Pets as presents

Veterinarian Virginia Skinner would like to find homes for all the orphaned animals at her Peabody veterinary clinic and shelter.

“That one is being adopted,” she says of a fluffy yellow striped cat peering through the bars of its cage.

She is hopeful the others will be as lucky, but she would rather keep them all than have them go to a home where they aren’t wanted.

Skinner has seen too many animals given as Christmas gifts to people who have no desire for a pet.

“There is a romantic idea of a kitten or puppy in the Christmas stocking on Christmas morning,” she said. “But it’s not a good idea to give a pet as a gift unless the person who’s getting it really has expressed a desire to have one. It is not just a stocking stuffer.”

Adult children are some of the worst offenders, Skinner said.

“So many times adult children give their parents dogs or cats, and it’s not always wanted,” she said.

In the past, some pet adoption centers have actually closed during the winter holidays to discourage people from giving animals as gifts. But they found that people still gave gift-pets; they simply got the animals elsewhere and animals in shelters went homeless.

A nationwide adoption drive called “Home 4 the Holidays,” now in its sixth year, encourages holiday pet-givers to choose animals from shelters.

This year, more than 1,600 animal shelters and pet rescue organizations around the world are hoping to find homes for 300,000 orphaned dogs and cats.

“Adopting a shelter pet during the holidays is a necessity,” said Michael Arms, president of the Helen Woodward Animal Center in California that created the program.

“More families invite pets into their homes during the holidays than any other time of year. If our shelters turn them away, we may as well send them to a pet shop or puppy mill while these orphans continue to wake up behind bars,” he said.

If you are adopting an animal this holiday season, shelter operators ask that you consider choosing a black one. For whatever reason, black dogs and cats are usually the last to be adopted.

Skinner said she notices the phenomenon here too. Black animals are often passed by for the more colorful ones.

She has no explanation, other than to say it may be related to the superstition surrounding black cats.

Welcoming a new pet

Although Skinner warns that animals should not be “stocking stuffers,” she welcomes holiday adoptions of pets that will be loved and cared for.

“If a parent wants the animal and they are giving it to their child and taking responsibility for it, that’s a different thing,” she said.

The hubbub around a holiday may not make it the best time to introduce a new pet into the home, Skinner said.

But if people have time off after a holiday, that may be a good time for an adoption.

“The best thing would be to give a little gift certificate at Christmas, and after Christmas is over, go pick it out,” she said. “If you have a baby, like a puppy or kitten, you’re going to have to expect them to demand a lot of attention. So it would be nice to get them when you have time.”

Skinner advises new pet owners to get everything the pet needs before picking it up.

“You should have the litter box, the crate to train the dog in if you are getting a puppy to live in the house, the water bowl, the food bowl, the bedding…everything that dog or cat needs,” she said.

People also need to “pet proof” their homes before getting a pet, Skinner said.

“Think about all the things in the house they could get into,” she said.

If the animal is going to live outside, it needs proper housing.

“Make sure they’re sheltered from the wind,” said Kim Shoemaker, assistant at Spur Ridge Vet Hospital in Florence. “They need shelter, like a dog house, and maybe a little heating light in there to keep them warm during the wintertime.

“If they’re in a dog house and you put a little blanket down there for them, they can ball up in a little ball and their body heat will keep them warm. But if they’re out in the wind, it’s just carrying the heat away with it.”

“Shoemaker said pet owners also need to remember that water bowls might freeze outside.

“Make sure pets have water to drink,” she said. “You can get heated water bowls.”

Holiday gifts for pets

A heated water bowl is just one of the gift ideas listed on the 12.4 million Internet sites offering gifts for pets. Gift buyers may select anything from rawhide candy canes in gift baskets to personalized pet overnight bags, dishes and throws and illuminated collars.

And what self-respecting feline wouldn’t be thrilled with a velveteen cat bed?

There are a few cautions for holiday shoppers with dogs or cats on their lists.

“Beware of any kind of Christmas cookies or snacks that contain chocolate,” said Shoemaker. “Chocolate is toxic to dogs.”

She recommended a dog treat called “Greenies.”

“The dogs seem to like them. They’re for fresh breath and clean teeth,” she said. “And any type of bones to chew on to help with tartar control on their teeth are a good gift.”

A variety of recipes are available for the cook who wants to whip up a special dog treat for the holidays. Dog bone-shaped cookie cutters may be purchased at kitchen specialty stores.

Toys are always a favorite gift too. But local vets advise purchasing only toys that are made for dogs and cats.

“Make sure they’re not toys they can tear apart and then swallow some of the parts,” said Norman Galle, veterinarian at Hillsboro Animal Clinic.

“Don’t give them toys that aren’t intended for them. If they’re intended for dogs and cats, usually they’re safe and they won’t cause problems.”

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