane Society to a lack of planning and foresight.

“We get a lot of pets returned because someone in the family develops an allergy to it,” he said. “These kinds of things need to be taken into account. People think they’re doing the right thing buying a pet for someone, but does that person have the space and time for a pet? Can they pay the vet bills? Will they be relocating?”

For Hopkins of Altoona, even one returned pet is too many.

“It’s not a matter of numbers,” he said. “When you adopt a pet, it should be for life — that’s the way we think it should be and that’s what the pet deserves. People often make emotional purchase decisions they later regret — that’s why we get animals back.”

According to Hopkins, other things to consider before giving someone a pet include how the animal will interact with children and other pets, the environment the pet will live in and whether the animal will need training.

“Puppies usually get along with everyone,” he said. “But with bigger dogs, it’s important to spend some time with them to make sure they interact well.”

Also, if the gift recipient is renting from a landlord, the buyer should know what kind of pet policies the landlord has in place, he said.

But there is a flip side to the pets-as-gifts controversy.

Nicole Kizina, assistant manager of Superpetz in Altoona, said that pets can make nice gifts as long as the prospective owner understands the responsibilities.

“Pets should not be purchased on a whim,” she said. “If books have been read and research has been done, then it could be a great thing.”

This research entails making sure the species or breed of animal is appropriate for the lifestyle of the owner and knowing how big the animal will get, she said.

“During the holidays, people are more inclined to impulse buy and try to make others happy,” Kizina of Altoona said. “Who doesn’t want to see a smile on a family member’s face? But often, a pet is too much for a person to handle. In the case of a child, they often don’t want to take care of it — and the parents don’t, either.”

Kizina said that pets given as gifts often end up losing their homes and getting passed around.

“It’s detrimental to the psychological and physical health of the animal,” she said. “The owner can always get rid of the animal, but an animal can’t choose where it goes.”

Helen Taylor of Duncansville has been breeding Labrador retrievers for four years. She doesn’t recommend giving pets as gifts, but she makes exceptions in some cases. When a woman recently bought a puppy from her as a surprise gift for her husband, Taylor had no reservations about selling.

‘‘I knew they had another dog that they took good care of,’’ she said. ‘‘They were both very excited to get a second dog and I knew they were aware of the responsibilities of taking care of a dog.’’

Taylor cautions parents against the idea of surprising their kids with pets.

‘‘It’s nice to receive a pet as a gift, but it’s a lot of work,’’ she said. ‘‘You have to be prepared to take care of it. Ultimately, you’ll be responsible for it — not the child.’’

As manager of Petco in Altoona, Stephanie Hand sees first-hand the holiday trend of purchasing animals as gifts.

It’s not the kind of sale she and her staff hope to make.

‘‘Because of the work involved in caring for a pet, we’re more comfortable if the individual who is going to own the pet comes in and talks to us,’’ she said. ‘‘Some people don’t understand what owning a pet entails. It’s more than just having something that’s cute and cuddly. Though all of our animals come to us from reputable animal dealers, they originated in the wild — they’re not teddy bears.’’

Hand of Altoona said that during holidays the Humane Society gets overrun with animals. By discouraging the idea of pets as gifts, she’s hoping to change that.

‘‘I just don’t think it’s a good idea,’’ she said. ‘‘If that’s the route you want to take, you should get a gift card.’’

Mirror Staff Writer Jimmy Mincin is at 946-7460

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