We’ve all seen holiday commercials where children pad down the stairs in their matching Christmas pajamas to find a puppy or a kitten wearing a bow under the Christmas tree. While this is a beloved holiday trope, there are some questions to ask yourself before taking the plunge into pet ownership this holiday season. Does everyone in the family agree on what type of pet to adopt? Does your living arrangement allow for pets? For example, apartments might have a weight limit or breed restrictions on dogs. If you own your own home, you might be required to have a fenced-in yard to adopt large breed dogs at some shelters. Often, when we think of the responsibility of pet ownership, we picture children putting food and water out in bowls, but what about litterbox scooping or doggy doo-doo pickup? Have an honest discussion with your family to ensure everyone agrees to take on age-appropriate responsibilities. Will the puppy grow up to be a particular family member’s running buddy or will dog walks be a family affair? Are you adopting a pet needing an intense exercise regimen or a couch potato? These are essential details to consider.
Getting a pet is a family decision, and all family members must be included in the decision-making process. Suppose the adults in the household are sure they are ready for the added responsibility of a pet. In that case, a better option than surprising children with a pet is to present them with a coupon for a free trip to the local animal shelter. Be sure to allow enough time to meet potential pets (at least a few hours) and let the shelter animals pick you! If you are looking for a pet before the holidays, many shelters in the United States and Canada are participating in BISSELL Pet Foundation’s Holiday Hope – Empty the Shelters event with reduced adoption fees from December 1st through 11th. This way, you could save on adoption fees and put that money aside for future vet bills or spoil your new family member with holiday gifts!
You’ve decided you’re ready for a pet – now what? It's always a good idea to call ahead to your local shelter (or email or use social media) and find out what animals might be a good fit for your family before coming in. This includes giving the ages of children in your family. For instance, some dogs are OK with older children but don’t react well to being poked or picked up by young children. Small children might even hurt some small breeds of dogs; it might be nippy in self-defense. If you already have furry family members at home, ask what the requirements are for adopting an additional pet. For example, some shelters will require that you bring in your own dog to do a meet and greet to ensure everyone gets along, or they might let you know that the dog you thought you had your heart set on isn’t good with cats.
When visiting a shelter, you might realize that puppies and kittens are more active than you were counting on or that while your children thought they wanted a puppy, they don’t enjoy being used as teething toys. Don’t overlook the shelter’s more mature residents. There might be dogs ready to play fetch and cats well beyond kittenhood who enjoy chasing the beam of a laser pointer around the cat room. Many of these older pets might have had human children of their own once and be delighted to become a part of your family.
What if you’ve decided that pet ownership isn’t for you or that your circumstances won’t allow you to have a pet? You can still sign up to volunteer at your local shelter. First, find out what the rules are. While at some shelters, children must be over sixteen to volunteer alone, many welcome families as volunteers if children are well-supervised and follow directions. Maybe coming to a shelter once a week on Saturdays to play with dogs or socialize the cats can become your family activity until you’re ready for pet ownership. It’s also the perfect way to help shelter animals get to know people of all genders and ages. Some shelter animals might be afraid of men or unsure around children. Giving shelter animals good experiences with a wide range of people can only help them get adopted faster.
What if your busy schedule doesn’t allow time for volunteering regularly, but you still want to help? You might ask if your local shelter has a wish list on Amazon or Chewy or if they have a giving tree located at a local store. If you or your children are involved in Scouts or school or community civic clubs, the shelter might be interested in a service activity such as helping with fundraisers or pet food and kitty litter drives. Helping out, even a few times a year or on certain projects can make a big difference. Many shelters enjoy when families ask to come in around the holidays and present the animals with new toys and beds, for example.
Even if you can’t adopt a pet from a shelter yourself, helping those in need keep their pets can be a fulfilling way to give back for the holidays. Call your local shelter or vets’ office and ask if they have a spay-it-forward program where you can pay for a spay or neuter for someone else’s pet. Or ask if there is an angel fund you can donate to for someone who can’t pay their vet bills. Many of those younger pets currently in shelters are there because of spay/neuter being closed during COVID, and many spay and neuter facilities are struggling to keep up. If you can donate toward spaying and neutering animals, you can help prevent more homeless pets in the future, and if you can pay someone’s outstanding vet bill, you might be able to help someone keep their beloved pet for a lifetime.
Most importantly of all, look for ways to help year-round. Don’t forget your local shelters when it isn’t the holidays or a special event. Follow them on social media, stop by and ask what you can do throughout the year. I’m sure everyone, canine, feline, and human, would be happy to know you care.
Shaindel Beers is the author of three full-length poetry collections and the Vice President of PAWS (Pendleton Animal Welfare Shelter) in Pendleton, Oregon. She would like for you to shop here for the holidays: https://pendletonpaws.org/shop-support-paws/ . Find out if your local shelter is participating in Empty the Shelters here: https://www.bissellpetfoundation.org/programs/empty-the-shelters/
Art by Five South