The Gift of Life
Christmas is a time for giving--at least, that's what the retailers want you to believe. This year, why not prove them right by giving something more precious than anything they stock on their shelves? Give the gift of life to a pound/shelter animal that would otherwise be euthanized.

Every year millions -- yes, you read that right, MILLIONS -- of dogs, cats, puppies and kittens are killed in animal shelters around the country much to the chagrin and agony of shelter workers who are often volunteers who signed on to help--not kill--these poor, homeless animals. Current statistics indicate that approximately 7 out of every 10 animals brought into or abandoned at shelters are euthanized because adequate homes cannot be found for them and the shelters are overcrowded from a pet population explosion. (A reminder to pet owners to spay and neuter your animals to prevent unwanted pregnancies.)

Contrary to stereotypical depictions of shelter animals from days gone by, many of the animals available for adoption may be pure or near pure breeds. And because shelters make it a policy to help any and all animal guests to be healthy, happy, comfortable and ultimately adoptable, animals are bathed, groomed and examined to ensure medical health and safety (for them and their prospective families); in other words, these are not dirty, grubby, disease-infested little animal tramps.

Animals aren't "Presents"
Who hasn't seen the "perfect Christmas" setting--fully decked halls and trimmed tree beneath which a plethora of presents stretches out and in one very special box, a puppy (or kitty) with a big red bow waits to be found? It may make a nice coffee commercial or a charming holiday card, but there is definitely something wrong with this picture.

It's not that you can't give someone the gift of a companion animal for Christmas (or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa), but in the aforementioned description, it's the method that's the problem. There is no more stressful time in most households then the holiday season and especially Christmas Eve and morning. Gifts are being exchanged and excitement mounts over all the bright, shiny new objects that emerge from the boxes. Then, there are meals and visits to, from and with family members. Is this really the best time to introduce a new member of the family into the household--one who may not yet be perfectly paper or litterbox trained, or, in the case of older animals, may be a bit skittish already from the change in environment?

Also, think of this: You wouldn't want someone to introduce you to a total stranger and indicate that this would be your new BEST FRIEND (companion/mate/spouse) for the next 20 or 30 years, would you? You need to meet and get to know people personally before you can find just that perfect friend or mate. Why should it be any different for an animal companion? If you want to find Billy or Susie or hubby a best friend for years to come, shouldn't they be able to meet the animals first and find the most suitable, compatible personality for themselves--developing a rapport between human and animal prior to adoption.

How to Give a Companion Animal as a Gift
This does not mean that you cannot give a companion animal as a gift to someone you love. With the input of some friends who are shelter/animal rescue volunteers, here are just a few creative ways in which you can give the gift that keeps on loving. A beautifully wrapped stuffed animal with a note that indicates the real thing is waiting at the shelter; a faux gift certificate you make yourself (or use this one!); or even a letter from "Santa" announcing the gift are just a few of the ways to see that wonderful surprised and elated look on a loved one's face. Certainly you can come up with even more for yourself. Then, once the hoopla of the holiday has settled down some, go to the shelter with them and help them make the perfect match.

Shout it From the Mountain Tops: SHELTERS!
You can say that again--shelters, shelters, SHELTERS! Adopt your companion animal through a good community shelter. While pet stores may be nice for squeaky toys, food and litter, they are not the best place for finding an animal "soulmate." Consider: Every time an animal is bought at a pet store (or from a breeder) another shelter animal who might have been spared is euthanized.

Also, by purchasing an animal, you send a message to the store and animal breeders that there is a demand for more animals to be bred. With the population explosion among domestic animals, this is hardly the case. Also, while many breeders are reputable, many are not (usually called cat or puppy mills). They may keep their animals--often an excessive amount of them--in deplorable conditions, underfed, under cared for and too frequently bred in too short a time-span; and their carelessness (and downright abuse of these animals) can be breeding disease and genetic defects into the animals they supply. Shelters at least screen for such disease and defects and warn potential families ahead of time that there may be medical concerns down the road; too often pet stores cannot, will not or simply do not check and/or notify purchasers of potential health problems.

When NOT to Give an Animal Gift
If you are considering giving an animal to your child, consider his or her age and maturity when deciding if and when to give them that companion animal.

Too often a parent sees a pet as a perfect opportunity to teach a child responsibility. While this may work out with more mature children or if the parent is willing and prepared to pick up where the child leaves off, failure to learn that responsibility by failing to care for (or unintentionally causing harm to) a companion animal can be detrimental to the child and animal alike.

Just how old is old enough to designate a child as a caretaker for a family pet may be hard to distinguish, but its always better to err on the side of safety. Each child is an individual and a line must be drawn between physical and mental/emotional maturity (age) when evaluating abilities and assigning responsibilities. The bottom-line is that a parent should be prepared to dedicate several hours a day to any four-legged (or two-winged) family member in the event that the child cannot handle all the duties by themselves.

Also, remember and remind your child as well that this is a lifetime commitment. Please don't ever consider a companion animal for your family/household with the attitude that if it doesn't work out, the animal can easily be returned to the shelter. While most shelters allow a return for an improper match between family and animal, returning an animal to a shelter after he or she has embraced your family as his or her own will harm the animal, who may be less trusting with the next family and "act out" or be more difficult to place next time. And it is no picnic dealing with a child or children who must give up the animal--even if they weren't being the best caregivers, breaking the quickly established and close bond will almost certainly result in hurt feelings and many tears. Take the commitment extremely seriously.

Lastly, if the companion animal is a gift for another adult in the household and/or the whole family and will be a shared responsibility of all members (or adults) of the household, be sure to consider also children's maturity with regards to child-animal interaction. Is the child old enough to understand "don't pinch" and "kitty doesn't like her tail pulled"? Making sure the child can understand there are ways and times they can play with the animal, and other times they shouldn't disturb him or her, protects both the pet and the little person.

Happy Holidays
Consider opening your heart and home to a homeless animal this year--give the gift of life to a shelter animal. And, if after reading this you determine that your family is not quite ready to take the giant step of adoption, consider a donation to any of the wonderful animal shelters and rescue sanctuaries dealing daily with the domestic animal population problem. And, of course, have yourself a very happy holiday season!