Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Things to Consider before Giving a Pet as a Present

Pet Column for the week of December 13, 2004

Related information:

Services - Human-Animal Bond

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Kim Marie Labak
Information Specialist

The idea of a kitten or puppy with a gift bow on its collar may be very heartwarming, and a cockatiel in an antique cage may look very beautiful on a gift table, but in the long run, giving an animal as a gift can be a bad idea. According to Cheryl Weber, client counselor specialist at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, a "surprise" addition to any household can be stressful and costly.

Weber, a licensed social worker, explains that ownership of any pet comes with considerable responsibility. Before giving a pet, consider whether the recipient has the time, space, and money required for proving proper care for that animal; all pets need a high-quality diet, adequate living space, attention, maintenance, and veterinary care. The costs may appear minimal, but in the long run they add upespecially if they are unexpected or unplanned for.

When you give an animal, you are asking someone to make a commitment. A surprised recipient may feel pressured to accept the commitment even if he shouldn't because he doesnt want to hurt your feelings. The new owner will be responsible for that animal's welfare for the duration of its life. For a hamster, this can be a 2-year commitment, for a dog or cat, 10 to 20 years, and for a tropical parrot, this can be an 80-year commitment. Ideally, a potential pet owner will be consulted and have some say in choosing the new pet.

Consider questions related to the recipients lifestyle. Does the person live in a house with a yard or in an apartment? How many people are in the household? How much time does the person spend at home? Does she travel often? Can friends, relatives, or roommates help care for the pet? Also consider the persons prior experience with pets.

Even small pets assumed to be low-maintenance require money, time, and attention. Someone owning an exotic species for the first time needs to learn about the husbandry and care of that species before the new pet arrives. For example, birds have very particular dietary and social needs; they need interaction with different people and may fare better in a large household with many family members. Reptiles and amphibians need very specific environmental conditions and foods. Even fish have special needs; keeping a healthy aquarium often requires maintaining a mini-ecosystem with plants and other animals, such as snails.

If you decide you want to give a pet, consider the timing of your gift. Weber says, "The holidays may not be a good time to get a new pet for the family. Holidays are busy and stressful, and owners probably won't be able to give a new pet all the attention it needs." The same applies for someone whos just moved into a new home. Both new pet and new owner need uneventful, stress-free time to spend together and adjust to the new situation.

People often feel the urge to give a cute pet to a friend who's recently lost a pet, broken up with a partner, or experienced some other traumatic life event, with the idea that a new pet can rescue them from their grief. Weber explains that people need time to grieve, and giving a pet as a "replacement" for the lost relationship can worsen the grief.

A grieving person may not bond well with a new pet, which can add guilt to the sadness. Weber points out that the grieving time is different for everyone; some people may be ready the next day, while others may need months before they're ready to let a new pet into their hearts. Weber says the best way to tell if someone is ready for a new pet is to hear her say she's ready.

If you have questions about the traits and responsibilities associated with various kinds of pets, contact your local veterinarian. And don't forget to confirm your choice with the prospective owner.