Being the youngest of four children, I was sure that moving out of my parents' home and leaving them as empty-nesters would be devastating for them. So, with all the dumb wisdom of a 19-year-old, I decided to buy them a puppy for Christmas.
Without sharing all the sad details, let's just fast track to the ending: the puppy was returned; I felt terrible I had burdened my parents; they felt guilty they couldn't keep the puppy, and it all went down in my memory as the Christmas I ruined. Returning that puppy was one of the most heart-wrenching things I have ever had to do. I wouldn't wish that on anyone.
I know, I know, not all Christmas pet stories end as a tragedy. But there is something about this very special time of year that makes us more likely to be hijacked by our emotions and moved by romantic ideas to make grandiose gestures with our gift giving. And that can be problematic when your gift is a living animal.
WATCH: Why pets make bad gifts. Story continues below video.
Pet stores and humane societies will attest to the surge in animal purchases at this time of year. Seems I am not the only one who gets awash with fantasies as I listen to carols and deck the halls. But the animal welfare people will also share how many of these well-intentioned pet gifts get returned.
The reality of pet ownership is often very different than the dream. Animals are a serious responsibility, and many new owners are surprised by the daunting task of adjusting to life with a pet. Some pets require a lot of personal attention — attention we hardly have enough of to share with our own kids, let alone a new pet. Some are very expensive to feed, groom, and have costly medical bills.
Some don't adjust well to a new home and demonstrate anxious behaviours. A hamster can gnaw on the bars of its cage all night (try falling asleep to that sound). Birds can pluck out all their feathers. Dogs can destroy couches (and expensive shoes) while cats have a panache for urinating in the most unhelpful of places, like your bed.
If you still want to give a pet as a gift, do your homework
That all said, if your family has been planning on pet ownership and you have done your due diligence including matching the right type of pet for your stage in family life, then don't let me rain on your parade. But, you must do your homework on what is involved.
Ask other families for their experiences so you are going into pet ownership fully informed and eyes wide open. Different types of animals need different considerations. Even within species, different types/ breeds can have widely different needs.
Be sure all stakeholders in the family are on the same page. Don't make assumptions about how you think others will feel about a new addition to the family. While you might think your children would love a pet, some are actually afraid, some can harbour resentment for being displaced by a pet much the same as they do when a new sibling is born.
Some siblings may even begin to fight over who the family pet loves more. Some children resist their part of caring for the animal once the novelty has worn off, adding more stress to the family instead of the anticipated joy.
Try this as an alternative
So, while I am the first person to say owning a pet offers children some really invaluable benefits, the process of acquiring a pet takes more than following an emotional whim, and the reversal of that decision once a pet has been brought home can be even more devastating to both the family members and the animal.
Let me offer this as an alternative: instead of putting a living pet under the tree this Christmas, why not put a card saying 2019 is the year of getting a pet. Then, use the holidays to start the long process of researching, planning, discussing, assigning duties, and calculating costs and budgets together so when you do venture out to make a pick, you can do it together and with the wisdom of exactly what you are getting into.
Don't be surprised if after all the planning you end up with a fish instead of a Newfoundlander pup.